Patty Chang

Photography David Kelley

By Paige K. Bradley

After the artist Patty Chang moved to Los Angeles in 2017 in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave, she found herself in the summer of 2018 on the move again, but this time straight to the air-conditioned, tranquil environs of the sage green-upholstered Huntington Library’s Ahmanson Reading Room in southern California. In seeking a cool place to read and focus away from the region’s pummeling light and dry Fahrenheit, the artist found space to unburden herself of other things as well, namely by making a list of her fears and anxieties. Having moved from New York after decades of living and working there, and with the recent addition of a young child in her life, she had a lot on her mind: “I was thinking about not only the state of the body but the state of the mind when you’re lactating.” The listing of her anxieties turned into a meditation on “the things that we think about as individuals that we don’t share...these internalized invisible thoughts.” Documenting such became about “relating the exposure of language to the exposure of fluids.”

This simple action, with all its fraught implications as a testament to letting vulnerability be visible, or allowing it to flow out, became the seed for her latest project. Since that blistering afternoon at the library, it’s grown into a multichannel video installation titled Milk Debt in which appears a number of women reciting a compendium of various fears, both their own and those of unseen participants who have contributed their own version of Chang’s list to the piece. As they do so, the audience watches breast-pumping machines simultaneously harvesting milk from the performers’ nipples.

Back in 2012, Chang’s pregnancy emerged as a distinct narrative thread while she traveled through Uzbekistan during a series of research trips taken over a number of years for her project The Wandering Lake (2009-2017). Initiated as an exploration of the alleged location of a body of water in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of western China, her open-ended quest soon expanded into an investigation of the then-disappearing Aral Sea in central Asia. This physical journey as a line of intellectual inquiry into disputed or imperiled natural fluids, as well as the body’s relationship to land, would inform the realization of an ambitious multi-media endeavor that culminated in 2017 with a critically lauded presentation at the Queens Museum.

Liquid flow, leaks, drips—and even the gendered repulsion to such excretions—has always been at the heart of the artist’s subject matter, with two decades of visceral and uncompromising work to show for it. Her specific medium of performance art was something she became drawn into through her studies at U.C. San Diego in the 1990s under the feminist art legend Eleanor Antin, before she moved to New York and gained visibility through alternative art spaces like the itinerant Clit Club (RIP) or the still-standing P.S. 122 (now Performance Space New York). One of Chang’s earliest works, Alter Ergo (1997), was a durational piece in which she stood immobilized while a dental mirror forced her mouth open, causing saliva to fall onto the floor. It was a vulgar tableau for some, perhaps, and no less an emphatically savage parody of the delicate and sensually passive Asian woman stereotype, an image long fetishized in Western culture. Indeed, the artist notes that much of her early work was exploring “the experience of being in the world as a woman, as a Chinese woman...being out of place.”

Such emissions, like unfiltered honesty, and the drip of milk—at times difficult to shut off, as if it were a threat to control itself—reemerge in Milk Debt. First shown at the 18th Street Arts Center in Los Angeles last year, it debuted at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, early this spring. A multi-channel video installation, it juxtaposes the itemized fears as text, rendered in white type that scrolls up on black displays, with footage of the nine women, who recite more listings of dread in front of their computers, from the bathtub, in a bus, and beyond. These spaces—public, domestic, linguistic—serve to mediate the revelation of mental and biological processes that would otherwise remain confined to intensely private realms. In global terms, this is the arena where personal meets political.

In the installation, listed fears, rendered in white sans-serif lettering, appear variously as projections scrolling up several dark walls or screenings on two black monitors. These blunt texts are alternated with projections or screenings of performance footage, switching between nine different solitary women reading lists of fears, ranging from perennial to highly contemporary, compiled by Chang from various female collaborators in the United States and Hong Kong. All the women appear here with breasts and breast-milk pumps alike on display. A few reside in public spaces—one casually dressed woman rides an L.A. Metro bus; another perches on the root of a tree at the Los Angeles river. All read aloud the same listings of dread. Whereas force of habit tends to keep any single person’s spectrum of worries more or less confined to their internal monologue, in Milk Debt, these are recursively released. Through time and repetition, the precise source of these free-flowing anxieties grows more and more ambiguous, the words becoming absorbed into the continuous stream of the larger narration. Like dipping a cup into some coursing river of fear, one might scoop out "Becoming my mother," or "The reality we are in is really it, there is no glitch, things will proceed this way," or "The Hong Kong I see today will become history." The women, as orators, are a constellation of Zoom windows, Skype sessions, and scenes of urban life, like a contemporary Greek chorus channeling at least a few of any given viewer's own anxieties around the incessant dramas of our present world.

A particular passage from the piece, set in Hong Kong, makes for an alarmingly timely articulation of the artist’s concerns around flow and revelation. Relatedly, can you recall this advice from the past? “Be water, my friend.” That’s how martial artist, actor, and Hong Kong native Bruce Lee put it in a 1971 television interview, extolling the virtues and possibilities afforded to fluidity, flexibility, even formlessness. In the early summer of 2019, this idea became the principle of a new circulation: The sea of protests in Hong Kong as people flooded the streets in a backlash initially aimed against the proposal of an extradition bill, which would have allowed Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories such as Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Even after its withdrawal by late summer, the people kept coming out, moving, speaking, arriving, and leaving, clashing with and evading the authorities. When an idea takes hold, how much of what follows is purely voluntary? Is being compelled to act something like being subject to gravity; is it a natural force, strengthened rather than defeated by resistance?

Chang was in Hong Kong, too. During a residency at a university, she proposed a live reading of the fears she had collected, from people in local students’ communities, originally for a performance at an academic conference. What she ended up doing was filming a lactation activist and a mother pumping her milk while reciting a script—as a massive protest was underway in the background of the shot. This becomes one of the most compelling monologues in Milk Debt, emphasizing the artist’s underlying approach; namely, rather than having a woman speak for herself, as a solidified “I,” Chang says she intended that the speech would instead become about “the ‘I’ being in relation to others, other voices.”

This read is bolstered by the context of the crowd in Hong Kong which can be seen behind the speaker in the video. A protesting crowd, with its people moving like water, can be a physical manifestation of fears, as well as hope and desire, inside of which an individual subjectivity is opened up by others—even changed. Can one individuate streams in a river? Chang’s own words about the “I” would seem then to echo another piece of the past, when the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote in a letter to his teacher in May 1871, “I is someone else.” And if speech, or the right to speak, is a valuable liquidity, then naturally it is only by talking, and talking, that anyone can find out how much is owed, and to whom.

Published: March 31, 2021

"Milk Debt" is on view at Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn, NY, by reservation, through May 23, 2021.