To My Unborn Child

To My Unborn Child
Wen-Li Chen
2018

7 × 9 × 1 in. closed
296 pages
Sewn hardcover with exposed spine
Digital printing
Edition of 5

To My Unborn Child, front cover. Black bookcloth with not text.

As the title implies, To My Unborn Child is an epistolary work ostensibly addressed to Chen’s then-unborn child. It addresses concerns shared by many expecting parents as well as some particular to Chen’s own inheritance as a multi-ethnic Taiwanese (Kavalan and Sakilaya) and Han Chinese woman living in the United States. The stakes of these personal and political concerns are deeply felt, from the pangs of guilt and loss that come with the slow cultural erasure of assimilation to the threat of sudden political annihilation that characterizes Taiwan’s precarious existence as a democracy. To My Unborn Child corresponds with a 2018 exhibition of the same name, but the book is very much a cohesive artistic expression in itself. Indeed, Chen shows how well suited the book form is for exploring identity — fragmented, contradictory, always in flux.

To My Unborn Child is, in fact, a version of an existing genre: the Zupu, or genealogy book. It may also, following the exhibition, include elements of fiction as well as memoir. In Chen’s handling, this family book weaves together text, image, and material from a variety of sources. Family archives (photos, correspondence, family trees) are paired with a primer on the history of Taiwan and the text from a public monument commemorating the Kalyawan Battle, in which indigenous Taiwanese rose up against Han occupiers during the Qing Dynasty. In this regard, the epistolary framework is a clever conceit, allowing Chen to introduce readers to the history and geopolitics of Taiwan in a way that is didactic but not condescending. And addressing the reader in second person makes the more personal content especially powerful.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: timeline of Taiwan history. Recto: excerpt from a Kavalan song.

From these variegated sources, the book is organized into five sections: (Your) people, (Your) culture, (Your) family, (Your) name, (Your) future. While the content of each section differs, they follow a similar pattern. Each begins with a single word or phrase to set the tone or context; however, some words are transliterated not translated, leaving an English-speaking reader to research or go forth without guidance — either of which reflect the fragmented, discontinuous nature of memory, inheritance, and identity. Having studied foreign languages and literature, Chen understands the feelings of distance or belonging that come with language and uses these devices to modulate the book’s level of intimacy and emotional register.

Each section also features a pair of paragraphs in English and Chinese. The English texts are prose with a memoiristic, almost confessional tone, while the Chinese side is more poetic. The Chinese writing is untranslated and the relationship between the two is not always linear. (For the sake of reviewing the book, I relied on a friend, Kaixi Burns, to translate the poetry when it became clear that Google Lens wouldn’t do justice to the quality of Chen’s writing.) Family photographs, faded and distressed to anonymize their subjects and perhaps speak to memory and loss, and other family documents also appear in each section. Text, especially handwriting, also operates as an index of absent presence (and further demonstrates the feeling of connectedness that language can produce, even untranslated).

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: English memoir with Chinese poem, side by side. Recto: A flying seagull casts a shadow on the beach below, the image is rotated 90 degrees.

The book’s five sections are separated by spreads of full-bleed black, but there are also elements that carry through and lend continuity to the reading experience. These throughlines are contemporary color photographs with oblique connections to the main text. For example, what appear to be stills from a video of a seagull flying along a beach repeat throughout the book in different configurations and orientations. These eventually coalesce in a grid on a single spread, radically collapsing their timeframe. Playing with timescale is a key feature of To My Unborn Child, which leaps from a history lesson beginning in 1632 to a line-by-line transcription of a mundane phone call. Never mind the sense of futurity, the unborn baby, which underpins the project.

This temporal play makes the book’s own timing critical, and here Chen displays impressive sensitivity to the formal devices that pace the reader. Some spreads feature perfectly balanced typography that invites the reader to sit with a text, while others propel the reader forward with dynamic fragments that require resolution. The result is a book where the turn of a page is never predictable, but nor is it random. Chen advances the narrative and introduces new ideas using variations on central themes, unifying the reading experience without tying a bow with each thread.

