Somewhere every culture has an imaginary zone for what it excludes, and it is that zone we must try to remember today.
Catherine Clément (Cixous, 1987)
The sky at dusk, suddenly appears filled with what resembles dramatic darkening cloud formations, only they seem to be moving far more rapidly than the usual billowing low stratus. Gradually this blurred mass reveals itself to be an immense swarm of birds, beginning to gather momentum as they dart and shift their swirling way in the air. It is a strangely enigmatic series of moving images, emerging as a shimmering, hovering mass of striated marks, dark against the backdrop of the sky. The suddenness, by which they move towards the steel under-side of a cast iron, coastal pier, built out on the sea, reveals an intensely beautiful, if somewhat puzzling, natural formation. They look, to all intense and purposes, as if one of them is leading the mass, and the rest, instinctively follow. Engaged as they appear in some self-driven or self-propelled system, it is impossible to perceive any one particular bird, but instead, what Deleuze and Guattari write of as ‘swarms of difference’, flows and movements in which the birds create their own spatial, temporal rhythms.
This is how one begins to encounter Suki Chan’s, long opening-shot of her elegant and compelling video, Interval II, which features variable slow motion shots, splintered time, and a seeming diffraction of something taken at a distance. Ambitious in its aspirations, Interval II engages the viewer with a direct feeling of the flow of time and draws specifically on the Deluzian notion of ‘intensities’. Interval II is strongly evocative of the connection to ‘swarming’ where plurality – in this case the birds, become a spectacular unity.
In his book on Deleuze, the political philosopher Tod May, notes, ‘Here is a way of seeing the world that does not consist of identities that form or reform themselves, but of swarms of difference’, that actualize themselves into specific swarms of identity…From their place within identities, these forms of difference assure that the future will be open to novelty, to new identities, and new relationships among them. (May, 2005 p.114).
Here we might refer to the distinction drawn by Deleuze who sees “identities” not as actual, or in the present, but of “virtual” or “simulated”, produced as an optical ‘effect’ by the more profound game of difference and repetition’ (Deleuze 1968, xix). Certainly, this idea of becoming multiplicities of identities, to evoke something about the nature of time and space, connects with Chan’s virtual rendering of the atmospheric sky of the Northern English coastal resort of Blackpool, into which the birds emerge, when gradually, we are transported into another place and time: peering alternatively into the stunning, galaxy of stars at night, out from the centre of the castleaid round houses of China’s, Fujian province. Such shifting landscapes that appear as a result of her physical and cinematic wanderings back to her ancestral Hakka roots, has the effect of making the viewer conscious of-seeing as- rather than something to be understood in a moment. Interval II reflects as much upon themes such as transience, non-place, and the nomadic existence in her world, as much as it does on the static as a function of movement and the relationship between buildings, place and dwelling.
Inevitably, links have been made by other writers regarding Interval II, between Suki Chan’s personal life as a child leaving Hong Kong for Britain and the association to the broader migratory movements of Chinese people. The artist also has connected the symbolic use of birds in flight; to her family’s own migration in the ‘80’s from Hong Kong to England. Such “new migrants’ from Hong Kong and China were formed out of second generation family members, working in local Chinese restaurants, and more recently, greater numbers of students who have taken up diasporic lives, some have returned, others have remained away from home, starting up business to support existing family ventures, elsewhere. Yet there is also the darker side of the historical links between the vast manpower contribution of Chinese labourers as migrant workers, back to the 19th century, when many were set to work building railways and roads, until their contribution to the workforce, was ultimately seen as a threat to their host country’s labour policies, connecting them ‘ to “a vast-hive” from which they might swarm’
Although her work does not deal directly with such historically ethnic and racial issues, Suki Chan does explore notions of the ‘guest people’ (Hakka) through transitions; conflicts of living between places, belonging to nowhere, and of memories of migration. There is also a connection to her own subconscious childhood associations, as well as the greater migratory collective experience through the global shifting grounds of the Chinese Diaspora. Similarly, the specific birds she captures on film form various visible colonies, many of which are scattered around the world- and may allude to the situation of the people of Hong Kong under its former British and other colonial rulers and to those who left Hong Kong prior to its return to China.
