Productive Nostalgia – Heidi Lau

by 作者:Qianfan Gu 顾虔凡 

As the inaugural artist-in-residency presentation at the historical Green-Wood Cemetery, Heidi Lau’s acclaimed project, “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains,” just ended with an extension to early-July this summer. Shown in the Catacombs of the cemetery, Lau’s site-specific installation included ceramic works that speak to our remembrance of passing, confusion and imagination about the afterlife world, and how a decaying place could keep nurture us to think more. 

We sat down with the talented artist to look back at her wonderous journey. 

Qianfan Gu: So you spent the whole past year in the cemetery. How was it? 

Heidi Lau: I felt taking long walks there really cleared my head, and I was able to process a lot of things. It kind of made me think about my family or those who are not around anymore. I cleared out a lot of thoughts that have been blocking me from accessing what’s important, or that I have been thinking subconsciously. And in the end, I actually had a completely different proposal for my residency in the beginning. 

QG: Right? I know that your original plan was to reach out to the local Chinese funeral houses… 

Heidi Lau: Yeah. Well, this is both good and bad. I am so involved with the cemetery, I know they’ve been so busy because of the pandemic, as so many people are dying. I’m really close with the staff who work at the crematorium; they all have to work extra shifts. It made me feel like I’m experiencing all that stress as well, and that’s why I had a completely different project, which I’m happy about. 

QG: The catacombs project turns out to be really great! 

When we met at your studio last time, it was 2019, you were preparing works for your solo show at the Macau Pavilion in Venice, together with curator Sio Man Lam. I have to admit that I wasn’t ready to understand your works by then. I remember your work left me an impression that was a bit intimidating. I was challenged by your work. 

Heidi Lau: I understand. 

QG: Did you get that kind of comments a lot? 

Heidi Lau: Fully. And honestly, I feel haunted by something, and that’s why I make the work. And so it will make sense that they also make the viewers feel haunted. I really feel working in clay in the full sense of the word means that I need to let the clay tell me what to do…My grandparents were artists. They were always practitioners who used their hands a lot… 

QG: Did they also make ceramics? 

Heidi Lau: No. My grandpa did Chinese calligraphy, and he was quite well known in Macau. My grandma did a lot of ritual objects, like paper folding. So I felt like there’s just a lot of things in my hand I’ve inherited from my ancestors, that I cannot really explain what they are, and the best I can do is to… honor them, by not verbally exposing them, but letting them manifest. 

QG: I see. You are channeling these things in. Maybe they come out and manifest through you, but they have a voice of their own. 

Heidi Lau: For sure, yeah. And I feel like that’s true for my Macau Pavilion work too. That is also how I think about identity, either being Chinese, or Asian American, but also being a Macau person, because we didn’t really have a very concrete history, all we have are gossips or oral histories from neighbors or relatives. I feel that’s kind of how I piece together, both visually and verbally, who we are as people. It’s like gluing broken ceramic pieces together. 

QG: True. It’s so fortunate to have an opportunity to revisit your works. I feel I’m ready for them this time – sometimes you just need to be mature enough for certain works. 

Seeing your show in the catacombs feels so fitting. I also went to the cemetery’s movie night, which included the short documentary on you by art21. Both are one of those most unique experiences, and make me think about the burial practices, ceremonies, and people’s views on death and afterlife… What is your Sheng-Si-Guan, what do you think of the afterlife world? Do you have religious beliefs? 

Heidi Lau: I think I make work that reference an afterlife, but I also question it, because I feel like there’s also another system that’s created. And in some ways, I believe that more than Christianity… Umn, I mean, if you remember the piece at the end of the catacombs, a high-hanging piece. I’d like to tell you that I made that piece based on my experience of encountering my mom after she passed away. We were always told that people who passed away would come to our dreams. But my mom never has. I still haven’t dreamt about her. But for some reason, for the past five years, when I’m at my studio, sometimes I would look up and catch the full moon by accident. And that’s when I feel like that’s how she manifests herself to me. Well, there’re also poetries about moon being the mother. So culturally and personally, that’s kind of my view of death, that people don’t completely go away, but will come back in unexpected ways. And we have to suspend logic to believe in it, because really, it is for us more than for them… It sounds crazy even for me to explain this experience, but that’s why I made the work, that’s also how I have approached the idea of afterlife. 

