TIME: THE FUTURE ARCHAEOLOGY OF ANNIE WAN
EXCAVATING THE FUTURE UNKNOWN
ACCORDING TO THE Hong Kong novelist Dung Kai-Cheung, future archaeology is a dialectical method to create the present. Its aim is “to see the future as a happened fact, and to see the past as a potential that is yet to come.” It allows one to be released from the restraints of linear time, to linger between expectation and nostalgia in search of possibilities to experience the world.
The work of Hong Kong Artist Annie Lai-kuen Wan resembles that of a future archaeologist. She uses ceramic molding as a creative means to congeal the form of everyday objects in ceramic. Subjects for reproduction range from disposable plastic cups to a pair of reverent praying hands, from an old street sign from Wanchai to a sunlit corner building in Denmark. Wan meticulously reproduces ordinary objects and explores their microscopic worlds.
In 2004, during a residency in Denmark, Wan created a set of replicas of cans to document her first experience of canned fish at a local supermarket. Unable to read Danish, Wan felt overwhelmed by the variety of choices. The cans came in all different shapes and sizes; all of them pristinely white. Interestingly, Wan later discovered that her Danish friends were able to decipher a can’s brand and contents solely by its shape. Lost in Translation Among Danish Canned Fish is an exact mimic of these canned products; the whiteness of the ceramic conveys Wan’s bewilderment, her blank state of mind when first encountering the language barrier. This also revealed Wan’s hope—the hope to understand these canned fish products, the hope of no longer confusing a can of salmon with that of tuna. One day at a time, Wan became acquainted with their forms. These ordinary objects began to come alive; they cried, sang, flew, and even had sex. The works create an imaginative world full of emotions and desires, and re-interpret her past experience of cross-cultural communication.
INSPECTION OF OBJECT AND THE HUMAN BODY
BY THE POWER of fantastical imagination alone, Wan’s ceramic works connect the present with the future. At the same time, her detailed imitation of daily objects reveals her sentiments toward the past. In Object · Impression, Wan wavers between running shoes, vintage radios, purses and other personal accessories. Clay is pressed against each original item to produce a negative impression, which is then carefully trimmed, folded and touched up to reproduce the “original,” at which point previously unnoticed cracks, scratches, and other signs of prolonged wear and tear stick out. The positives/negatives and concavities/convexities of everyday objects are reversed in this series of work. The replicas are strangely familiar, inviting audiences to ponder the stories behind them. How did the objects and their owners meet? How have they changed over time? How did they come to bear the marks that define them? By re-contextualizing functional objects as art objects, audiences are invited to trace the histories of things—be this through the scratches left on a calculator or the creases marking a pair shoes—and to re-examine the meaning of daily life.
To Wan, molding is not only a way of inspecting the world; it is also her surrealist interpretation of the known and unknown. Clay is a malleable material that allows the artist to freely and precisely render an imitation of reality. Interestingly, its form is often distorted by contraction under the fire of the kiln. Wan takes advantages of such distortion in To Demonstrate the Evolution of Spoon from Hand, in which she presents a fictional history of tool evolution. The evolution begins with a slightly fisted hand that undergoes multiple passes of recasting and firing. The hand that once seemed to hold a secret evolves into a gentle mountain range that subsequently transforms yet again into a fluffy wisp of cloud. As a future archaeologist, Wan highlights the dynamic interactions between human and objects and reveals how human beings create objects that extend beyond the limitations of body. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, her work fabricates the past, imagines the future, and proposes a new perspective for viewing the present.
THE SENSIBILITY OF TIME
WHETHER IT IS a moment in time extended into the future, or a transformation from human to object, the key to Wan’s practice lies not in inspecting material civilization, nor is it about formal replication. Instead, its concern is change—the dynamics of transformation and the transience of time. The ceramic works, as a tangible form and record, embody the subtle changes of life.
In Infinitive Horizon/Ruin, different types of clay are used to replicate 180 discarded books. Wan paints wet clay over the pages and fills in the gaps within the book. After the firing process, the papers disintegrate while the clay fillings are left behind. Some of these ceramic books are toasted to whiteness, while others are over-burnt and charred. Some look like eroded debris cemented to form strata of sedimentary rocks, while others are chipped, scarred, and sparsely covered with grass. Wan lays out these books in an orderly composition that sets a tone of desolation. Wan’s gesture of painting wet clay over the pages is an imitated act of reading between the lines, flipping through the pages, and reflecting upon the message. The work embodies the reading process, which involves preserving useful information and deleting the useless—embracing the birth of new ideas and the crumbling of old concepts. It becomes, then, the ruins of these books, which were discarded due to their obsolescence. Yet, they still withstand the test of time in this ceramic form of remembrance.
Time is the essence of Wan’s work. For Crafting a Reverse Scenario for a Lost Sheep, Wan put ceramic clay, bean sprouts, and ceramic sheep figurines into sealed glass containers. In these containers, the air, the moisture of clay, and the sprouts together created a micro-ecosystem that enabled fungus and sprouts too grow into a fantastical natural landscape. Each glass container carried different levels of moisture and air—thus it was not guaranteed that the earliest completed container would produce the most vibrant greenery. These micro-ecologies do not follow the linear order of the four seasons. Instead, they trace an unpredictable life pattern. In one container, the sheep figurine covered in white fungus stands lost in “snow.” In another, the sheep are covered in verdant green, and lie resting below a tree of bean sprouts. In these worlds, time is not linear, nor is it irreversible. Wan shows genesis, prosperity, decay and death to be, in fact, part of the same natural cycle of being. She poignantly documents their states of being and creates an extension of reality that enables audiences to rethink temporal pace and the lifecycle of the individual.
There is a time for making, and a time for destroying, a time to remember, and a time to forget. In order to hold the tides of time, Annie Wan, the future archaeologist, collects, documents, and preserves the flimsy evidence of being through her ceramic works. By rendering life experiences and feelings tactile with clay, Wan generates new possibilities for relating to the world, for rediscovering who we are and what we aspire to be in the spatial and temporal context of being.