2017 ARTIST-IN-NONRESIDENCE WINNER

TRANSPLANT

work by Oliver Luo with an essay by Lora Stoianova

ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018

The works in Boston-based artist and designer Oliver Luo’s Transplant series are at once exquisite and merciless. In this set of objects, Luo has taken copies of family photographs he rediscovered during a recent trip to his native China—images that were sealed away untouched in his family home since the time he and his family emigrated to the United States in 2003—and layered them with gold foil, gauze paper, and tinted card stock. Strikingly tender in the way they are composed and assembled, the collages nonetheless work to obscure and decenter the images presented, subduing the photograph into another texture of the work. The black-and-white family photograph, the indelible, foreordained record of one's past, becomes a cool, gritty contrast to fields of warm peach and gold. 

In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017 (front), Paper (print, foil), gold enamel, laminate. 2017

In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017 (front), Paper (print, foil), gold enamel, laminate. 2017

“AMERICANIZATION WAS FULL-BLOWN IN ME,” REVEALS LUO, AND HE RARELY DISCUSSED HIS FAMILY’S PAST IN CHINA.

In In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017, a portrait of a man casually posing outside of a train station is overwhelmed by a square patch of gold foil placed to cover the subject’s face. The definitiveness of this placement is shocking for its disregard to the main function of the photograph as a portrait of the subject. The shock appears to almost  reach the subject himself—the gold square rests on his shoulders and, as if physically burning him, transforms his touristic post into one of exhaustion and defeat. Yet the central alignment of this mask of gold foil suggests that it cannot be otherwise. Obligingly, history becomes fodder for design and individual vision.

This motif, a square of gold foil placed in the middle of a rectangular or square sheet of paper, is a reference to Chinese spirit money, or Joss paper, traditionally burned in effigy for a deceased family member’s use in the afterlife. The charge imbued in this  object pushes the indexicality of the photograph even further into the background; the object becomes a mere gossamer whose true referent lies in the depths of the afterlife. At the same time, the object is encased in a rigid plastic lamination that marks it as overwhelmingly of the recent past. It was customary in China in the 1990’s to laminate family photos as a way to preserve them. Captions and dedications were attached to the back of the photograph before they were hardened into solid objects, resisting wear, tear, or spoliation. The readiness of the object to burn and smoke as spirit money is held in check by our intuitive repulsion of setting noxious plastic ablaze. To protect the work from decay, the lamination traps the natural in a capsule of unworldliness.

In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017 (GIF of transit between front and back lighting) 

In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017 (GIF of transit between front and back lighting) 

In the Courtyard of Old House on May 4, 2017 (GIF of transit between front and back lighting) 

In the Courtyard of Old House on May 4, 2017 (GIF of transit between front and back lighting) 

These contrasts between sumptuousness and banality, ephemerality and pragmatism, design and nostalgia, characterize all the works in Luo’s Transplant series. In subjecting family photos to this kind of reckoning, Luo has created deeply personal visions that become abstract icons to his past. The photograph serves not as witness to a past event but an incantation for memory-making. “It is about revising memories,” relates Luo, “and sealing them up.”

IN TRANSPLANT, LUO ATTEMPTS TO SALVAGE HIS MEMORIES FROM THE TOTALING OF PHOTOGRAPHY, CREATING PERSONAL TALISMANS WARDING AGAINST BROKEN NARRATIVES OR FAULTS OF MEMORY.
In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017 (back), Paper (print, foil), gold enamel, laminate. 2017

In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017 (back), Paper (print, foil), gold enamel, laminate. 2017

We learn that the man in the photograph of In Front of Jiamusi Station on Oct 17, 2017 is Oliver’s late father. Luo rediscovered this and the other photographs in the collection in his family home in China after his father’s passing in 2009. Although his relationship with his father was, as Luo describes, “rocky at best,” Luo considers his father to have been his “last connection to the homeland.” Luo recounts that when his family immigrated to the United States, he was encouraged to assimilate to American culture quickly and that he “internalized” the need to reject his past nationality for American citizenship. “Americanization was full-blown in me,” reveals Luo, and he rarely discussed his family’s past in China. With his father’s death were snuffed out the possibilities to reconnect to both his lost parent and his heritage.

