waiting // dec. ‘21
*on suicidal ideations
The last time I made a serious attempt at my life, in 2017, it failed. I carved into my wrist until I lost consciousness while my roommates were away. As I sat in the tub, my thoughts digressed, and my energy drained. The paranoia led to a feeling of criminality often felt during episodes of self-harm. These episodes are compartmentalized immediately because they integrate poorly with daily life. One of the first series of paintings I made was of scenes I've struggled to integrate. I hoped putting them down on paper would somehow dispel the limiting effect of identifying with them.
The first of three sketches were of me sleeping in a recycling dumpster, the green steel ones with black plastic lids that I slept in when I spent the night outdoors in the winter months to avoid and escape violent confrontations with my father. When it wasn't raining or snowing, I slept on the ground in wooded areas, or I'd stroll around town until classes began the following day. The only time a car stopped me, I got in; the two men drove to Milwaukee, handed off a bag of meth in someone's driveway, took my cash at the gas station afterward, and dropped me off at a local high school. The next sketch was the first time I was brought to be evaluated, then placed in a mental health in-patient program in a cop car. After the officer handcuffed me to the hospital bed, he talked about how things aren't so bad and recommended the movie It's a Wonderful Life. I'll be admitted six more times. And the final scene depicts me watching porn with the workers for my father's restaurant that stayed in our living room before the family grew and moved. The first time it happened, I was 10 or 11, my father was gone, and I wandered downstairs well past midnight and saw them watching it in a circle. The atmosphere wasn't sexual; it felt more like a prank. None of them seemed aroused or embarrassed, just amused by my presence. Usually, they watched Chinese or Taiwanese films from the nineties and early aughts. My fascination with porn entertained them, and some would lend me their laptops before going to bed so I could stay up to watch on my own; this was how I watched porn for some time. I developed a porn addiction that lasted until my early twenties.
oil on paper. ‘16
They were mostly undocumented workers. I had little understanding of the precarity of their lives then, but I think we shared a longing for home, which only existed in the past. I desperately wanted them to remain part of my life; I saw some of them as family. The dynamic with these workers exacerbated my attachment issues when I arrived in America escorted by a stranger I never saw again; I met my father in person for the first time and was separated from everyone I've been around until age 9. I cried every day for a few months, had recurrent nightmares, and often woke up disoriented by the idea that I was so far from my family that when it was daytime for me, it was nighttime for them.
That was the most traumatizing time because I did not have the tools to cope with the indefinite absence and eventual estrangement from everyone I loved.
I spent most of my time outside of school working at my father's restaurant. The first weeks in America were spent peeling shrimp in the kitchen while I waited to be registered for school. I bonded with the workers over the boss's shortcomings. I tried to entertain them with my impersonation of characters played by the Hongkonese actor Stephen Chow in his slapstick comedies, reenactments of stand-up routines I memorized from the Chinese New Year's Gala from previous years, and ironically reciting lyrics by the singer Jeff Chang and other romantic ballads. I was obsessed with regurgitating the zeitgeist of the moment and place that was home. I hoped the workers would like the town of Waukesha so that they would stay, but they never lasted long, and the longer they stayed, the more painful it was to see them go, often without warning. They worked 72 hour weeks, and on their day off each week, they logged onto QQ to chat with their families, played computer games, did laundry, and cooked meals with minimal ingredients. I would become distraught when they mentioned anything hinting at plans to leave. The same emotions would arise when my future colleagues mentioned going to grad school, looking for other jobs, or moving, which is what people my age talk about in entry-level jobs. An emotional whiplash perpetuating a belief in the futility of secure connections.
So I sat in the tub and started to fade out.
I wanted to write "so it goes" in blood on the side of the tub but thought better of it. The last things I recalled were cutting into a part that felt like the bows on a violin, watching an exposed tendon moving back and forth while I opened and closed my palm, and squeezing my upper arm as blood sprayed onto my chest. I woke up to my roommate knocking on the door, realizing the cut wasn't deep enough, and the drying blood clogged the wound. When the paramedic arrived, one remarked that it looked like I had lost half a pint of blood. I thought it was a low estimate since most of it had run down the drain, and I felt ashamed for all the times I couldn't end my life correctly. I've long identified with the boy who cried wolf in my experience with suicidal behaviors because my aliveness contradicts my cries. I also identify with the fable because I often dread that my life will be a cautionary tale of the fool variety.
When I returned from the hospital, I was fined a $600 fee for "suicide attempt cleanup" by the apartment complex, which the memo helpfully listed and a letter of eviction. (The eviction was mainly because I was already living "under the radar", my previous roommates were two international students who left for the summer and refused to pay rent, leading to my first eviction.) I consider it the same kind of violence as future employers responding to low morale by hiring external consultants to share research on living wages and then continue to pay its workers less than three-quarters of the listed amount. The same disregard for the precarious but slower and equipped with a robust public relations apparatus.
The suicidal urges are amnesiac in nature, and things turn absurd after a few days of contemplation. It changes the brain; there was a period where I routinely counted on my eventual suicide to avoid tasks, mostly stuff involving paperwork like applying for healthcare, loan payments, the mounting documents required of someone living in persistent crisis. Mundane choices get filtered through the new mindset. The amount of groceries to get, how to interact with people, and whether to continue habits developed to prevent these feelings or sink into a brief hedonic spell. The dissonance goes wild; why did I purchase new contact lenses? Why am I still eating turmeric? Every little thing becomes a reluctant commitment to a future.
