Q&A: Cole lu
By Jessica Baran | August 2, 2018
Cole Lu (b. Taipei) is an artist, curator, and writer based in New York. She was formerly the assistant director of fort gondo compound for the arts in St. Louis (May 2014- Jan 2017). Her work has been exhibited at the Contemporary Art Museum and Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis), the Institute of Contemporary Art and Vox Populi (Philadelphia), The Wrong Biennale (URL & São Paulo), LACE (Los Angeles), I Never Read (Basel), FILE (São Paulo), K-Gold Temporary Gallery (Lesvos), and Trestle Projects (Brooklyn). Her publication Smells Like Content (Endless Editions) is in the artists’ book collection of the MoMA Library (New York). Her recent two-person exhibition “While Removing the Garbage or Paying the Cleaner” opened at American Medium (New York) in May 2018 and her writing will be featured in the CODETTE JOURNAL #3 (June 2018).
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Cole Lu for several years now — first as her graduate advisor during her MFA tenure at the Sam Fox School of Art, after which I hired her to be my Assistant Director at fort gondo compound for the arts, a nonprofit community art space in St. Louis that I directed. At fort gondo, she shared her polymathic abilities as an artist — her first solo show was mounted there in 2014 — and as a curator of exhibitions and the space’s zine library. A devourer of books as well as imagery, her work could best be described as a kind of visual poetics, where assembled objects communicate stories and histories that, in their careful juxtapositions, engage the kind of eloquent leaps of explication that only occur in line breaks. In this work — which ranges from sculpture to video to hand-made books — familiar signifiers appear both known and completely other, universally accessible as well as deeply personal, and create mysterious narratives about the agonies and passions endemic to our complex contemporary moment. As she relocated to New York City a year ago, it was a special privilege to meet and discuss with her the specifics of her material and conceptual processes while her solo show Animal Fancy was on view last month at MONACO in St. Louis. - Jessica Baran
Jessica Baran: Hello Cole! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. This show Animal Fancy, at MONACO in St. Louis, MO and the one you had recently at American Medium, While Removing the Garbage or Paying the Cleaner, seem to mark a major shift in your practice. How do you see your work before and how would you describe where it's going now?
Cole Lu: In many ways, it's the same. I think art-making is basically the same as myth-making: you make your own version of truth. You try to tell your own kinds of fables. But for me this new body of work, technique-wise and material-wise, is all a reaction to having recovered from a major illness and also the brief relief from the enormously stressful process of getting green card approval. For that process, I had to exhibit a ton and produce so much work in a really short period of time to accumulate a robust-enough resume to qualify for my visa status. Now, I can actually focus on something I really want to do for a sustained period – and what I really want to do is master my craft. I never had a chance to do that before because I had to say "yes" to every opportunity that came my way. I couldn't afford to say "no."
JB: So your process before was quicker materially but not necessarily conceptually.
CL: Yes. I'm trying to refine my abilities. The aspect of the hand and expansive labor is really important to me in that it reminds me that I have a body. And that, in turn, helps me cope with depression. All the alienation involved in having Tuberculosis and acquiring my green card, combined with some traumatic private events and then moving to New York – I felt like I had to make a major change in how I expressed myself. I needed to make myself feel refreshed.
I trace the shift back to the piece I showed at the grand opening of MONACO https://monacomonaco.us/Exhibitions. Directional Vices (Lies) (2017) involved an image, metal rack, and then a viewfinder I'd sculpted by hand from rock. That's how I immediately started making things once I moved away from St. Louis. That piece was small-scale and now I'm trying to move into larger pieces. The shift was like a rocket flying off into the sky – where, as it gets higher in the atmosphere, pieces start to fall off that are no longer needed. Similarly, I started to realize I didn't need certain parts of my practice, so I let them fall away.
JB: I love that. And I like what you're saying too about recovering from your illness – about feeling more in your body, and how these new sculptural processes are more physically grounding for you than how you previously worked, which was more found-object assemblage.
CL: It's like a reminder. When you're really depressed, you don't feel like yourself. You feel like you have no control over your body. You just think: I'm so sick all the time, I'm so tired. I wanted to remind myself that…
JB: You're here. You can make these things – labor over them, care for them.
CL: Yes. I like knowing that I can shape something the way I want it. And to know that I have muscle memory in my hand – that gives me comfort. That's a big thing for me. I got really into sculpting in kind of a manic way.
JB: Well, it's a process that actually benefits from obsessiveness.
CL: I feel like it's very similar to writing. When I first arrived in New York, I didn't have a studio. I worked at home. My stuff hadn't arrived. I became very insecure about my ability to master language. It's definitely an immigrant thing. You're always paranoid about whether you're expressing yourself right, and so you develop a lot of aggression over time from all of that automatic self-doubt. I wanted to express myself very specifically with language, be very careful and thoughtful about word choices and intensions. So I felt like I really needed to dive into writing in the same way that I dove into sculpture, as a craft to master. I never had the experience of being trained formally in either writing or sculpture. I studied linguistics. I mean, I'm glad I went through an MFA program – it really did me good in terms of how I understand why I make what I make. But now I have to build up my craft skills on my own. It's a little backwards. I'm learning in reverse.
JB: The concepts are all there. It's just figuring out how to translate them tangibly.
CL: It's really fun, actually. Thoroughbred (no caster of weather foretold), (2018) is the first one I made for this show. I made a master mold and cast multiples. And every time I poured concrete into the mold, I tweaked the angle a little so the head looked like it was sinking. Each piece is unique in how it sinks, which I really like. All of this work references the various film adaptations of Beauty and the Beast. I identify with the Beast a lot. I was just watching the Disney version one day and I was like, “this movie is hella gay!” Like, Belle's clearly a lesbian. Then I realized that the Beast is gay because that's how Disney codes those kind of things and how heteronormative movies work. And then there's the aspect of the Beast not being human – he's a rose petal falling, as he only has a limited amount of time to live, which I felt was a code for HIV or illness and the isolation that comes with illness, similar to him being locked away in his castle. So that was all very relatable. And there was the massive library that the Beast had, which resonated with my own obsessive book-hoarding. I identified with all of that, but mostly with the aspect of the Beast being seen as nonhuman and functioning as a metaphor for how people treat otherness. And I am every kind of other: I am an immigrant, I am a woman of color, I am queer, I am ill. It's all so much that it's almost impossible to talk about. And I didn't want to be culturally specific, as I didn't want to engage in self-exoticizing.
With a Disney movie, I'm not taking from Western culture exactly because it's global, world-wide. I mean, I watched this movie in the theater when I was kid in Taipei. I think Disney films are fair ground to have as a reference point from which we all can start. That was the idea. I didn't want to use a very loud language of queerness or illness or references to my nationality. I'm not trying to make anything exotic. But regardless of how I approach any of this, I'll inevitably be critiqued.
JB: A lot of people make good work dealing overtly with all of those topics. But I don't think that you're saying that's wrong. You're just saying it's not right for you.
CL: No, I'm not saying that it's wrong.
JB: There's a kind of comfort in Disney. It's a world that brings you back to being a child, to a sense of innocence. Disney films are like containers, like poetic forms or time-capsules. And given that you were feeling so vulnerable and un-rooted at the time, It makes sense to go to something that felt…
CL: Safe. I do feel safe with this source material. Particularly with the idea you mentioned about the time capsule. But, again, I do not feel that I have any right to claim any culturally symbolic materials from my background, especially because I moved around so much. I get a lot of questions about why I don't make work related to my background. I mean, Taiwan is where I was born, but only a small percentage of my life has actually been spent there. It's not that I'm ashamed of where I'm from, I just don't think I need to spell it out in my work.
JB: That makes sense. What about the specific materials you're using in this work. Why concrete, for instance? I feel like your work has always dealt with very particular acts of choice-making – choices about objects, choices about sources and texts. Choosing materials seems to be operating in the same way in your work now.
CL: The two pieces on the wall are low relief and not concrete. They're relief because relief was an historical means of story-telling. I choose that approach because I'm telling, or re-telling, a fairy tale. It also makes these objects into quasi-relics. I was trying to make something that would fit into history. I like the idea of concrete. I also very strongly identify with the idea of water. As an immigrant, I think water is about borders. A body of water is a border that restrains us from going elsewhere. Think about history, about immigration – water and boats have always been ways of moving between places. And water itself is a frontier of no border, it's kind of everything.
JB: Everything is water, literally.
CL: I think that has been very present in my work throughout the past couple years, actually.
JB: Especially in regard to hydration, too. In some earlier works you were accumulating all of the things you had to drink to stay hydrated while you were ill. Water kept you alive.
CL: Water as a body has always been a paradigm I've had in my mind because landing in so much intersectionality and then experiencing a lot of aggression on a daily basis feels like everything is kind of dehumanizing. It feels fragmenting. You don't see yourself as a whole but as a body part. The head of the Beast or like Frankenstein. Or being simply nonhuman, like you're just parts that can be treated as anyone would like because you're just an "other" to them – they don't care about the whole you, just you partially.
JB: You've been making fragmented body parts.
CL: Yes. So much of the river I do not know (I can drink you out of town), (2018), which was in the American Medium show, was the first piece I made like that. It's a cast replica of my own arm, with an added fictional element of some written scribble. It's like when you're in high school or middle school, you're being bullied, and there's no place else to express yourself except by writing with bold marker on your arm or hand. So I wrote on the sculpted arm this lyric from a song called "The Wave" that I was thinking about a lot. It says: "I can drink you under the table and I can drink you out of town." I was in shock when I heard that lyric, I can drink you out of town. It's fucking scary. Like, that's not affection. It's literally so triggering when I hear that. The piece rested on a concrete and metal stand that anchored a piece of Plexi shaped to resemble a diving board. So the arm is about to fall into water (i.e. the floor.) All the other work grew out of that piece. They're all related.
JB: So you consider this show and the one at American Medium an extended body of work?
CL: Yes, but this show here at MONACO is more thematically specific, more cohesive. All the work is influenced by this criticism and acknowledgment of the fairy tale, Disney, popular culture, Western culture, and Western gays, too. And also the language itself is very specific to me. Each title is important to framing the work. The show title, Animal Fancy, is kind of like a fairy tale. You might think Animal Fancy sounds kind of cute or sweet. But if you examine it's real meaning, "animal fancy" is the hobby of breeding animals, which is fucking sick.
That's so scary – that idea of some living being not behaving the way you want it to and then genetically modifying it! It's like a lot of fairy tales – sweet on the surface, but then, when you read into the subtext, it's like, Dumbo is fucking sad! So I wanted to use the language of the show title and individual artwork titles to evoke very specific intentions. If you study linguistics, you understand that the progression of it is all about the morphology of language and how we perceive culture historically and how current issues influence how we use language. It complements the idea of myth as a means to explaining the inexplicable and becoming a kind of truth, or what we want to understand as truth. That's all very deeply rooted in my head. I think visual language is my main language, so I just wanted to further push the idea of how to utilize mythology in a way that's, like you said, comfortable for me. In a way that's Cole Lu and not, say, a Taiwanese woman, or a gay woman. When I was in school, someone asked what made my work different from other Asian American or other Asian female artists. At the time I was unable to answer that question, but now I'm like, what the fuck kind of question is that?! You're a racist.
JB: It's like asking someone, What makes your work different than other Americans?
CL: Right! Like, why can't I just be an artist? Not gender-, not nationality-specific, not racially-specific. Why does it have to be that way? Why do I have to be viewed in a box with a label already affixed? I want to acknowledge that that is wrong to do. You should not do that, it's not good. It fucks with people's heads. And that question came from an educator, sadly. Which brings up the fact that academia is still predominantly white and heterosexual, especially here in the Midwest.
JB: You're trying to unravel all that in this work.
CL: That was the idea: "queer in exile." When I was living in St. Louis, I was so isolated – not simply because I was quarantined but because the Midwest is just not diverse enough. It's really problematic how queer gender politics function here versus, say, a coastal city. Again, it's very isolating, and means that you're constantly fighting against different forms of aggression.
JB: Talk about then the other materials used in the show. Are You begin this way (a unit with two large windows, a concrete floor, no interior walls) and You begin this way (the steep and steady climb with no ends), 2018 based on scenes from Beauty and the Beast?
CL: Yes, they're based on the stained glass windows in Beauty and the Beast, shown at the beginning of the movie, in the castle where the Prince lives. I utilized that visual and broke it into two. One of the pieces is about the castle, and the other one is about the mountain and forest you have to go through to get to the castle. They are sculpted with clay and wood, cast in Aqua-Resin and fiberglass, then treated with skin-tone silicone.
As I wrote in press release, it's the idea of the house breaking into flesh. And also the idea of quarantine and not being able to breathe, feeling sealed. I added this to the castle [points to etched text that reads "The Majestic"], because that's where I was quarantined here in St. Louis — the Majestic Stove Lofts. It was really important for me to have this show in St. Louis, as it's very specific to the experience of having lived there.
JB: Did you take a screenshot from the film and work from that?
CL: I took a screenshot, rendered it into line, then reduced it more, because it was originally so complex. Then I laid clay on this big board and sculpted.
This piece, (the width of the boundary awash in color. zero-width skin. chest. ribs. diaphragm. spine. air on the other side. you, 2018), is probably the bridge between my found-object assemblage work and my new sculptural work. The ladder was a found object, but I altered its color to make it all look metallic. Draped on the rungs is a brown shirt that symbolizes what the Prince wears when he turns into a human. And this jean skirt symbolizes Belle's skirt. These objects are highly personal – this is my shirt, and that's my ex's skirt. And this is a silicone cast of a gargoyle or monster face. So it's like the process of shedding monstrous skin, or skins.
The piece has text on both sides of the ladder that, combined, are the title of the piece. Everything's heavily related to grieving. And going down into and out of water. And also the symbolism of the library ladder in the movie, which relates to literature. Whereas this piece, (You begin this way (as nothing to be done), 2018), is high relief.
JB: And it's flocked.
CL: Yes! I'm so happy that you know it's flocked. It was made using the same process as the low relief pieces – sculpting with clay, casting it in Aqua-Resin and fiberglass, but then the surface is treated with flock instead of silicone. And the color of the flock is Royal Blue. A scene in the movie depicts the Beast struggling to find himself and then suddenly seeing his own portrait. Horrified, he violently scratches the painting. I paused on that scene, screen captured it, and rendered it here. I know that feeling of being unable to recognize oneself.
JB: This is obviously a different kind of image from those in the low relief pieces, which seem more directly drawn from the film. This is more of a collage of personal symbols. I read the ear, for instance, as probably being yours. What does the ear mean to you?
CL: The ear means a lot of things. I feel like the ear means meaning. The ear means care and attention.
JB: The act of inserting yourself into the piece seems important. And the fact that the slashed face is androgynous.
CL: I think the Prince is very androgynous. I think the whole movie is queer.
JB: I definitely have to watch it again. I don't remember any of this.
CL: It's all queer. I watched every version that's been made. The 1991 Disney version. The 2017 Emma Watson-starring version. The French version. All of the wall pieces are based on the 1991 Disney version. I also studied Jean Cocteau's version.
JB: I like that this show draws from the whole history of the story's film adaptations.
CL: The French version is very different from the overtly simplified Disney version. And there's a new French version too. You know the actress who plays the artist in Blue is the Warmest Color? She's Belle. I studied all of them in order to identify the specific visual symbolism I wanted to land on. But this piece is definitely the most creative. I like the idea of high relief reflecting strength.