Summer Mei Ling Lee’s “Requiem” blends a number of art forms.
The piece begins with a lament of stringed instruments — a duet between an erhu and cello. The music was heavy, sharp and sonorous. As the attendees began to walk through the dark rooms towards the frames of white linen where the musicians were playing, the galleries began to take shape. Floor-to-ceiling strips of thinly woven white cloth were suspended in the shadows. The barely discernible silhouettes of large murals were painted in each of the gallery’s four bays.
Then, the most immediate feature: Swirling projections of the cranes in flight
flock around the ceilings, getting tangled and distorted in the hanging cloth, migrating noiselessly over the audiences’ heads.
The space is heavy. Mournful. A reflection of the things that get lost in movement, in relocation — the things that get left behind and the things that linger.
“Requiem” is deeply grounded in the history of the Chinese diaspora. Many of the details in the work are drawn from the Hong Kong-based Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, or TWGHs, which repatriated the bones of Chinese immigrants back to their homes and communities starting in the 1870s. TWGHs bore a large portion of the expense for the bone repatriation and also assumed the responsibility of caring for the remains that could not be returned. While the repatriation was brought to an end in 1949, TWGHs has persisted in its commitment to caring for the bones that never found their way home.
Lee’s piece draws heavily from the history of Tung Wah and stories of immigration and repatriation. The murals that are painted throughout the four bays use paint made from ashes collected from the incense burned daily in the Tung Wah Coffin Home. The home burns incense daily for the remains that have not yet been repatriated, and the use of the ashes as pigment gives the murals a heavy weight.
The images also tell a complex history.
The bays are full of overlapping, nonlinear scenes and places. The Harbor of Hong Kong. The San Francisco Bay. Cemeteries on either side of the pacific — in Kaiping, Taishan and San Francisco. Ocean steamers. Traditional Chinese boats, called “junks.” Angel Island. Chinatown’s Tin How Temple. The scenes link starting points and destinations, new homes and old ports, the charts of a journey. But the journey has been reorganized. The starting and end points blur together, the destination seems to be the place that was left behind, the home that was left behind becomes a final resting place.
Lee further complicates this merging of time and place through the ways that she allows the audience to experience “Requiem.” In order to engage with the art, certain choices must be made — certain boundaries crossed. The galleries are very dark, and the viewer is invited to use the flashlight on their cellphone to see the murals, but there is a switch-cost. The light from the flashlight outshines the projection, and the flocks of cranes projected in the corners and ceilings of the gallery disappear. It seems unlikely that Lee would have unintentionally designed the work in such a way that its two most specific features must be experienced separately.
In Bay Four, the last room in the space, Lee leaves her audience with an emotionally overwhelming single item exhibit: one of the actual bone boxes that was used for repatriation. The box is empty, and it is badly damaged — a large hole gives the viewer a chance to look into the space inside. It seems to demand a reflection on the bones it carried home, the remains it held and finally, the emptiness with which it was brought to San Francisco and was taken back across the Pacific carrying nothing.
Lee’s work is methodical and deeply evocative. “Requiem” is masterfully executed, allowing the viewer to engage history and emotion simultaneously. While the lines between time and place, record and feeling, art and artifact may converge and overlap, Lee’s hand never wavers.
“Requiem” will be on display at the Chinese Cultural Center from Oct. 26 to Dec. 23.