By the Garden in Front of Sixth Junior High on Jan 4, 2018 (front), Paper (print, tinted cardstock), oil, gold enamel, laminate. 2018 

By the Garden in Front of Sixth Junior High on Jan 4, 2018 (front), Paper (print, tinted cardstock), oil, gold enamel, laminate. 2018 

The rediscovery of these photographs dropped the unsuspecting Rip Van Winkle into an unimaginable present. Memories of his past in China that had existed untapped, uncorroborated, and mythologized were now brought forth to be leveled against photography’s supposed veracity.  Built on the foundations which appeared pristine exactly because they were un-surveyed, Luo’s identity of the first 11 years of his life was flattened into a few square feet of photographic film. Luo states that the photographs “caused the [myth-building] I had been doing to myself to collapse.”

Yet the stories suggested by the photographs were so separate from the ones of personal memory, especially one left to evolve in its own isolated cave for so long, that Luo began to suspect that photographs were “reinforcing something that isn’t real.” In Transplant, Luo attempts to salvage his memories from the totaling of photography, creating personal talismans warding against broken narratives or faults of memory. The series presents a unique family album that is a sensitive reflection on the power of a personal aesthetic to salvage and anchor remnants of the past.

The violent distortion that Luo felt in himself is externalized in these collages. In By the Garden in Front of Sixth Junior High on Jan 4, 2018, Luo has masked a photograph of him as a young man with a large field of hazy peach-colored paper. The cutout fits his outline imperfectly, carving into his face and shoulders while protracting his cranium. The mask lends an already inward-turning pose a greater sense of frailty and introversion; it projects the subject into an abstract and unearthly field. When turning the laminated object over, we see the reverse of the photograph and are given the “true” locus of the subject—like an inscription written on the reverse of a laminated photograph. Yet this detail is provided suspiciously unorthodoxly, with the photograph made translucent by staining the print in oil. When this image is held up to a light, the cutout overcomes the photograph again and we see the original phantom form, now in reverse. The sense of groundlessness present in this work can be seen as a reflection of Luo’s isolation to his younger self and his younger self’s own lack of connection.

THE REDISCOVERY OF THESE PHOTOGRAPHS DROPPED THE UNSUSPECTING RIP VAN
WINKLE INTO AN
UNIMAGINABLE PRESENT. MEMORIES OF HIS PAST IN CHINA THAT HAD
EXISTED UNTAPPED, UNCORROBORATED, AND MYTHOLOGIZED WERE
NOW BROUGHT FORTH TO
BE LEVELED AGAINST PHOTOGRAPHY’S
SUPPOSED VERACITY.  
In the Living Room of Old House on Sept 30, 2017 (front), Paper (print, vellum, tinted cardstock), laminate. 2017 

In the Living Room of Old House on Sept 30, 2017 (front), Paper (print, vellum, tinted cardstock), laminate. 2017 

In a type of reversal of this process, In the Living Room of the Old House on Sept 30, 2017, Luo masks the faces in a photograph of a man and a woman, presumably Luo’s mother and father. The woman’s coiffure lends her silhouette a strange shape that catches our period-eye. As to a prisoner in Plato’s cave, the moment of the photograph announces itself by the shadow of a 90’s perm. The peach masking is cut just short of the subject’s silhouettes and sits raised above the surface of the photograph, suggesting it could be peeled off were it not for the prohibitive lamination. Peeking from underneath the masking, one can catch the down-turned corner of the woman’s eye, suggesting that both she and the man are looking down, perhaps at their young son. This notion is corroborated by the sight-line suggested by a thin white line created by a gap in the way the photograph is cut and patched together. The distortive effect applied to the photograph calls to mind the static in the interlaced bands of a home video and animates the moment of the photograph. The imagined perspective of a young man speaking up to his parents would position man and woman in contra jour, casting them as the nebulous shadows that the viewer, too, is witnessing.