QG: So when you are creating these pieces, do you feel you’re making them for all the ones with animism in the cemetery, including those who have already passed away? 

Heidi Lau: Phew, what a relief… I thought you were going to ask me what most people ask, which is, are you making works for Western or Chinese audience? [laugh] 

In some ways, I really want to invite spirits and energy to go through my work, which are actually all vessels. As you may see, all the vessels have those hands reaching out, they are suggestion of some unknown actors and forces that need to be activated, while the vessels and sculptures are like props. But they are also meant to be seen by living people. 

QG: Right. This time I don’t feel scary at all. I guess when I was at your studio watching the works years ago, I was kind of forced to face death, whereas the whole setting this time included so many forms of life and death around me, so that your works are more like a mirror for me to see and feel the relationship between the here and now and the other world. 

Heidi Lau: It’s like a whole spectrum. 

QG: Exactly. And I’m allowed to shift positions and not standing on the opposite of death all alone. 

Heidi Lau: Yeah. That’s good. And this is such a dull idea too, that we are all on a different timeline or stage. To be able to see the full spectrum, and hopefully some part of us through death as threshold, would transform things into a state that we can’t even perceive. In clay, transformation requires intense heat, through this process, something beautiful and unexpected happens. I hope people could sense that transformation. I guess that’s my experience with witnessing my mom’s passing away too. It’s the most traumatic thing, but I’ve also learned so many lessons from that. It’s something irreplaceable. 

QG: I read from somewhere about this movement of turning cemetery into gardens, parks, and public cultural institutions, which made me wonder, as the garden has long been a major theme in your works, and your catacombs project is called “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains,” does it have anything to do with that movement at all? 

Heidi Lau: I was definitely very aware of that movement. And I think Green-Wood is already doing that. It’s a bird refuge. And they put a lot of time in cultivating the gardens. Actually, a couple of things made me think of using the idea of gardens. When I was doing one of my walks, you know if you go through the Tranquility Garden, there’s the koi pond, where all the urns are? That garden really reminds me of the one that my grandpa and I used to go in Macau, and the kind of personal gardens that he would spend all his time cultivating. It reminds me of his hands, his artistic abilities to arrange gardens, and how he always talked about all the objects and the garden were on their own timeline, like the rocks have been around longer than we have. 

As I take the walks, the season changes so drastically in a way that I have never truly experienced in New York, or in Macau. I can feel the force of nature, even though it’s a manmade garden. 

QG: I guess cemeteries might be a sort of ultimate garden form, as it stretches the element of temporal to be beyond annual seasons, it contains histories that transcend generations. 

I’m also very intrigued by the element of hand in your works. It feels like a metaphor about things that we would never be able to truly grasp. 

Heidi Lau: There’s definitely a sense of trying to put order into things that otherwise would be chaos, but also acknowledging how futile that is and how limited our ability really is to even think that we matter. I feel hand is sculpting itself, but then its traces are being erased at the same time. 

QG: And considering how artists’ hands have always been a topic in art history, like how minimalism and sometimes conceptual art would prefer to erase all handmade traces and have things manufactured. 

Heidi Lau: Well, I think of the art market too. I will never make a mold of my sculpture and I don’t think I can ever have an assistant. It’s kind of like I’m making a deal with the devil. I know it’s not great in terms of being efficient and being an artist to be making work only with two hands. But to me, to make something with my hands, that’s just very humble. I know that nowadays, sometimes works that have no trace of artist might seem to be regarded as more professional…I don’t know. I can’t have groups of people working for me, maybe it’s just because I’m a loner. 

And materially, clay just records everything. Even if you wash it up, or have it molded to something else, it wants to return to that shape. I feel everything is imprinted into the clay, like it doesn’t forget. 

QG: Wow. So when did you start to be interested in ceramics? 