However, on the subject of timescale, I must confess I have buried the lede. What distinguishes To My Unborn Child is the overwhelming majority of the book’s 296 pages belong to an extended cinematic sequence, where Chen’s interest in film and photographic theory is on full display. Not quite a flipbook, the motion-blurred interlude shows a single family photo of three figures dancing, with the hand holding the photograph visible. It is not clear whether the hand or the camera is moving — perhaps both. At times the viewer relates more to the original image in the photograph, other times to the photograph as an object (a physical record in someone’s hand), or even to the hand holding the photograph.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread: a full-bleed image of a hand holding a photograph. The photo shows three figures dancing.

This strategy of reanimating the photograph as more than a representation, with a keen sense of its experience in the book form, illustrates what Chen calls moving from, “medium into material and back into becoming another medium.” By harnessing this transformation, the artists’ book can integrate disparate materials and temporalities, like installation art but within a single object. This allows Chen to enact the transformation that is also inherent in photography itself. As her artist’s statement notes:

“The moment of taking a picture is also the evidence of its passing. Image making attempts to reengage the trace left in an image, the plasticity found in reorganizing memory and intention. However, no amount of altering can completely erase that initial sense of passing, death as a picture.”

In To My Unborn Child, heritage is always haunted by loss. Whether political, cultural, or personal, no inheritance is complete. Nor can one predict what gets handed down or how it might manifest in the future. Against this uncertainty, Chen embraces multiple modes of memorialization — monuments, names, family trees, photographs, letters, stories, and poems. The result is an intimate look at the artist’s complicated relationship to her language(s), culture(s), and family. No doubt this examination was sincerely motivated by her immanent motherhood, but it is ultimately the reader who plays the role of Chen’s unborn child. Thus, we can add art to the list above, another way to process and share one’s cultural heritage. At the same time, art carries forward a piece of its creator, not unlike a child.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: a distressed black and white photo shows two children. Recto: English memoir and Chinese poem, side by side.

The need to keep alive connections to family and culture is all the more important at a time of overlapping refugee crises and cultural erasures. Some of the most poignant moments in To My Unborn Child center on the profound disconnect that accompanies emigration, on trying to keep in touch with an aging grandparent, on worrying about visiting because of travel restrictions, on feeling guilty for leaving in the first place,. Chen uses the artists’ book to convey the ambivalence of her experience, its multiple timescales and layers of history. As stories like hers become even more common, the need for representations that embrace complexity and specificity will only grow. To My Unborn Child is a model for synthesizing personal and political histories, even as it acknowledges the inevitability of loss and change.

Object Objects

Object Objects
Shana Kaplow
Designed by Matthew Rezac
Self-published with support from TITLE Collective
2019

10.625 × 8.375 in. closed
112 pages
Smyth-sewn softcover with French flaps
Offset printing

“I can’t unknow the impact of these massive systems,” interdisciplinary visual artist Shana Kaplow writes on the front flap of Object Objects, referring to the underpinnings of capital and exploitative labor that gird our consumerist economy. “How do we extricate from them?” Her final words, on the back flap, provide a possible answer: “It’s Sisyphean–it’s hopeless, but I don’t want to give up.”

Between the covers, Kaplow grapples with further questions posed by the consumerism and mass production associated with global retailers like IKEA: what is the end user’s responsibility for the way in which these everyday objects are produced (and its impact on human lives and the environment)? How and why do we attach meaning to individual mass-produced pieces? She poses and attempts to answer these questions in a variety of forms, often massive ink paintings that dominate entire walls of a gallery or sculptures utilizing a variety of found objects.

Despite its global scope, the experience of reading Object Objects is an intimate one. The book blends the artist’s creative process with her finished works. Rather than attempting to replicate the feeling of attending an exhibition, the book puts us in Kaplow’s studio and, to a certain extent, in her head. It achieves this by showcasing Kaplow’s finished installations alongside sketches, notes, and works in progress, along with an essay on her work by New Orleans writer Veronica Kavass entitled “Windows above a Luncheonette” and a conversation between the artist and Sarah Petersen.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 10-11, showing sketches, notes and numbered installation diagrams

The notes, sketches, and contextual writings realize the conceptual side of the artist’s practice, while the photographs of works in process remind us of the physicality of that practice. Many of the notes are printed in Kaplow’s handwriting on transparent vellum pages so they overlay the work itself instead of appearing alongside it, inviting readers to experience her creative process beside her and enhancing the feeling of closeness to the work.