On the Beach by the City of Fangchenggang on Jan 10, 2018 (front), Paper (print, vellum, gauze), oil, gold enamel, laminate . 2018 

On the Beach by the City of Fangchenggang on Jan 10, 2018 (front), Paper (print, vellum, gauze), oil, gold enamel, laminate . 2018 

THE VIOLENT DISTORTION THAT LUO FELT IN HIMSELF IS EXTERNALIZED IN THESE COLLAGES.

Luo takes his scalpel to another photograph of him in his youth, applying the same home-video-distortion of parallel splintered bands. On the Beach by the City of Fangchenggang on Jan 10, 2018, shows the young Luo kneeled down playing in the sand, building a sandcastle. Most of the bands are held behind the gauze background of the scene, with only a few jumping into full relief. The static of an interlaced video that the horizontal bands create suggests a flicker as the image appears into one’s consciousness, not fully formed, out of the haze of memory. On the reverse of the image, Luo has created a subtle speckled texture out of transferred gold paint that conflates the effect of video static and the sand that Luo would be resting on. This texture, as the “inscription” in the back of the photograph, occludes at the same time it positions.

In On the Hillside Sweeping Graves on Oct 19, 2017, Luo presents a photograph of his late father that is striking in how minimally altered it is. The left side of the print is left completely untouched, and through the grain of the print is revealed a man with a hardened expression and unflinching gaze. The right side of the portrait is completely covered by a layer of gauze paper that places the image behind a fog, perhaps one dictated not by the effects of memory but by death. Though this veil hides the man’s features it softens his hardened expression. Luo has clothed the right side of the subject in the gold foil of the spirit money, suggesting that the offering has been received and well spent in the afterworld. Turning the object over reveals that the photograph has been completely split in two, with only the surrounding lamination holding the pieces together. This use of lamination as a structural element highlights the fragility of the primal materials and the delicacy of the imagined composition; it suggests that the lamination — as synecdochical for the act of object-making — are necessary to hold them in place. Moreover, if the physical split in the photograph is to be interpreted as the divide between life and death, then it is the lamination as symbolic of the process of remembering that can square the two.

On the Hillside During Qingming Festival on Oct 19, 2017 (front), Paper (print, tinted cardstock, foil, gauze), laminate . 2017

On the Hillside During Qingming Festival on Oct 19, 2017 (front), Paper (print, tinted cardstock, foil, gauze), laminate . 2017

On the Hillside During Qingming Festival on Oct 19, 2017 (back), Paper (print, tinted cardstock, foil, gauze), laminate . 2017

On the Hillside During Qingming Festival on Oct 19, 2017 (back), Paper (print, tinted cardstock, foil, gauze), laminate . 2017

The group of family photos that has been basis of these works were as much part of Luo’s mythos as they were part of his late father’s. In re-envisioning these shared images of their past, Luo has inserting his father into his own relationship to design. Luo recounts that his father was a furniture-maker with his own keen sense of aesthetics. He laments that he never had a chance to speak to his father about Western design, a fact he states he “[does] not know how to mourn.” In reconciling his father back into his life in this way, “for all the years that [he] resisted,” Luo is “inserting him into [his] story and keeping him alive and relevant.” Their frustrated, stunted relationship is imagined into one of significant productivity; Luo’s past is imagined not only through but as about design. “The only way we know we were alive is though our memories,” states Luo. Through the Transplant series, Luo has, more than securing his past, retroactively fated his present.

Oliver Luo designs, animates drawings, and tinkers with all types of paper he comes across. He currently works at INVIVIA, a user-experience design studio, and his den can be found somewhere in Cambridge, MA. 

Lora Stoianova, Patents Pending.

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