Heidi Lau: I’m self-taught, after I graduated from college. I actually did printmaking when I was in art school. 

QG: Ah, now I see. As I know you graduated around 2008, but then one of your early exhibitions was happening at least four or five years later. 

Heidi Lau: Yeah. I have been working at a print shop making screen prints for big name artists for a few years. I would often work from 8:00 to 6:00 to make an edition. And then one day, I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore,” so I took some time off and went to residency in printmaking. But while I was there, my studio mate made work in clay, so I learned a little bit from her. And I took one class when I came back to New York, and then I just kind of have been exploring the material on my own ever since. 

QG: What kind of characters of clay and ceramic make you feel that this would be the right medium for you as an artist? 

Heidi Lau: At that time, it felt much better for me to make something that takes up actual space, as opposed to works on paper, because most of the time, they’ve never really existed in space. It feels more powerful for the work to be a sculptural form that can confront people in a different way. So, that residency I went to is in Northern Ireland. And over there, I remember people were being very spiritual. They have all these bare rocks and really rough winter… I really felt like, “Doing ceramics is meant to be.” 

QG: Maybe the hard and laborious part, how you physically need to be involved, with all the heaviness and thickness and all that, are the most interesting part for you. 

Heidi Lau: Yeah. It’s like throwing myself into fire or something, like I just burn myself. Really, it’s hard labor, not that printmaking is easy, but I feel it’s just a very different way of thinking. 

QG: And ceramic has long been undervalued. It is considered to be closely related to craft and feminine as well. 

Heidi Lau: Especially with the case of me being an Asian… People would assume my works to be very feminine, fragile, and exotic even. Now I feel ceramic is much more accepted. 

And I guess this is a question for you – interviewing the interviewer: Do you know whether that change is also happening in China? 

QG: Umm, I know very little about that, and I could think of very few artists who specialize in ceramic in contemporary art, maybe only Liu Jianhua. It feels like ceramic, calligraphy, and photography all has their own little niche. 

Heidi Lau: Do you think it’s because of the craft connotation? Because there’s such a long history of ceramic being part of productions for utility uses and not for art, do you feel that’s why? 

QG: Maybe. I think ceramics, like calligraphy, has its own system, standards for appreciation, and hierarchies in the East Asia, which perhaps has more to do with the history of elite and literati class. 

Heidi Lau: Right. Like in Japan, ceramic is so respected and is still under the master-and-apprentice system. It has its own little ecosystem, and maybe is not part of contemporary art with the capital C. 

QG: Yes. And, maybe this doesn’t sound like a proper question, would you consider that the medium defines who you are as an artist? 

Heidi Lau: I feel very married to ceramics right now, but I don’t know…I’m still interested in other things and could still develop relationship with new medium. For now, there are still a lot of things for me to learn and explore in this medium. 

QG: Previously, with some garment works, you would present them in a flat way, as if inviting the viewers to step into an unfamiliar environment and discover the works as they were in a tomb. How about this time? 

Heidi Lau: Yeah, I want the objects to be very grounded and that to be the center. I also want to make sure it’s not too accessible, so that people are aware that… they can relate to these objects, but they are in a different rhyme or a different world than these objects. They are just passing through, and could not really own the objects. 

And I felt installing the works at the catacombs kind of helped me to create that feeling. Because it is disorienting when you have to come in and out of the room, whereas in a white box gallery, everything is on the same playing field. There’s not as much suspense or mystery to the work. Or, it’s like these objects could have been there for a long, long time. Longer than human has existed… I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not. 

QG: Yeah. I like how you mentioned accessibility. Because sometimes artworks need to challenge the viewers to not feel too comfortable. I feel the catacombs presentation demands more from the viewers, asks them to be more engaged. You need to take a long walk to get there, and be willing to put yourself at risk, on a certain level. 