We witness the evolution of Kaplow’s piece Expansion of Influence in a series of pages near the beginning of the book: we first see a precarious pile of monobloc chairs in Kaplow’s studio, then an elaborate hand-sketched diagram, and finally the completed installation, in which the artist renders the negative spaces in this stack of chairs in 38 ink-on-paper cutouts spread across a 15 × 9 foot wall. A similar pattern is repeated for several other works throughout the text, giving us a sense of what each piece looked like as it changed from a loose idea to a model or diagram to a finished and exhibited piece.

The sense of being alongside Kaplow throughout her process not only makes the work more accessible and sheds light on one artist’s experience of the creative act, but also neatly intersects with the concerns of her work. Kaplow’s art asks audiences to engage with the mass-produced in much the same way that we engage with art objects: with greater curiosity regarding both the production and the possible meanings of the object in question. Her choice to share the process of creating her own work in such detail encourages us to consider the similar labor involved in the production of the everyday.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 32-33: a vellum overlay with Kaplow's hand-written notes separates photographs of stacked chair installations

The transparent vellum pages throughout the book contribute to this feeling, providing alternate ways to look at finished pieces and demonstrating both Kaplow’s thought and labor processes more directly even than the images and main text. Overlaying an installation of images on white canvases (which are themselves mounted on a white gallery wall) with notes on “the unconscious habits of racial privilege” and poetic lines considering color and transformation in the artist’s own hand demonstrate how research and concepts become works of art, mirroring the ways in which economic theories and furniture designs become physical objects and transactional relations.

Each piece powerfully conveys weight and physical presence, reflecting both the body and domestic spaces, but reimagined in new and often unsettling configurations. One common motif, a seemingly-impossible arrangement of chairs precariously balanced atop one another, speaks to both the fragility and complexity of the systems the artist interrogates.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 90-91: text on the verso and a black and white photo of a tangled stack of plastic chairs on the recto

The chairs’ chaotic arrangement suggests entropy and unsustainability, and also reveals some of Kaplow’s inspiration and personal history: as the child of a physicist, she is interested in revealing the potential energy of objects. She often arranges the chairs in a form that feels like a wave cresting, frozen in the moment just before it breaks. The fact they don’t immediately topple is remarkable, the understanding that they eventually will, ever-present.

In other works, the artist depicts these everyday objects from angles at which we’re not used to seeing them, providing a sharp counterpoint to their clean lines and seeming solidity. A detail from her archival print Other Things focuses on the dirty, damaged underside of a white IKEA chair. The rough texture of the unfinished wood beneath the seat, the visible glue holding the product together, and a missing screw rendering one of the chair’s brackets useless all draw the viewer’s attention. The small but prominent black and white label, “Made in Thailand,” invites audiences to imagine the life of the maker or makers and the systems of manufacture and transportation that led to the chair’s presence in a St. Paul studio or Minneapolis gallery; a meaningless-to-most collections of numbers and letters alongside the familiar IKEA logo hint at the intricacy, inhumanity, and ubiquity of those systems.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 40-41. A photo of balanced wooden chairs on the verso, with a vellum overlay of notes and a sketch for the same piece. On the recto is a detail shot of the worn underside of one of the chairs, with a manufacturer's label

In conversation with Petersen, Kaplow discusses a factory worker who inserted a note into the pocket of a pair of jeans in hope of reaching their future owner; the same incident is recounted again in an excerpt from “Windows above a Luncheonette.” This small moment is framed in two ways: as a single, poignant reminder of shared humanity and as a “wailing,” a cry for recognition and against the brutality underlying globalized consumer capitalism. Object Objects reckons with the same duality with its juxtapositions of beauty and discomfort, permanence and fragility, creativity and futility. This complexity, rendered completely and intimately in both text and image, haunts the reader. As Kavass writes of a “knockoff modernist chair” in “Windows above a Luncheonette,”

The object becomes a representation of mourning, heartbreak, opportunity, depression, communication, illness, success, revelation. One person asks if he can sit in the chair. Some eyes go wide. Is the chair alive in some way? Or sacred?

This book distills Kaplow’s thought and creative output into a single object in much the same way that Kaplow shows us seemingly mundane objects hold so much: the dreams and fears of both an individual and the larger world, arranged in complex layers that are deeply rewarding to explore.