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  • Simon Wu


By Simon Wu

After the circuit broke on an old floor lamp that my mom found on the street, we didn't throw it out, because she wanted to keep the stand to prop up the pea shoots in her garden. The fate of that lamp was not dissimilar to many other objects in my parents’ house, all made to live multiple lives: Plastic water bottles snipped in half to store pennies and paper clips. Torn shirts used as mops. Detergent boxes to store beauty powder. This was actually resourceful, but I was embarrassed about it. I was jealous of my friend’s houses, where objects could live simple, frivolous lives. A cereal box was to be used and then discarded. A lamp that no longer worked was removed from sight immediately. A sofa could work part-time, collecting dust in a room full of furniture that lazed about in slovenly repose, called on for rarefied uses like “visiting guests” and “interviews.” And artworks, those were objects that seemed the furthest away. They were objects that had found their way into a perpetual and singular retirement––a life of celebrity, agelessness, and display.

When the pandemic began, I moved back in with my parents and we started sorting through a lot of their stuff. It’s been 26 years since my parents moved to the United States from Myanmar with me. I wanted to throw everything out. I was sick of the glut. I put old lamps in trash bags and replaced cardboard boxes with plastic ones from Target. I replaced the shirt mops with towels.

I thought about my parents’ stuff when I saw Maia Ruth Lee’s Bondage Baggage Prototype 4 (2018) for the first time in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Lee’s sculptures are inspired by recreations of luggage that she grew up seeing in the Kathmandu Tribhuvan Airport in Nepal. Little stacks of bundled things in blue and white plaid, or old bedding, or tarp. They’re cute––colorful little blobs tied together with twine and rope––but they’re also a little sad and forlorn, like roaming toddlers or lost luggage. They remind me of clutching your elbows, hugging yourself, trying to hold on to something as you’re moving from place to place.

The other component of Lee’s installation at the Whitney Biennial was LABYRINTH, 2019, a collection of squiggly metal shapes installed on a large blue wall. Each shape was meant to symbolize a feeling or an experience otherwise insufficiently expressed through existing language. The “glyphs,” as Lee called them, were made from low-grade steel leftovers from fences, windows, or other structures usually built for security walls or for delineating property boundaries. She describes them as “a cross between pictographs and talismans” and has made more than 250 to date, producing them intuitively in her studio.

To me, Lee’s glyphs are an absurdist language born of the interstitial space of living between cultures. If I saw them with my parents, my mom would likely applaud the re-use of materials, and maybe we could fashion new meanings for these glyphs together––a new origin language other than Burmese or English. For Lee, whose parents were both linguists, the glyphs derive from an interest in creating new means of communication and connection. Part of reading these symbols dips into the divine. A guide that accompanies the glyphs details the “Nine Universal Laws” that govern the shapes, from Karma to Knowledge and Healing to Perspective.

I met Lee later in 2019, when she brought a class of young students to MoMA through the after-school program that she directs, Wide Rainbow. I was working at the museum at the time and helped arrange a tour. Her non-profit program introduces local middle- and high-school girls to visual arts through workshops with female artists and visits to galleries and museums. When we met, I told her I was a “big fan” but I think she wasn’t sure what I meant. Writing now, I think what I meant to say was that I admired her holistic approach to art making. For Lee, object-making is only one node of a multi-pronged practice. The education she enables for another generation through Wide Rainbow is a key part of her art and her exploration of language, diaspora, and access. “When it comes to work,” Lee has said, “I would say Wide Rainbow is like 70% and the rest of my work is like 30%. Maybe even more actually—maybe even 80% and 20%.” I love grappling with all of that gummy, difficult stuff, that 80%, the “stuff around the stuff” ––the social relations that surround the artwork, and the social relations that they prompt us to think about.

The theme of this year’s prize is “The Future.” I’m hesitant to ascribe sweeping statements to all five artists. But I will say that they all, in different ways and at different times, made me think about my relationship to my parents. Maybe, in that way, they suggest that the future is partly to be found in the past. I don’t think that these artists were explicitly thinking about their parents (perhaps some), but I do think that together, they are processing, deconstructing, rejecting, and re-tooling that which they’ve inherited from a world before them for their own futures. If the project of the future is one of remembering, what do we save and what do we throw out?


My parents didn’t end up seeing Lee’s sculptures. They didn’t see the 2019 Whitney Biennial either; they don’t see a lot of art at all. But there’s a lot of art in their lived experience. For example, we could call their compulsive saving a kind of “archival impulse,” or their creative reuse of containers a sort of “decontextualized readymade.” This has more to do with the viewer than the object––sometimes I can’t turn my art-viewing brain off when I visit them and my childhood home begins to look like an elaborate, manic installation.

But rather than try to fit more of the world under modernist tropes, I study my parents for the ways that they interact with art. They both have an eye for it, even if life had other plans for them, and they open me up to forms of aesthetic experience that exist above, below, and around the operations of modern and contemporary art. I love the memento cookies they save from weddings, the free cup they saved from my college move in, the McDonald’s Happy Meal toys on their nightstand. This is something that I’m happy to let live outside of the light of theory and discourse, to just be.


Two years before I met Lee at MoMA, I learned of Jes Fan through artist friends who admired his work. Fan is interested in excavating the social construction of terms like family, race, and gender via their presumed biological components. He makes goopy, shiny, spindly sculptures that often include biological substances like melanin, semen, and blood. In a sculpture like Systems II (2018), a thin armature seemingly rendered of flesh supports glass orbs that hold melanin. The contrast between the monstrous social constructions (i.e. race) that tiny molecule is responsible for and how pathetic it looks there is comical. But the work that really gets me is Mother is a Woman (2018), where Fan presented a commercial for a lotion of estrogen extracted from his mother’s urine. At Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery in 2018, samples of the actual lotion were available, prompting visitors to wonder what it would mean to be “feminized” through the artist’s mother.

When I told my mother I was gay she thought that I wanted to be a woman, or that I was trans, because there is no such distinction between sexuality and gender in Burmese culture. I’m not trans, and I’m grateful that over conversation she could come to understand more of the nuances of these terms. Watching Mother is a Woman, I found that Fan’s work literally tries to close this gap between the notions of gender that one generation holds and that another is undoing, as you watch him rub the lotion onto his skin.

It also plumbs the relationship between science and faith. I’m definitely less religious than my parents. I grew up with a shrine in my house. I was raised Buddhist. We were accustomed to the rituals of religion, but didn’t feel any particular attachment to its social rules, not as much as my parents did growing up in Myanmar. But science, or believing that small entities are responsible for the life force within us (as we’ve been reminded by the pandemic), requires its own faith. There’s spiritualism in Lee’s work as well, if we return to her practice for a moment: “Horoscopes have become a ‘code for feelings’ in our everyday lives,” she said. “I think about my steel glyphs that way as well. I mentioned talismans, and that is what I mean by it. Using these glyphs to ward off certain negative aspects of your life, for example. It’s amusing.” Lee’s turn to the spiritual feels familiar, particularly for a younger generation caught within great political and ecological uncertainty but wary of the social conservatism of the religions of their parents. In fact, neo spiritualism, or the pursuit of the ineffable, the invisible, the unrepresentable––which we might say is pervasive in a lot of art––felt particularly present in these artists’ work.

I’d argue it is in Miljohn Ruperto’s work too. His work feels steeped in memory, history, and fiction; it seeks to reframe lesser-known histories and moments in time. In the Appearance of Isabel Rosario Cooper, 2006–2010, 16mm film, part of a series of four films, he researched and conjured the life of Isabel Rosario Cooper, the late Philippine actress who was also a lover of General MacArthur. In Appearance, Ruperto focuses on Cooper, rendering entire shots in soft focus to narrow the eye on her figure. Even with this focus, it is apparent that she is never the center of the camera’s eye—only Ruperto’s filter makes it appear that way. She plays a myriad of side characters, from a nurse, to a servant, to a geisha. Ruperto creates a gaze on the cinematic screen that doesn’t exist elsewhere, one that centers this Asian woman. It’s an oddly intimate experience, as there are hundreds of other people on the screen, but your attention is fixed on her and her movements. It feels as if she were performing just for you.

Ruperto has said that he was drawn to Cooper’s story because her narrative presented a “particular intersection of colonialism, ghost story, Hollywood clichés, and body politics.” But this isn’t a straightforward project of representation. Ruperto makes it clear that he uses fiction and Hollywood strategies to oppose an historicizing process—that in fact the show is not part of a larger historical context of re-situating Asian American images and personalities: “I just meant my project isn’t to fix Cooper in history. … My project is more like a medium’s, where I call forth her ghost to haunt the present. So instead of clarifying the works themselves obscure instead.” I see this as one generation looking at another, finding points of connection across time and space. And, as it turns out, Cooper was from Paco, the Manila neighborhood where Ruperto grew up.

