Summer Mei-Ling Lee: Requiem

Shotgun Review

Summer Mei-Ling Lee: Requiem

By Charmaine Koh January 16, 2018

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Charmaine Koh reviews Requiem at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

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Summer Mei-Ling Lee’s Requiem at the Chinese Culture Center (October 26–December 23, 2017) re-traces a search for homelands and final resting places—an infinity loop of yearning and memory that implicates viewer, artist, the Chinese migrants of yore who sought to return to China after death, and those who facilitated this return.

Summer Mei-Ling Lee. Requiem, 2017; Installation view. Courtesy of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

Entering the cavernous installation, I am forced to search. I hear indistinct murmurs in Mandarin or Cantonese, but I can see nothing. I finally catch a glimpse of translucent white cloth, and what appears to be old Chinese buildings painted on the walls—though when I move closer, all I can see are dried-out, greyish streaks. Scene after scene appear and disappear as I move through the rooms, until I face a small, worn casket on a pedestal, bathed in light, with a chair placed before it. From the shadows beyond emerges a grid of boxes, as inscrutable as the scenes are elusive.

This casket is a bone box, a receptacle for the bones of the dead. Tens of thousands of such boxes, containing the remains of Chinese migrants to the US during the era of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, were repatriated to China—these migrants did not want to be buried in the US, a land that by virtue of the Act considered them permanent aliens; they wanted to finally return to their hometowns and villages, which they could not visit in their lifetime as they would be denied re-entry to the US. Not all the bone boxes have made it back—the scenes on the walls, depicting various places in the repatriation journey, are painted in ash leftover from incense burnt in respect to remains that have yet to, and likely will never be claimed.1 

Summer Mei-Ling Lee. Requiem, 2017; Installation view. Courtesy of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

A requiem is an act of remembrance. Yet, it can only be an act—concrete, definite, delimited in its time frame—when what one remembers is equally certain. In Requiem, I am left holding the loose threads of misty rememberings—of descendants for their migrant ancestors, of those ancestors for long-lost origins, of Lee trying to re-trace their steps, of myself trying to re-trace hers. The requiem becomes a process without end as home—a place one should be able to find one’s way blindfolded to—dissolves into a site of searching, filled with not presence, but longing.

Requiem was on view at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, October 26­­–December 23, 2017.

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Charmaine Koh is a visual artist and writer based in the Bay Area. Her interests include the mediated experience of place and belonging in postcolonial and immigrant contexts.

Notes

  1. Over 200 bone boxes remain in Tung Wah Coffin Home in Hong Kong, where boxes were housed temporarily before being claimed by family members or delivered back to hometowns and villages in China. Tung Wah Coffin Home is part of Tung Wah Hospital, which has been at the heart of these repatriation efforts.

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