(“The Talking Knots”, The Elephant House, Fo Tan (Hong Kong) 2012).
What would be the artistic result of uniting the culture of both Eastern and Western civilizations? How could the Asian conceptions of the world and nature blend with the European aesthetic taste? Through her art, Elia (a.k.a. The Elephant House) has intended to answer these questions as a way of finding her own identity.
Having been born in Hong Kong, she grew up in a traditional Chinese home and had an entirely Western (British) education. So, from young age, Elia has thought of herself as a mixture of these two worlds that do not seem to be able to blend together: “I feel like a bat living in the gap between the birds and the beasts”, she says. And it has been art the tool that she has decided to use with the intention of unifying these two worlds, in a voyage to discover her own identity.
Her work “The Talking Knots” (see picture below) works as an example of this intent to balance and unify East and West; humans and Nature. It can be considered as a “didactic installation”, due to the fact that it requires the audience’s assistance in order for it to exist. It is made solely of Chinese characters written with black ink on rice paper. The pieces of written rice paper are tied together into knots and then added to the main structure, creating the form of a tree’s roots.
The audience (how said before) is essential to the creative process because they are the one’s required to write on the rice paper and add the knots to the tree in order for it to be able to grow. The idea that the artwork analyzes is the people’s relation to their memories. Elia asked the audience: “If you could remember just one thing; if you could have one only memory, what would that memory be?” The audience, then, had to write that memory on the rice paper and tie it to the rest of the memories on the tree.
An interesting situation that happened in the creative process was that, due to the fact that the installation was open for the public on the eves of the Lunar New Year, people began to write New Year’s wishes instead of memories, shifting completely the meaning of the work. The main personal reason behind the creation of “The Talking Knots” was the death of two relatives very close to her. The artwork was meant as a way of approaching her memory of these people close to her and as a way of honoring her past. In this sense, it can be a considered as a very melancholic artwork; as a unique way of mourning the dead. But, the fact that the audience changed the rules of the game shifting from memories to wishes (from past to future) gave a radical twist to the artwork’s meaning. The audience had told her that the best way to cope with the past was not by staying tied to it, but on the contrary: by looking brightly at the future.
Nature is a fundamental theme in “The Talking Knots” and in all of Elia’s work. Her conception of Nature is strongly linked to and structured on the Eastern philosophies and religions but her artistic perception of nature is based on Western artists. Following Daoist belief, she tries to find union and balance between human and nature. Everything is structured around the idea that man and nature are one only thing, reason why one must not divide those two worlds but on the contrary: try to find a way to blend them.
Elia grabs from many different streams of thought in order to achieve her own art. How indicated before, she tends to look for Western structures to frame her Chinese content. She is strongly influenced by Western conceptual art, land art and the Art-Nouveau movement. She says that Antoni Gaudí’s naturalistic approach to architecture, “The Gates” (2005) installation in the Central Park (New York) done by the artist tandem Christo and Jeanne-Claude and the land art done by Andy Goldsworthy are fundamental influences on her own work. Even though she considers them very strong influences on her, one may notice many differences in these artists approach to nature and her own. As noted by the artist Law Man Lok, even though Elia’s art intends to have a very strong connection with nature, she does not actually work on and with nature on the same way that artists like Andy Goldsworthy would: Goldsworthy’s pieces are installations made in Nature and with natural objects, unlike Elia’s which are traditional installations or sculptures which simply mime the ways of nature.
From my humble point of view, I consider that the concept of memory, then, would be one of the fundamental themes of “The Talking Knots”. The artwork made me reflect deeply on my relation with my knowledge, my memories and my past. If I had the obligation of choosing only one thought, one memory from the millions of gigabytes inside my head, what would it be? How could I choose it? I saw it as a social critique to the contemporary society’s relation to information. An important form of memory for society in the last couple of centuries has been photography. It has been used as a medium for saving the memory of a specific moment in space-time that is thought to be worth remembering. With analogue cameras the memories of a trip or a special day were restricted by the quantity of film, reason why one had to choose very well when to use the camera and when not to – it can be considered a similar exercise as that asked to the audience in “The Talking Knots”-.
In today’s society, with digital photography, the selection of very special and specific memories has been erased by the possibility of making and storing an almost infinite quantity of photographs. These, instead of being cherished as valued memories of an event, become a titanic bulk of information -light and faces-, on a hard-disk inside a computer that no one will ever see again or even remember. Seeing it this way, it seems that the excess of information –or memories- can be considered as empty as not having any memories at all.