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Issue 151

“Traces, Erasures, Resists” — Laiwan
by Olivia Michiko Gagnon

I am the only person in the Belkin Art Gallery on this particularly rainy weekday afternoon––a fact that I will become grateful for, because Laiwan’s work gives the most when you take your time. Specifically, the works on display are insistent in their demand that we refocus our attention onto the formal architectures that produce knowledge and transmit meaning. With equal attention given to print and lens-based media, her structural interventions both reveal and disrupt the way form sometimes recedes from view––concealing the force of its ideological frame, its forceful shaping of perception according to colonial, imperial, or otherwise hegemonic logics. But through aesthetic practices of overlay, translation, redaction, and juxtaposition, Laiwan slows down our encounter, renders seemingly known documents, images, or forms strange once more, brings occluded narratives or possibilities into sight, or else asks us to weave new poetic meaning from a set of reassembled traces. In short, we are invited––demanded, even––to look otherwise, with a renewed perception that searches beneath and between what might appear to be simply at hand, dangerously unthought. And that takes time. What becomes evident to me as I walk through the gallery is just how careful, extensive, and expansive this exploration of Laiwan’s has been: “Traces, Erasures, Resists” spans work from over 20 years and an array of media including: 35 mm slides, 16 mm film, analogue video, printmaking, writing, poetry, drawing, collage, photography, and sound. The exhibition also makes clear how Laiwan’s artistic practice has always been in conversation with and grounded in her community and activist work, as well as her commitments to Vancouver’s artist-run centres.

  • Laiwan, Working text diary (detail), 1986, four books, acrylic paint, framed text; installation view from “Traces, Erasures, Resists,” 2022, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery,

The 1992 installation distance of distinct vision/point éloigné de vision claire lines the walls of the gallery’s first room with serialized photographs accompanied by poetic text fragments in both English and French. Also printed in book form, this work draws its name from what the wall text describes as the “optic principle of depth and the distance it takes a subject to come into focus.” Unlike colonial and imperial modes of narration and representation that seek to fix the other’s meaning through capture, or else through the kind of distancing that enables fantasies of objectivity, Laiwan uses distance––established through the tight crop of an image, indirect language, or translation––as a resistant ethics through which the viewer’s access is mediated, even as multiple possibilities are kept alive through the unexpected interplay of text and image. One black-and-white photograph features a field of spiky trees, mostly their sharp foliage in clusters, reaching upward toward sky. Beneath, the words “‘I have put aside my agenda for you’ she said / «J’ai mis de côté mon programme pour toi» dit-elle” have me searching for a hidden she in the image’s margins, perhaps just out of sight, even as a toi circles around the trees’ grove. Meanings, here, are both open and withheld and made anew. Meanwhile, on the far wall, the 35 mm slide projection African Notes Parts 1 and 2 (1983/2020) clicks through images taken of an independent Zimbabwe in 1982, the year Laiwan returned for the first time since her family had migrated to Canada. A poetic spoken text accompanies some of these images, inviting viewer-listeners into a soporific and always-partial witnessing of sites overlaid with histories of indigeneity, colonialism, and resistance.

This sense of mediated witnessing and strategic intervention into grammars of signification comes to the fore in the next room, where redacted pages from a Chinese-to-English dictionary are pinned to the wall. AGILE (2021) is the latest iteration of the series dotting like flatheads: this is the english I learn (1996–). The pages of AGILE sway gently––almost ghostlike––as my moving body makes the air move around them.

In this, they seem almost to defy the sticky heaviness of the whiteout that Laiwan has used to carefully carve out poetic fragments––moments of translation that reveal the malleability of sense-making and the resistant possibilities of playing in and with language. Meanwhile, on the far wall, early experiments with obfuscating overlays render the textured pastel works Writing on Writing #1 and #2 (1980–81). Hypnotic and disorienting in their heavy layers of scribbled colour, both works refer to and constantly evade meaning, as they turn symbol into shape, and signification into a set of seductive––if sometimes frustrating––densities. These densities are echoed in Working text diary (1986), which displays four copies of Great Mysteries of Vanished Civilizations upon which small gestural markings (here in acrylic paint) have blotted out entire pages. Intervening in the materiality of the colonial book, these aesthetic traces simultaneously alter this text’s violent inscriptions and call attention to the erasures inherent within its anthropological narrative of disappearance.

This (in some ways) retrospective holds so much more than I could ever detail here, but I am left in awe of Laiwan’s complex unfolding of concealment’s sometimes opposing political valences, the way she asks us to perceive absence and presence together as twinned shadows of one another, and how she probes the explosive, anti-colonial, and minoritarian force of formal intervention. One way of parsing her precise offer, then, might be as a politics of writing and image making that attends to gaps and leaves them open, refuses fixity through a recombinant poetics, and slows us to a pace and shape and feel of reading and looking that allows something else––not yet known––to come into view. This might be the embodied swell of anti-imperial resistance, or how to jam an oppressive representational regime, or the complex feel of living in translation, or the pleasurable rush of a self partially withheld or brought to the fore in a new expansive shape so as to momentarily shatter this same self’s constraints.

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