Art

A Poetic Feast Conjures Familial Immigrant Histories

Rather than being haunted by the past, Jane Wong views “going toward the ghost” as a method of reclaiming her family’s silenced histories.

Jane Wong, “Altar” (2019), artificial oranges and flowers, electric candles, candle holder, funeral money, paper envelopes, maneki-neko, ceramic cups, rice wine, air plant, reproductions of artist’s family photographs, digital text animation, dimensions variable, framed photographs: 16 x 20 in. each (courtesy of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle)

SEATTLE — A red glow hovers over the works in Jane Wong’s exhibition After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. The lighting choice seems artificial, particularly when cast over Wong’s installations of plastic “Thank You” bags, fake flowers, and snack food packaging. Yet it also feels warm and comforting. This duality is emblematic of the intertwined territories Wong navigates in her work.

Wong is a Seattle-based artist and poet whose creative and scholarly works address what she calls a “poetics of haunting” — the social, political, and cultural constructs impacting Asian American immigrant poets. Rather than being haunted by the past, Wong views “going toward the ghost” as a method of reclaiming forgotten histories. Wong’s “ghosts” relate to hunger, gluttony, food, and food waste; she grew up in a Chinese American restaurant in New Jersey, while her mother lived through the Great Famine in 1960s China. In After Preparing the Altar, she closes gaps in her family’s silenced history by deftly interpreting and honoring their experiences through a merging of sculpture and poetry.

Jane Wong, installation view of After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly, 2019. (courtesy of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, photo by Jueqian Fang)

In “Altar” (2019), Wong has arranged objects, including artificial oranges and flowers, electric candles, funeral money, paper envelopes, maneki-neko, and rice wine to conjure a sense of celebration, abundance, and gratitude. Centered behind the altar is a digital monitor displaying four of Wong’s poems on loop. In “After He Travels Through Ash, My Grandfather Speaks” (2019), she writes, “Can you believe it, how I’ve forgotten the sounds of cars … I don’t remember … how Chinese soap operas loop like precious snakes along my apartment’s walls.” Here, she takes on the voice of her grandfather, grappling with fading memories of China. In another poem, “A Cosmology” (2018), she writes, “The rotting/ head of broccoli in my grandmother’s/ bowl blooms with power and I set/ an altar, the altar billows/ with ferns good in any soup.” Wong goes toward the ghost with these poems by assuming the perspective of an ancestor, honoring the importance of food security to her family.

Wong’s candid family photos flank “Altar.” The shots feel familiar, depicting moments relatable to many. By proposing these photographs and everyday objects as worthy of reverence, she invites viewers to recall and honor their own ancestral stories.

Jane Wong’s family (Courtesy of the artist)
Jane Wong as a child eating (courtesy of the artist)

Past “Altar,” two poems, “Hand on Heart” (2018) and “What Is Love If Not Rot?” (2019), are printed on vinyl and adhered to opposing gallery walls. The language in “What Is Love If Not Rot?” is arresting. “I’ve been watching videos of rotting oranges on time-lapse again,” Wong begins. While detailing the slow process of decay, she weaves in references to her family (“like cotton lint from the dryer, like fur, like a sheepskin cloud, like my mother — an animal in her own right, expanding”) and ends the poem by describing the orange, liquified after 45 days, as “ever-shrinking like every grandparent I’ve ever held hands with.” The poem looks at the trauma passed down from previous generations to her own as intertwined with the temporal limitations of life; if Wong does not reclaim her family’s stories, they’ll shrink over time.

In the center of the exhibition space, “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly” (2019) commands attention. A 15-foot-wide table is covered in a bright gold surface resembling joss paper. Hanging above it, plastic bags brimming with fake fruit and flowers suggest manufactured abundance. On the table, bowls containing segments of vinyl text are arranged to form a poem. To read the entire poem, the viewer must circle the table, connecting each line to the next. The bowl-poem feels like an offering of fragmented, surreal memory. Lines like “the bloated sun we want to slice open and yolk/ all over the village” conjure a vivid image of hunger and desperation, while the dream of more is expressed in lines like, “globes of oranges/ swallowed whole like a basketball or Mars or whatever/ planet is the most delicious.”

Jane Wong, installation view of After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly, 2019. (courtesy of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, photo by Jueqian Fang)
Jane Wong, installation view of After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly, 2019. (courtesy of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, photo by Jueqian Fang)

The show concludes withHow Are You (Have you Eaten Yet)(2019), a sculpture made of plywood, house paint, and LED lights, mimicking the look of a neon sign and presumably referencing Wong’s upbringing in a Chinese American restaurant. Centered on the back wall and aligned with the table installation, the sculpture’s position creates a sense of balance and finality. The piece can be seen from any spot in the gallery space, inviting viewers to consider the title’s question.

Wong’s poetic references to hunger, decay, food, and family help ground her installations in a narrative framework that heightens viewers’ immersion in and understanding of the artwork. Given the poetry’s vivid activation of the senses, however, the vinyl lettering on the wall feels flat and simplistic; allowing viewers to touch or otherwise interact with the text, as in Ann Hamilton’s CHORUS or Johanna Tagada’s Épistolaire Imaginaire, would have been more engaging.

Jane Wong (courtesy of the artist, photo by Helene Christensen)

The exhibition’s strength is in Wong’s conceptual offerings, sacrifices, and moments of gratitude. The plastic “Thank You” bags float above a table with no food. An altar of uneaten crackers and oranges rests beneath poems honoring ancestral memory. By “going toward the ghost,” Wong achieves her dualistic vision; she honors histories of both hunger and abundance. In this way, her poetics of haunting encourage viewers to fearlessly consider their own family’s silenced histories. As she writes in “A Cosmology,” “I will not be afraid/ that the world is about power./ My ghosts fill me with feathers,/ my lungs: a mane unplucked.”

Jane Wong: After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly continues at the Frye Art Museum (704 Terry Avenue, Seattle, Washington) through September 1.

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