Suki Chan’s commitment to capturing the persuasive relationship between images of these extraordinary roundhouse structures, and events as they unfurl in the Hakka’s day-to-day life, is possible through orchestrating the intricate movement between real places and ordinary every-day things. Through the use of extremely long takes and of experiencing real-time but in a slow, more considered way, rather than momentary snapshots, the artist’s video of the Hakka’s interiors, and inner central courtyards, presents itself as a tableau. It is as if our view is framed, as a theatrical backdrop awaiting the players. A stage that is in a potential state of becoming, yet at the same time, an endless continuum of places and obscure objects that comes in and out of view.
The artist attempts to encapsulate time, as simple images of home: curtains, a lit-bulb, fade in and out, and then re-cross our visual field. Frame after frame, sometimes drifting or over-layering, like a palimpsest of visual narratives, the images emerge and quietly recede from view, it is as if we are revisiting seen or unseen worlds, both past and present merging simultaneously.
Shadows abound, and move between walls, in these disintegrating interiors. There is a strong sense of the familiar, the home, (Heimlich) yet strangely unfamiliar (unheimlich-the uncanny), to impose Freud’s conflicting terms in her chosen images, where nothing is quite what it seems; yet everything is gradually ready to reveals themselves, through glimpses and insights into other realities.
Or else we might consider the notion of a ‘domestic nostalgia of memory’ that the 19th century art essayist, Walter Pater writes of, in regard to the passing of history itself, or what he terms “other pasts that refuse to remain at a proper distance”. Here, we are dealing with “the wandering unfortunate spirit born out of his rightful place and time, dedicated to the resuscitation of a dead culture”. (Vidler 1992, p 59.)
Suki Chan’s work is also a navigation of wandering, between modern-technology, and art, as can be seen with images from the industrialized cast iron piles, of Blackpool’s Northern-most-pier, to the stunning formations of Chinese Hakka round-houses in Fujian. In this respect her work is both tied to the past yet residing fully in the present. What appears to be empty buildings, in Fujian, devoid of life, are in fact habited, but rarely do people cross the image, it is as if they remain perpetually in transition, flickering memories of their inhabitance embodied rather, in her sound images and shadowy interiors, rather than in any physical form.
Where light, entering through a window, reflects surfaces and objects, the resulting anamorphic, shadows fill the celluloid to create haunting, elongated silhouettes. Fragments of lace curtains with their ethereal, web-like detailed patterning, evoke the interconnectedness or threads between the materiality of personal taste; the making-a-home and of retaining the folds of time past, whilst simultaneously, responding in some sense, to the transienceness of memories and the drifting of time.
Throughout Interval II, Chan is interested in how we all experience the temporal space of the reality around us; how might we recall traces of the past; those that unite or separate long forgotten objects, altered structures, and subtle sounds- those echolocations? Ultimately, we might suggest, Interval II is resistant to what might be perceived as the destructive elements of time and the inevitable loss of the ‘house’, or of history, yet, her work is also connected to wandering; a journey through her real life recollections interwoven with infinite possibilities through fields of memories.
Cixous, Hélène Catherine Clément, 1996, The newly born woman
Betsy Wing, Sandra M. Gilbert, Theory and history of literature, Vol. 24, Manchester University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles.2001, Difference and Repetition, London, Athlone
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Fèlix. 1992, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London, Continuum.
May, Tod, 2005, Gilles Deleuze, An Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Vidler, Anthony, 1992, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, London, MIT Press.
Chinese Immigration Report, 1876 44TH Congress, 2d Session. Senate report, No. 689. pp. 76-77 and 78-79; pp. 666-667. Despite an unrestricted ‘open door’ policy, as the one in California after the United States, introduced the Burlington Treaty (1868), for migrant Chinese workers, only to have an ensuing backlash- connecting them in a Government report, to ‘a vast hive’ from which they might swarm