In her new show at the University of Colorado-Boulder Art Museum, the artist Millie Chen explores alienation and memory by borrowing from historic images of violence: the site of a coup, a sky full of military choppers, a university where students were shot to death. Millie Chen: Four Recollections includes “Prototype” drawings that double as wallpaper mock-ups, with color scales in the margins for prospective production, and one example fully realized on a gallery wall. When I spoke with her, she declared, rather mysteriously: “The wallpaper is insidious.” Chen has made a drawing for every year of the 1970s, most decorated with patterns inspired by Op-art (also called optical art) and embedded with recognizable scenes of violence.
In “Prototype 1970” (2016), an orange sun sits high in the yellow sky, and its flat rays widen as they travel from their source — a familiar graphic not only in rock band posters of the decade, but also in Communist propaganda. (Only Mao’s smiling face, or a hammer and sickle, seem to be missing to complete the reference.) A swarm of helicopters flies toward a depiction of Mary Ann Vecchio, a witness to the Kent State shooting, who kneels in the foreground. In the famous picture from May 1970, Vecchio knelt in front of the dead body of a student, but here only her shadow is visible. Nearby are 7 men at a public shaming from China’s Cultural Revolution; rising in the center is a wild mass of Jimi Hendrix’s hair, threatening to eclipse the sun.
By combining the visual approach of wallpaper with iconic images of human suffering, Chen seems to illustrate a warning by the theorist Guy Debord: that spectatorship can dehumanize the people being watched. In The Society of Spectacle, Debord argues that spectacle — “the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity” — can be expressed through propaganda, entertainment, or iconography. Spectacle avoids supplementing a real lived experience, instead becoming an abstraction, or as he harshly calls it “added decoration.” Once images are isolated and accumulate copies, he says, they separate rather than unify society. Fittingly, in the last drawing in the series, “Prototype: 1979” (2016), people are almost entirely absent from scenes of Shahyad Square in Tehran and The Greensboro Massacre in North Carolina.
During World War II, Chen’s mother and grandparents fled from Chongqing, China to a farming village in Sichuan Provence. In the 1940s, they moved to Taiwan, where Chen was later born, and finally settled in Canada in 1968. Recently, Chen found a family photo that showed her grandmother, her mother as a child, and a Huangjueshu pasture in the background. Looking at the image, she mused that objects, not just images, are propelled from their origin by conflict.
The “egg MUSEUM” (2018) installation contains objects donated to the museum collection, but largely stripped of their provenance. A glazed pot, Persian tiles, a shard of colored glass all claim a pedestal. Three Buddhist illustrations on view were accessioned with evidence that they were payment to an American doctor, who was based in Cambodia before WWII. On his sea voyage home, he died, and the unopened crate that contained the artwork was sold by San Francisco customs authorities. Nearby, a monumental Chinese ancestor painting with 42 figures remains incomplete, the text boxes missing names. The people that anchored a family for generations are now anonymous.
Consulting university resources, Chen included objects she believed were associated with the Silk Road. Their lack of context could be problematic, but they take on new meaning alongside artifacts from the personal journey of her family matriarchy. The found photo of her 8-year-old mother and grandmother is enlarged and backlight, like a beacon to the castaways in the “egg MUSEUM.” As a final intervention, Chen encircles the gallery with tempera paintings of details from the photo, such as her grandmother’s fingers tucking her mother’s hair behind an ear. She renders two tangled sets of legs with such a gentle touch she recalls the affection with which Arshile Gorky painted his mother. The series also includes moments not in the found photo, such as Millie Chen cutting her mother’s hair. Her fragile nesting of generational stories into one image makes for a hopeful mediation.
By placing old objects in a new context, and adding an imaginative narrative to a family photograph, Millie Chen seems to acknowledge the fallibility of memory in “egg MUSEUM.” She gives the objects new lives, highlighting what connects them — painful stories of displacement — rather than focusing on what makes them personal or unique. Debord writes that “it is the historical moment that contains us.” But Chen suggests that maybe history doesn’t contain us — maybe we contain history. Spectacle can be destructive, but the shared act of looking, and looking back, can also build community and empathy.