This interest in the ghostly, or submerged past, also occupies Los Angeles–based artist Candice Lin, who works with heavily researched installations that activate little-known histories of resistance. In System for a Stain (all works cited, 2016), prized colonial commodities like tea and cochineal were converted into a dark red liquid reminiscent of blood. In A Hard White Body, her 2017 show at Bétonsalon Center for Art and Research in Paris, visitors were invited to urinate into a receptacle where the collective pee was distilled, mixed with water from the Seine, and steeped with dried herbs before being expelled through a misting device, a process of biological transformation akin to the practice of Jes Fan. These kinds of deconstructed, ailing apparatuses often mirror a sinister operation of colonialism or a dysfunctional body.

And this interest in a kind of neutered, or distorted “kinship” through bodily and “spectral” traces exists elsewhere in Lin’s practice. In Spice, her first solo show in New York at Ludlow 38 in 2019, she reflected on the medicinal histories of the Asian American community in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Filling the room with mixtures of real Chinese medicines and those that she constructed through her research, she looked at the relationship between notions of racial purity, architectural space, and Eastern medicine. Lin has confessed that she embraces the field of anthropology as a kind of science fiction, and her drawings and exhibition tactics often mix strategies familiar to the display and dissemination of the “natural” sciences and those of art. This mixture of traditional knowledge with a skepticism of empirical scientific knowledge feels in vogue today. I grew up taking all kinds of random medicines that my parents had found for me, most of which I later rejected under the pretense of rationalism. But as public tides have shifted and I’ve read more, I realized that some of these knowledges have stuck around for this long for a reason.


When I worked at MoMA I used to go down to see Wu Tsang’s We hold where we study (2017) during my lunch breaks and cry. What their work demonstrates to me is not only a way of artmaking, but the difficult, pleasurable possibilities of living as a marginalized body. This sort of ineffable space feels embodied in the work of Moved by the Motion, Tsang’s collaborative group. It’s maybe best described by poet Fred Moten’s concept of the “undercommons”: a sort of space of study, mourning, and being-together that has always, already existed outside of structures of oppression and subjugation. In a film like The show is over (2021), figures move about as if depicted in some kind of otherworldly light. It feels like they are grasping at something that white society has made unknowable, that society has made them forget. And in their movement, they are remembering. In the film, the camera moves continuously between individual choreographies and movements and actions of the group. They ascend and descend a Penrose triangle––a triangle that connects and separates the performers depending on their perspective. The film lingers around a poem of Moten’s called “Come on, get it!” There’s mud, and water, and dramatic lighting, and it visualizes the way the undercommons feels, a kind of politics of (in)visibility.

This sense of covert, purposefully opaque activity by marginalized bodies is perhaps what’s hinted at in the “Network” sculptures that Jes Fan showed at the Liverpool Biennial in 2021. These complex glass sculptures that hold black mold look like a 3D map of fugitive pathways to gather and meet underneath some unnamed city––Network (For Survival), Network (For Dispersal), Network (For Staying Low to the Ground), 2021. And Moved by the Motion seems to live this kind of network, collaborating freely and openly, at times surfacing and other times lying in wait. It’s like the way the majority of Lee’s “work” lies outside of her objects, the 80%––the art that is in the living.

Perhaps it’s because the perspective of my parents––immigrants from Myanmar––feels invisible in contemporary art that I think about them often when I’m at an exhibition. I mean, a lot of perspectives are invisible in art, but I wonder what my parents would think of what I’m watching or experiencing. It’s this type of inquiry, into what is going on above, below, and around the accepted ways of thinking, that led me to reconsider throwing all of my parents’ stuff out. I took my parent’s resourcefulness for cheapness, but they were only preparing for a doomsday that could come at any time, as guests in America. My throw-everything-away mindset was a luxury of being raised with the knowledge of a safety net: you can righteously shed your survival mechanisms when you don’t have to question your survival. We hadn’t yet learned how to waste like Americans, but did I want to learn that?

There’s a common saying that immigrant children are able to walk through doors that their parents cannot. Part of this is a process of absorbing American customs to survive, even those that are less than savory: wastefulness, overworking, orthodox individualism. And often that comes at the cost of shedding what feels like backwards ideals from parents. But it doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything that has been given, nor does it mean that we have to accept it blindly. There’s an alternative to this inheritance. What I am saying is, I think I’m trying to write into this gray space that thinking about the past produces, that these artists produce. A space where memory, the future, collectivity, and knowledge feel like they’re being rethought. So I want these anecdotes about my parents to linger beside all of this artwork, to cohabitate in the same book in the same ink, only pages away, working with the artists to pull us deeper into this space of possibility.


Simon Wu is a writer and curator based in New York.


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