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.