Heidi Lau: Yeah. It’s asking our retina to do more work than usual. Because the longer you stay, the more details you will see as our eyes get adjusted to the darkness. I feel it’s demanding a kind of engagement from the viewer that normally you wouldn’t demand as much. And I felt like that’s how it should be, because not everything should be easily explained, because they just cannot be. I feel everything being translatable and understandable is literally the fantasy of colonizers – to categorize and make order of the world. But I don’t want this object to be so easily categorized. 

QG: Just like how the catacombs is actually up on the ground, right? 

Heidi Lau: Yeah, it’s very confusing. It’s in the hill, like a small cave. It’s kind of higher up, so you are not underground, but then you are also under a hill. So I feel it’s both, and sometimes it’s disorienting to see it. You’d feel being under a well, looking up… 

QG: It has this manifestation of in-between-ness, which I think is so fitting for your works as they are also kind of in an in-between position. 

Heidi Lau: Yeah, that is how I think about burial ground in general. It’s where our body decomposes. I feel like we are literally shedding our humanness more and more. And the objects that we either are buried with or the casket or the environment would then take this humanness from us, so they’re becoming more and more alive. It’s a transitional space in every sense of the word. 

QG: And for this series of works, did they grow from one piece to the other? One lead to the later? Or you’d work on all of them simultaneously? 

Heidi Lau: In the making, I always see everything all at the same time. I’d usually finish all the works around the same time. This is why I’m terrible at doing studio visits, because I have to say, like, “Oh, look at these two things I finished.” [laugh] I feel like it’s just always in chaos, because literally, I feel like I started so many fires and I have to put them out all at once. 

QG: With clay, the production cycle could be long… 

Heidi Lau: And the glazing for me is a very different way of thinking. I actually struggle with glazing a lot. I’m really bad at colors. Every time I glaze a piece, it teaches me how to glaze the next one. 

Usually, I would have an idea of what tones the works would be. For this time, I used this kind of patina and matte green, because of the green moss I saw in the catacombs. I do make decisions like that, otherwise, I just rely on looking at the work textures and can’t really predict what would happen, because this is all gravity: Inside a kiln, with the heat, the glaze would get dragged to the bottom. 

QG: Do you name the works separately or just by the series title? 

Heidi Lau: This time they feel more like a series work to me. But most of my titles are pretty much just very descriptive. It doesn’t say too much, but more about describing an action. Sometimes I maybe find some phrases from the poetry that I was reading, and I use that word to abstractly refer to itself. I don’t have very tight titles. 

QG: To show works in the catacombs, is it your choice of the location? 

Heidi Lau: Yes. There are lots of choices, like the chapel, in which the stained glasses and crucifix imageries would make the religious connotation too strong. Outdoor was also an option, but I felt like it will compete too much with what’s already there, I was also afraid that my works wouldn’t be able to survive for two months outside. 

I really love the catacombs. The arches there. Yeah. I just feel like I grew up with them so much in Macau. When I first walked in, I saw the crumbling wall and it just really reminded me of some little alley in Macau. 

QG: Do you go back to Macau often? 

Heidi Lau: Not since the pandemic, sadly. 

Inspired by Svetlana Boym, I think a lot about the idea of a productive kind of nostalgia: Both acknowledge that you can never truly inhabit home the way you think it is, but also not giving up trying to remember it. That kind of dichotomy. For me, it’s the way I approach work about Macau, by not locking it down and making it symbolic or noticeable, but through innuendo or feelings of yearning for something. But also, by acknowledging that it will not always be there for you. In fact, it’s no longer there most of the time. 

QG: Oh, wow. I feel so related to what you’ve just said. Recently, I couldn’t process what happened during the Shanghai lockdown, so I read some writings on local chronicles and am understanding Shanghai in a new way, like how it is a very young cosmopolitan city with only about a hundred years’ history, and how the concept of Shanghainese is more like an invention and actually a mixture of all types of immigrants from everywhere in China…  I feel I’m a little bit relieved hearing you say “productive nostalgia.” 

Heidi Lau: Yeah. I mean, a city has its own life. Can we still try to love it? I don’t know. I feel like I try very hard to fall in love with Macau again, every time I go back. Even though it’s not easy. 

Ran Dian 燃点




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *