London Art Spot: Charlene Lam

Longing. Belonging. Belongings.

These words describe the essence of Charlene Lam’s art. They stem from a multicultural background She’s a German-born Chinese-American who has grown up in NYC and San Francisco where she performed as part of a hip-hop troupe though she also has 10 years of classical ballet training. She’s lived in Germany, Sweden and now London. To top it off, her husband is an Italian-born Peruvian.

Needless to say, she loves to travel and if you read on through this week’s London Art Spot, she explains how those words above tie her wanderlust and artwork together. She also talks about her obsession with wandering the banks of the Thames to collect washed-up materials to use in her work (a sort of reinterpretation of belongings) and she shares a lovely story about a woman called Lee Chin Won Ying.

LLO: Which aspects of London life influence your creativity?
CL: I love my East London neighborhood of Shoreditch. It’s super trendy and full of drunk people on the weekends, but the feel is entirely different than that of West London. I like my cities to be a little gritty and full of surprises, and this area certainly qualifies, with its mix of old and new, high and low. Plus, the street art is excellent, and I see something new every time I go out.

LLO: On your website, you wrote: “I love exploring the potential of different materials, especially repurposed ones, and letting the materials tell me what they long to be.” What’s the most unusal material you’ve worked with and what did it turn out to be?
CL: I’ve been obsessed with the clay tobacco pipes that wash up on the banks of the Thames, particularly the fragments of pipe stems that date from the late 16th to the early 20th centuries. If I’m by the Thames and it’s low-tide, I’m down on the banks collecting bits of clay — no matter how impractical my footwear.

I’m still playing with the possibilities of the pipe stems, bundling them together with thread, combining them with different materials. I’d love to make them into jewellery. I read a report that suggested pipe stem fragments were reused as wig-curlers, and I’m curious if I can use them that way in my curl-resistant Asian hair.

I find it amusing that I’m playing with a previous era’s rubbish. Why am I so enamoured by a bouquet of discarded pipe stems when a cluster of cigarette butts would only disgust me? I’m aware that I’m romanticising a past that I don’t understand, but I’m endlessly fascinated: some of this city’s garbage is older than my country!

LLO: Is there a certain material or object you’ve got your eyes on that you’d love to work with but haven’t tried yet?
CL: So many materials! I’m coveting all kinds of offcuts from various businesses, because I love the challenge of making something out of nothing and hate seeing things go to waste. But to name a certain technique, I would love to work with clear resin. The ability to physically capture an object — and perhaps a moment — so that it’s at once preserved and yet untouchable is very appealing to me.

LLO: Why should we immediately pop over to visit your blog, “Someday London” and where did the title come from?
CL: “Someday London” is London through the eyes of a creative expat: my triumphs and humiliations, my likes and dislikes, the extraordinary and the everyday.

There’s so much to see and explore in London, and I love sharing my finds with other people. For instance, I’ve started highlighting the work of the amazing craftspeople and designers I come across, because the quality and breadth is stunning.

The blog is called Someday London because big cities are full of longing: “Someday … I’ll afford a place of my own.” “Someday … I’ll get out of here.” One of mine was “Someday … I’ll live in another country” and now I’m doing it!

LLO: In what ways does your NYC background still influence your work in London?
CL: New York City will always have my heart. I’m very inspired by the potential of materials and people, and there’s no place that pulses with possibility the way that NYC does.

I’ve been in London for a bit over a year, and I’m very much aware of not quite belonging. I’m too chatty and overenthusiastic by British standards; I don’t drink much so pub culture eludes me; I still get confused sometimes crossing the street.

My work is often influenced by my personal struggles with identity and finding a place to belong. I’m in London for now, but I’m not from here. I don’t think I belong here, but I’m happy to be here all the same.  I don’t know if I belong anywhere, but so far New York City is the closest thing to home.

LLO: Where are your favourite places in London to pick up found objects to use in your artwork?
CL: The more neglected and overlooked, the better! Hardware stores. The banks of the Thames. Charity shops. Pound stores. Skips. Buildings sites. My eyes are always scanning the streets for possibilities.

LLO: Tell us about Lee Chin Won Ying and the project her story has inspired.
CL: Lee Chin Won Ying was my great aunt, or “yee pau”. She emigrated from China to Hong Kong and then to New York City, where she worked as a seamstress. After she died, I found amongst her papers her study sheet for the U.S. citizenship test. In typewritten English and handwritten Chinese, it dryly tells the story of her hard life.

Women of my generation struggle with having too many choices; she had very few. She worked as a seamstress because she had to, while I can make things for the joy of it. Even after she started living in relative comfort, she hoarded things like plastic bags, food, and scraps of fabric — not uncommon for Chinese immigrants of her generation who lived through periods of real poverty. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with our “more is less” culture, where we buy, own and throw away so much, yet live in a similar state of insecurity.

I am recreating phrases from that study guide — like “I am a sewing worker” — in embroidery. I didn’t speak her dialect of Chinese, so we had trouble communicating when she was alive. Retelling her story through stitch is my way of honouring her life and, in a way, of having a conversation with her.

LLO: Which project are you most proud of so far and why?
CL: I’m particularly proud of “Petals (Longing for Light)”. We were living in northern Sweden. I was struggling with the lack of light and the scarcity of affordable art materials. It was made in response to a call for submissions, but I remember not thinking about it too much, just working with the basic materials I had, and channeling my angst into these beautiful forms. I learned a lesson that I return to time and time again: My best work comes from Love and Longing.

LLO: Favourite London-based artists?
CL: Currently: Rob Ryan, the folks from Print Club London, the illustrators of Peepshow collective, the designers of Farm collective, Evelin Kasikov and her CMYK cross-stitch.

LLO: What are you working on now?
CL: I’ve been playing around with alternatives to purchased gift wrap, using rescued and repurposed materials. I’ve always loved the glamour and fun of gift wrapping, but hated the waste.

I’ve also just curated a selection of work from seven designer-makers for the Craft Central Micro Boutique at Vitra’s Christmas Gift Market. The market was in their gorgeous showroom in Clerkenwell, and I wanted to showcase these products designed and made in studios around London alongside the designs of masters like George Nelson.  10% of sales went to benefit the housing and homeless charity Shelter.

Thanks Charlene!

Check out more of Charlene’s work here: www.charlenelam.com

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

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London Art Spot: Patricia Vidal Delgado

Photo of Patricia above is courtesy of professional photographer, Ambra Vernuccio.

Meet Patricia from Portugal who speaks five languages and learned to pole-dance especially for her art: film-making. She’s studied in London, Jerusalem and Lisbon. She’s interned in London, Lisbon and Rio de  Janeiro. She’s held a residency in Morocco and exhibited her work in Stuttgart, Budapest, Zürich and, of course, London and Lisbon. She can’t keep away from London and if you read on below, you’ll find out why.

Patricia’s work reaches an international audience, not just for its movement in the world, but because she explores important subjects that touch people around the world. For this week’s London Art Spot, Patricia delves into the topics that have inspired her film-making, tells us about a new double-screen projection she’s working on and shares a few video stills and clips that she’s made available just for us.

Soundbite – Click to download:  NESIA

LLO:You’re originally from Portugal but have spent quite a lot of time living, studying and working in London. Which aspects of life in this city most influence your creativity and in which way?
PVD: I think that living in London makes me more adventurous in my creative endeavours. You can do anything you want here. For example, when I wanted to learn how to pole-dance for my ‘Monument’ performance-piece, I found that there were over 100 pole-dancing class venues in Central London alone. When I started to become interested in the idea of real-time live animation, after some research I found several London-based artists’ organisations that work with this type of technology. I then liaised with Bruno Martelli at Igloo, in order to talk about possible configurations for an interactive video installation.

LLO: Briefly describe your approach to film – the most important subjects for you to capture, the progression of an idea, etc.
PVD: This depends… It depends on whether I already have an idea in mind before I start shooting, or if I don’t have a definite idea in mind and I’m just shooting for the joy of it. I’m certainly drawn to certain images but at the time that I’m shooting them I won’t know why I’m so attracted to them. I think that part of the process of making art is understanding why, as an artist, you’re so drawn to the images that you keep finding yourself gravitating towards.

LLO: Roland Barthes’ book, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments has influenced your work Black Sand. Are you often inspired by literature? If so, which other pieces have motivated you to create? What else inspires you?
PVD: I am often inspired by literature. Sometimes I’ll start working on a film and then I’ll read around the themes of the film in order to flesh out my ideas – which is what happened with ‘Black Sand’. Or sometimes I’ll read a book first and find myself profoundly shaken by it. The first time I experienced that was with Jorge Amado’s ‘Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos’ (English Title – Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), when Vadinho says to Dona Flor:

‘Tua mãe é uma velha coroca, não sabe que na vida só vale o amor e a amizade. O resto é tudo pinóia, é tudo presunção, não paga a pena…’
‘Your mother is an old hag, she doesn’t know that love and friendship are the only things that matter in life. The rest is all worthless, its all vanity, its not worth it…’

And this statement really hit me on the head, and whenever I write or make work about love or relationships (i.e Black Sand) I’m torn apart by the hypothesis that, if it IS an absolute truth that love is the only thing that matters in life, then its also true that you can’t live on love alone and, therefore, no matter what choice you make regret is inevitable.

Music often inspires me as well – I’ll listen to a song and it’ll get under my skin and circulate in my blood and it won’t leave me alone until I’ve re-created it in my art. This happened with Clara Nunes’ ‘Ternura Antiga’, which tormented me until I used it in my sound-piece entitled ‘Mermaid’.

