Radiant beings from Earth: a conceptual cosmos of identity and history
Isabel Smith ’24 (She / She), Editor-in-Chief
Artist Liên Trương speaks on September 9, 2021 about his exhibition Liên Trương: From Earth Rise of Radiant Beings, was a whirlwind. I took notes furiously as she weaved together stories, artistic styles and conceptions of war, life and loss. It was almost haunting to be surrounded by the years of gathered stories of oppression, suffering and resistance that are present in Trương’s works. There is a collective spirit in them. They transcend imperialist narratives and speak of transnational identities – especially those of Asian and Asian-American experiences – which have been erased, suppressed and redefined time and time again.
Trương traces cross-cultural genealogies in his exhibit and said much of his work “responds to modes of landscape and storytelling, and for [her] practice [she’s] really interested in how each was an integral part of the other in creating visual mythologies of the American story– which is centered in these stories, the bodies that have been kept on the periphery. She argued that the traditional idea of ”landscape” in contemporary Western art (with rules of linear and atmospheric perspective) is not an objective representation of a scene. Instead, landscapes construct a colonized space. They impose ideals of nationalism and territorial conquest on nature; painting claims. Trương cited many examples: the Romantic tradition, 18th and 19th century British and American artists like Thomas Hearne and Thomas Moran, British aesthetic theory and Thomas Jefferson. She cited so many that it seemed incredible that they could all be presented in a cohesive collection, but Trương’s exhibition achieves the impossible.
As the global power of the United States increased, art became a military and cultural weapon. American Abstract Expressionism was seen as opposed to Soviet socialist realism during the Cold War. Americans were not bound by the rules of realism. Instead, America and American art embodied freedom; Americans were free. Trương’s emphasis on art as propaganda – not only in what the art portrays, but also in the way it portrays it – was striking.
The sky is at the center of the western genre of landscape described by Trương. In the West, the sky evokes peace, respect and always objective uppercase-S Science. Collaborative video by Liên Trương and Hồng-An Trương in the exhibition, Heaven is not sacred, overthrows him. The video shows clip after clip (from the United States National Archives) of premeditated violence in the skies perpetrated by the U.S. military in the 20th century. In contrast, the words of the English landscape painter John Constable resonate in the images of the airstrikes, asserting that “in endless beauty the blue sky stretches over the earth” and that “the sky is the source of light in the earth. nature and governs everything ”. This voiceover serves as a reminder of Western perceptions and understandings of the sky in relation to images; the video reveals the sky as a space of war, cold and darkness, and reckless and brutal seizures of power. The juxtaposition is so precise that it left me sitting there, speechless, in the darkness of the gallery.
Trương’s artist speech brought these works and others in the exhibition to life. Engaging in a dialogue with artists about their art is so important: it allows us to learn the process of artistic creation from the artist, both physically and mentally, provides the opportunity to ask questions and engages the art through conversation. Together, the works create their own conceptual cosmos. Trương paints in bright colors, especially blacks and pinks, and she explained the process of developing your own cohesive palette and creating art that is meaningful to you. The exhibit looks like a much sought after lucid dream, the one where you wake up after learning something. You walk outside, you look at the sparkling sky and you think: the sky is not sacred.
Liên Trương: From Earth Rise of Radiant Beings is in the Van Every Gallery at Davidson College at the Visual Arts Center until October 3, 2021. A recording of the artist’s lecture is available courtesy of Davidson College Art Galleries.
Isabel Smith ’24 (she / she) is an undeclared major from St Augustine, Florida. she is reachable