Ghost Stories Are All Love Stories
“My child, come back,” goes the opening line of an old poem reprinted in Maya Yu Zhang and Banyi Huang's video work. “Ghost Stories Are All Love Stories,” at the Clemente Gallery, a nonprofit center that emphasizes intradiasporic investigations, centers honoring one’s ghosts as a ritual act of care. In drawings, paintings and video work by Mei Kazama, Lu Zhang, Banyi Huang and Maya Yu Zhang, the operative mode is return—temporally, physically and spiritually.
Mei Kazama’s lovely and intimate elemental ink drawings, eight of which are on view in this exhibition, feature, among other motifs, merry-cheeked figures, fat blobs of raindrops and sproutlings, numbers and words in English and Japanese. Tendrils of plant and fire and fine ripples of water, rendered in exquisitely precise details in a fine-nib pen, weave throughout. The symbols and motifs are drawn from the artist’s everyday life, their New York City upbringing and Japanese heritage, as well as ritual objects and dreams. Formal repetition across works alludes to the temporal cycling and return that binds the exhibition together, as well as, Kazama said, “a process of reimaginging, reascribing, and renaming to see new possibilities and alternatives.”
Inspired by Wu, female shamans from the late Zhou period of China who communed with the spirit world, Banyi Huang’s Summoning Wind and Calling Rain (2021) reimagines that archetype as a fountain: a cloaked figure with the Chinese character for Wu inscribed over its face spews recirculated ink from his mouth, paintbrush in hand. The work is a meditation on the meaning of penning one’s own narrative, and perhaps the way that identity might shift from moment to moment. “Creating domestic, semifunctional objects allows me to access mythical narratives on a daily basis, and to create rituals around cohabitating with them,” Huang told me.
After Huang and Maya Yu Zhang came together as roommates, the collaborative video DONG 洞 (2021) rose out of housing instability they weathered during the pandemic. “The process of home building necessarily entails negotiating time and space with another body, and the histories that come with it,” Zhang said. A number of Huang’s artworks make cameos in the video, and Huang does as well, fluttering their white-, cobalt- and fuchsia-painted eyelids and gyrating against an undulating, digitally manipulated background. The resulting 9-minute work is fantastical, spectacular—“porno-horrific,” as the press release has it. Its Chinese title translates to, among a slew of other definitions and associations, “cave,” and more lewdly, “hole”: a psychospatial site of emotion and association including repressed desire, ancestral connection, and diasporic and sexual longing.
Lu Zhang’s oil painting Who Left the Light On For Me (2021) depicts her grandparents’ spotless living room, carefully maintained even years after their passing. Warmly lit but looming just a bit out of proportion, it appears like a fond memory warping at the edges. In her hometown of Xi’an, rituals with roots in Buddhism and Daosim dictate that the living maintain the quarters of the deceased as they were while they lived. “Everything was so familiar to the point of their passing was not real and it felt like they just went on a long trip,” she told me. Certain details—the worn, burnt-sienna leather couch, the quality of light—instilled in me the illusive sense that I was peering into my own grandparents’ house: a kind of dream state in which I could not be certain whether I was the one being haunted or the ghost. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Lu Zhang, Who Left the Light On For Me, 2021. Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches.