to what extent is memory contagious, sticky, and bound with the material qualities of particular media? how might installation art works on memory connect with ecocritical practice? these questions are those posed by “gaze,” an installation by Hwang Buh-Ching now on view at the Taitung Museum of Art. For the past several days since seeing the piece, I’ve been wondering about “sticky matter,” materials that latch on to us and force us to remember

Hwang Buh-Ching “Gaze” site specific installation. seeds, canvas, string, wood, metal. dimensions variable. 2014. Taitung Museum of Art


on saturday, i had the pleasure of spending the day with a group of visitors from the MOCATaipei, who are planning a november exhibit of contemporary taiwanese indigenous artists, including work of my friend Rahic Talif. I am working with Rahic on the english translation and other documentation of his current project; Rahic invited me along to meet the MOCATaipei team. Apart from exhibit planning, the MOCA representatives were here for the taitung opening of homeland . desolation, a special exhibit of works by Hwang Buh-Ching, which had first shown at MOCA. Hwang’s work, which is installation art composed from found objects, could be called poetic, but only if we think of a poetry, following willam carlos williams, “not of words but of things”

the 1991 small installation piece, “modern poetry” (mixed media, 152×120 cm) provides a good example of this kind of poetic use of material. at first, the piece could not be more obvious: on two framed rectangular grounds of compressed newspaper, one sees a drawer and a knob, one on each rectangular ground. the knob, with its projecting nails along the bottom of the shaft, wants one to read it as freudian. ok, so modern poetry is about sex. however, the materiality of the work suggests that the poetic is a real if deteriorating and uprooted presence in the midst of pulped language, a kind of “vibrant matter,” that wants to be interpreted but at the same time resists our attempts to contain it within our interpretive discourse. in other words, we cannot really speak for the drawer or the knob. the freudian interpretation fails, and we cannot say that the piece is really about sex at all. rather it is about finding the right material. in other words, before we can talk for the piece we need to first ask about the process of finding material, which is to ask about qualities of the material revealed in the process of finding and making the work

Hwang Buh-Ching 1991. "Modern Poetry" compressed newspaper, found wood, metal. 152 x 120 cm
Hwang Buh-Ching 1991. “Modern Poetry” compressed newspaper, found wood, metal. 152 x 120 cm

the modern poetry here is not found in words or in their meanings–like the newspapers–but in things lifted from their contexts, which may still carry memories. as such “modern poetry” contrasts the daily, ephemeral, and repetitive pressure of media with a kind of presence that remains elusive and uncanny.  the work at once wants us to read it too quickly as symbolic but also subverts that reading

“gaze” highlights this practice of finding objects that carry memory but that also suggest memory’s fragility. the piece is a very large installation, through which a viewer must walk to circulate through the exhibit space. although the piece provides a bridge for this purpose, visitors to the space may also walk underneath or around the piece. photographs of “gaze” suggest projection. in fact, however, the piece is made of pounds and pounds of burr seeds that Hwang collected around tainan. following the pattern of two photographs, one of Hwang and another of his deceased wife, from about 20 years ago, Hwang and his assistants affixed the burrs to large canvases on either side of the installation. the two images, one of Hwang and the other of his wife, gaze at each other through the installation space, over the bridge that visitors cross when interacting with the piece

detail from hwang buh-ching "gaze"
detail from hwang buh-ching “gaze”

the lines that one sees in images of the installation are not lines of projected light, but actually two thousand strings emerging from the faces of the images. the strings are anchored both to the framework of the images and to the central bridge. moreover, the strings are also coated in burr seeds

detail from hwang buh-ching "gaze"
detail from hwang buh-ching “gaze”

in this sense, “gaze” in this piece takes on a material quality. moreover, because visitors to the installation will accidentally brush against the piece, visitors may also find burrs from the installation on their clothing after leaving the installation space. the piece thus places into view the contagious and mediated qualities of memory

by “mediated” here, i mean that the stickiness of memory, its ability to be carried along by unwary passersby and our inability to get rid of it, its mode of dispersal–like so many burr seed packages–depends upon the materials that carry memory. proust, of course, reminds us of this quality of memory in his ruminations on madelines. hwang’s take on “sticky matter” is different, however, in that the stickiness of memory is not necessarily personal; it may be personalized in forms of sentiment and affect, however, the contagious quality of memory depends to a great extent on its objectification. perhaps, then, this memorial to hwang’s wife is a bit of a fetish. and yet, it seems that the stickiness of memory must be what allows me to connect seed burrs that want to be read as an image of hwang’s wife to the practices of memory making with which i might be more familiar from my own experience


another interesting feature of “gaze” is hwang’s connection of the work to eco-critical discourse. his practice of gathering burr seeds throughout tainan, as he relates, was a kind of fact finding mission: alarmed by the disappearance of many wild plant habitats around tainan, he wished to know just how many kinds of wild plants there were in the tainan region. his collecting, meant for art, was also a survey of bio-diversity

my take on this piece is that if we focus on the materiality of “gaze,” we must confront questions concerning the mediation of memory in the anthropocene era. much of our memory is bound to landscapes and constructed from the reproductive and other projects of other species, as seed burrs to the image of hwang’s wife. might hwang be asking us whether the loss of biodiversity, even of weeds, might damage or otherwise threaten memory? if so, this question is one not just about memories of the wild or of species other than companion species. it also concerns the memories of something as personal as the face of a deceased loved one and how one might share this memory with others

this question of how to account for the material through which we might remember, it turns out, also appears in the work of several contemporary taiwanese indigenous artists. i am not sure whether this question emerges out of a shared practice of making art from found objects. it might be a worthwhile question to ask, even if the practices of hwang buh-ching are quite different from the originator of found art in the western canon, duchamp