The Should Be Here Is Not HereJoss Liao (BFA GL 2021)
It began three years ago, when I moved from China to the States for college and experienced a coarse and intense public gaze as I had never experienced it before. It’s the kind of judgmental gaze that bounces back to the emitter once it reaches the skin, returning to the owners its layers of judgements, stereotypes, and assumptions. As I saw my own image in others’ eyes, I sensed that only my skin was seen, under the gaze of the self-acknowledged privileged and right in line with discourses around racism, sexism, and classism. The gaze didn’t bother to reach me but quickly retreated after consuming my skin, carrying back to the owner “sufficient” information, while being highly condescending and ignorant toward me as a person.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger defines the difference between naked and nude, where “naked” is the true self and “nude,” while still stripped, retains the skin as a shell. The shell is the performative layer of the person, pushing forward a digestible body to be consumed yet keeping the true self intact. Immediately upon reading Berger’s text, I conceptualized it through my experience with the body and the nude here at RISD. Students here are asked to draw from the nude beginning in their first year. I saw the figure models, even in their naked form, with a shell. I saw a defensive layer, reacting to consumerism and the lack of safe space, which blocks the possibility of free expression and exchange in favor of a disguise and a protective shell.
The other thing I noticed right away was an absence of diverse figure models (compared to the diversity of the RISD student population). I was very disappointed that although in the U.S. we know about stereotyping people based on visible genetic, racial, and gender information, there was no conversation happening around this when we were drawing from the figure models. Who is this person? What’s their biological and personal history? What is the movement of the body, the color of the hair, the size of the hands, the texture of the voice telling us? Is this person having a bad day? What has this body, this physical existence, been through? Has it been subject to an intensive male gaze? Has it been through violence, sadness, and grief?
With these questions in my head, I began to plot out a series of workshops in which my peers might feel safe to express their inner emotions and thoughts through their physicality, to receive, to pay attention, and to understand those layers of information that pass through our bodies—our rawest, most honest form of expression. The skin is not a shell, to be commercialized, objectified, or generalized. The skin is, most of the time, the only thing we can see of others. Yet it carries so much, through which we can see the past, the present, and probably the distant future. Through which we emphasize, share, and consequently bond.
Initial tests took place two times in the Tap Room on the top floor of Memorial Hall, each time with three or four participants and over an hour and a half. I used blue masking tape to construct a casual “stage” in the middle of the room, which would be removed after the session ended. Participants took turns stepping within the “stage” and performing, while others drew the performer attentively. They came voluntarily and could choose to perform or not. They could also determine any characteristics—the format, duration, style, nudity, location, etc.—of the performance. Nudity wasn’t a necessity or recommendation but simply a decision.
While the performance and drawings were important, I was more interested in the discourses that happened within the space—the space that we, all participants, were forming through the simple gesture of watching, art-making, or performing with heightened focus, trust, and bonds. Intimacy comes from closely observing other beings, and also from the fluidity of roles changing. Putting on a performance can be intimidating and vulnerable. Yet it’s highly valuable, for it gives viewers generous permission to engage with the performer’s body. Might this alternate space, where the gaze has a place to be landed, acknowledged, and responded to, create the potential to cherish each other’s pure existence? Through these sessions, I was looking for answers to such questions, and proposing an alternative approach to the performative aspect of social culture I experienced here.
Dan Mitrovic (BFA Furniture 2020), drawing in response to the author’s prompt: “Please do a drawing of the workshop we just experienced.”
In April, I was accepted into the RISD Museum’s Third Thursday program, a monthly event that helps connect local communities and artists, and hosted a workshop in the Grand Gallery. Wanting to speak to the history and complexities of the “exhibition space” as well as consider the spatial structure of the Grand Gallery, I abridged the original workshop but kept it centered around establishing an intimate and safe space for free expression and dialogue. The stage remained a big circle of blue tape on the floor. I added a few freestanding wooden frames for the audience and performers to utilize and interact with. Through these approaches, I was looking for a more casual and fluid approach to art making, in contrast to the artworks and frames on the gallery walls, which suggest a high level of sophistication, labor, and time.
In all of these workshops, everyone is invited to perform and to draw. Everyone is invited to make art, be cast in artworks, or simply observe. The most magical part is that this shift of roles can happen so quickly and instantly as one stands up from the sea of viewers and steps in the circle, becoming a performer. The stage is a spatial manifestation not for forming barriers but for re-creating a common way of seeing that is informal, a draft that can be challenged, and potentially torn down, as easily as we would tear down blue masking tape from walls.
As the Museum session wrapped up, a friend of mine exchanged her piece of drawing paper with mine. I looked down and saw a poem, written in Chinese, our mother tongue. I stepped into the stage and read the poem out loud. As I read, I cried—under the gaze of an American institution, under the gaze of the museum guard, under the gaze of this land I stepped into yet never belong to. My friend started crying, too. I stood in the middle of the circle, speaking a language familiar to the both of us, and to others who go through a similar struggle—identifying the self and others through a flawed gaze on a daily basis.
Elephant writes poem
Elephant’s eyelashes fall down
Stars fall down; lots of tears
The should be here is not here
The shouldn’t be here cries out loud
Little princess and little princess
Poem by Darong Lang (BFA SC 2021)
Translated by Joss Liao
Joss Liao gets work done in her dreams.