LLO: On your website, you write, “Girl with Gun developed from my interest in the psychological and archetypal aspects of the phallic female.” Can you elaborate on this statement and tell us a bit about this film?
PVD: I’ll start with the psychological aspects first – I first came across the figure of the phallic female in Freud’s writings, where he talks about the phallic mother. Prior to the traumatic realisation that sets off the castration complex in the young boy, the child assumes that everyone possesses a set of genitals like his own and so, by inference, believes his mother to possess a phallus as well. Therefore, the phallic female is a product of male fantasy that stems from the young boy’s blissful ignorance of sexual difference.

Lacan also refers to ‘phallic women’ as women that display masculine characteristics and/or behaviour. In Renata Salecl’s writings, she refers to a woman suffering from hysteria as a ‘phallic woman’, because the female hysteric will not accept the terms of her castration. This feeds into feminist theory because 1st wave feminism reclaimed the female hysteric as a figure of female resistance to the patriarchy, precisely because she does not perceive herself as castrated and therefore weak.

In terms of archetypal aspects, Marina Warner has hypothesized that the goddess Athena was the first phallic female, because she was “the defender of father-right (…) the upholder of patriarchy” and was born directly from Zeus’ head. She is a virgin goddess that channels the power of the Phallus, but as an asexual female eunuch she does not ‘desire’ the Phallus and therefore poses no threat of castration.

In ‘Girl with Gun’ I sought to embody the figure of the phallic female in order to play with the psychological signifiers and archetypal guises that make up the many layers of her persona. Ultimately I wanted to explode the dichotomy of the phallic aggressor and the castrated victim, in order to move beyond such insidious politics.

LLO: Which piece are you most proud of at the moment and why?
PVD: The piece I’m most proud of is my video installation, ‘Coming to Term’. In this piece I talk about my father’s illness and death, and although I acknowledge that it is very raw, and somewhat relentless, and sometimes very cruel, I speak from experience when I say that watching a loved one die from cancer is also very cruel and there’s no other way to talk about that situation. The only way that I could accept that loss was to deal with it in my art, and I hope that it helps others that have lost family members to cancer.

LLO: You’ve mastered Portuguese, English, French and Spanish and are working on learning Hebrew as well. What are your thoughts on the effect of language on a film? Is the language it is presented in originally important or is your work easily translated?
PVD: I think that language certainly ‘flavours’ a film, in the sense that it constitutes a cultural signifier in itself, which in turn can convey exoticism or familiarity to the viewer. Exoticism can result in fascination or alienation, but what really interests me is the point where language is pushed beyond the point of signification, once we are in the realm of Julie Kristeva’s semiotic, and one can truly enjoy the jouissance of speech. When I use language in my sound-pieces I’m definitely experimenting with the different rhythms and phonemes particular to Hebrew, Portuguese or English.

I think in some cases, too much is lost in translation – for my film ‘Fonte da Saudade’ I asked a Brazilian actor to perform a voice-over, and the inherent warmth and sensual vowel-sounds of Brazilian Portuguese created the emotional atmosphere of the film. Needless to say, English is not as sexy!

LLO: Which stage of producing a film is usually the most enjoyable – from original idea through working toward a finished project to marketing and sharing your work?
PVD: The most enjoyable bit is when its just me and my camera, traveling and filming, shooting for sheer pleasure.

LLO: Is there a place or object or person specific to London that you would love to incorporate in a future project and why?
PVD: I’ve started collaborating with an artist called Philip Levine and we’re going to make a documentary together about his artistic practice for his upcoming solo show in Summer 2011. Phil is involved in a lot of different activities but his exhibition will focus on his head designs, which are amazing, anyone who is interested should check out his website: www.philsays.com

LLO: Other artists you admire?
PVD: While on residency in Morocco I met an Italian photographer called Ambra Vernuccio who takes the most stunning pictures. Whilst there I also met three highly talented illustrators: Seif Alhasani, Kiboko HachiYon and Raimund Wong. Seif is of Iraqi origin but grew up in Sweden and creates mostly hip, funky-fresh graphic design. Kiboko HachiYon is Kenyan and has his own artist-led collective called ifreecans and makes ultra-groovy designs for everything from murals to T-shirts. Raimund is from Hong Kong and makes beautiful prints from wood-cut blocks and also plays electric guitar in a band called Lord Magpie.

In terms of Slade colleagues, I’ve always admired the work of Michael C. Schuller who was in my year in the Fine Art Media area. Michael is from Nashville and his artistic practice includes photography, illustration, creative writing and book-making.

LLO: What are you working on now?
PVD: I shot two hours’ worth of footage in Morocco and I’m currently thinking about creating a double screen projection with the footage I’ve captured. One side of the screen will play a male voice-over and the other side will play a female voice-over. Its funny that you asked me how often literature inspires me, because I’m currently reading a seminal work in Portuguese feminist literature, ‘Novas Cartas Portuguesas’ (English Title – ‘The Three Marias’), and I’ve long wanted to make a work that deals with the female archetypes manifest in Portuguese culture…

Thanks Patricia!

Check out more of Patricia’s work here: http://www.pvdelgado.com/

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.