The inability to cope with loneliness and hopelessness drive these urges, and I've found those to be self-perpetuating states. Seeing couples and seemingly happy children brings up a wave of resentment on very bad days. They appear so far from my reality that they look like a commercial. It's obvious most socialized kids become integrated adults who have good enough social lives. The necessary social ties to be acquired as a lonely person become riskier to attempt, for even perceived rejection comes with an unpredictable period of dysregulation. The intense loneliness becomes a barrier to connection, which feels akin to a starving person being rejected food due to poor meal etiquette. Perhaps a nourished person would appreciate the culinary experience more. The same gesture that appears savage for the starved person might be perceived as quirkiness or enthusiasm for the well-fed. God forbid the desperate person commits a faux pas while trying to obtain what is essential to survive. But once the resentment fades, it's not so clear who's doing the rejecting.
But I digress. The best advice I've gotten for not acting on suicidal urges is from a doctor who oversaw my treatment twice at an in-patient program in Boston. He told me the next time I find myself in a moment of acute suicidality, which I probably will again, to wait. It’s worked for me because the urge always subsides enough to be managed or pass entirely in a few hours or days. It's simple, but it can be the most challenging thing in the moment, a moment preceded by years of waiting, drenched in the emotional turmoil via the warping effect of trauma, where the buffer of time, distance from danger, and perspective dissolves.
And that is when the wait begins.
desk // oct. ‘20
Desk is one of five in a series I painted in the final weeks of 2019. The series is about my ambivalence to keeping a routine when everything feels broken. The painting depicts my job; a broken monitor, the keyboard, and germs. I work in the member and visitor services department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The style of this series was inspired by the painter Philip Guston. Around this time, I learned the MFA was involved in the upcoming Guston retrospective, which included three other museums. Here, desk serves as a segue to my thoughts relating to the postponement of this exhibition. The show, Philip Guston Now, already rescheduled to open this fall due to covid-19, has been postponed until 2024. The reason given for the postponement was a chance to reframe the programming and bring in additional perspectives to shape the presentation of Guston's work in response to the shift in contexts due to recent events.
The call for more perspectives led me to think about what contexts are most relevant to me, as someone who relies on one of the institutions for employment and access to art. The perspectives I'm engaging in do not address racism directly. I don't feel physically or emotionally threatened by the characters Guston drew and painted, nor do I think my experience is misrepresented or minimized. Still, I can imagine someone having such reactions. With two to three years to reframe a completed show, I hope additional conversations can be had alongside a dialogue about the ongoing anti-black racism in America.
Guston's late work had many themes; loneliness, evil, the artist, his admiration for Italian Renaissance painters, doom, and ways to cope, but the two I find most relevant and all-encompassing is power and self-reflection. Guston exposed corrupt power with the Nixon comics, stripped power away by painting KKK figures as cartoonish characters in compromised states, and resisted it by parting with his generation's dominant style, abstract expressionism. He reflected on his capacities for evil by painting hooded figures as a stand-in for the artist in the studio, contemplating canvases, and performing mundane activities—artists and critics as the evildoer.
The proposed topic of conversation concerns Guston's reminder of the enduring threat of corrupt power. A self-reflection by the Museum's administration on power dynamics within its organization and its culpability in race/class disparities. The museum claims in the plaque for the newly installed mural, No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper, at the MFA's front lawn: "...[T]he MFA works to be a site where critical dialogues can take place in the presence of, inspired by, and provoked by great art of the past and of our own moment." The dialogue I'm proposing is a critical one and very relevant to the Museum. Failing to engage this dialogue can also be seen as a gesture of nonchalance with existential consequences because, in short, there is a looming climate catastrophe. The crisis exacerbates pr-existing disparities, including racial discrimination addressed by Guston's late motifs.
There is another context that encourages this reflection by the admins of the 150 years old cultural nonprofit. The day before the Guston postponement announcement, MFA staff filed a petition to form a worker's union, representing 231 staff members. An election date by mail is set for late October. The union is a challenge to concentrated power. A small collective is in charge of decisions that impact the institution's employees, visitors, local communities, and the kinds of services provided and to whom. I hope Guston's reflections on power and corruption resonate within the Museum's administration, leading to a candid conversation with the community within and outside its walls. The MFA is a nonprofit, a public cultural institution, not an amoral corporation. To be inclusive, the institution has to exclude conflicting ideologies.
The administration communicated their opposition to the union, and in response to the announcement, hired a law firm with an anti-union history. A weapon can take many forms. Perhaps I was naive for thinking the administration might include in their artillery anecdotes from art history.
In 1980, when Guston died, a homeless teenager in New York City named Jean-Michel Basquiat was transitioning from making word-based graffiti in public spaces to drawings and paintings on moveable surfaces. As I'm writing this, the member preview is taking place for a show featuring Basquiat and his contemporaries at the MFA, titled Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-hop Generation. The context in Basquiat's work is diverse. Things he depicted include slave auctions, police brutality, black people's contributions to culture in America, and mural-sized triptychs filled with art historical references. Some of the themes addressed in his work are anti-black racism in America, capitalism, tokenization, and the art world's brutal commercialization, which contributed to his demise. He died alone at age 27 of a drug overdose.
The Basquiat show is sponsored by Bank of America. The admission fee is $30. There's a discounted option for the final entry timeslot on Wednesdays; the price type is labeled "$5 Wednesdays Presented by Chase". The shop displays aggressively priced merchandise covered in Basquiat's art, hoodies, bags, toy mascot figures. Shirts in collaboration with a clothing brand. There's a $600 chair featuring a painting with the phrase "per capita" drawn twice on the backrest. Since preparedness to present a show in contemporary context and respect for the artist mattered so much that three major American museums postponed a five-year effort by 2-4 years, how does one justify this showcase of Basquiat's work with its insensitive disregard for the context of his life and work?
family tree //
family tree, ‘18