Jennifer Tee on Tulips, Documenting Migration, and Living at the Margins of History

The Offing

Dutch artist Jennifer Tee recently concluded her New York debut Ancestral Beginnings, Sessile Beings at Tina Kim Gallery. Known for her versatile practice that traverses research, performance, installation, textiles, collage, and sculpture, and investigates what it means to live near and between borders, Tee created an exhibition that is both personal and political. Drawing on her Chinese ancestry, her family’s immigration from Indonesia to the Netherlands, and Dutch colonial histories, Tee meticulously demonstrate that personal migration is always already closely entangled with the transnational circulation of natural resources. Her research into the colonial roots of Tulip mania and Indigenous art in Indonesia reveals that to repair historical wounds and traumas is to make anew. Shortly after the exhibition closed, I had a conversation with the artist about relaxing at an art institution, the magic of making ceramics, and time travels through tulip collages.

 

Should we start with your floor-based sculptural installations? I am especially interested in elements of performance in the work or in relation to the work.

 I call them floor pieces. They have become a recurring element of my recent practice. They originated from a show I did in 2010 in Shanghai as part of the World Expo. Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam organized a solo show for me at the Dutch Culture Center in Shanghai. That was the first time I made floor pieces. They were inspired by the idea of star-crossed lovers. The Chinese also have a similar story, about the fate of lovers who are or are not supposed to meet.

 

I made that work because I am partly Chinese. My father moved to the Netherlands from Indonesia in the 1950s, but ethnically he’s Chinese. That is one of the reasons why I went quite often to China to work with ceramic and porcelain ateliers. I am interested in instances where I might not really know a public, but I still want to engage with that public. For instance, Jingdezhen is a place that I went to visit very often, and I still think it is hard to come to an understanding because we are just from different worlds.

 

My floor pieces are constellations, a place that holds a space within a larger space, a crystal beam between solid and liquid, and something that can multiply. For my Shanghai show, I worked with a Chinese choreographer to make a bodily score based on each floor piece’s title, because I was very interested in Chinese characters being pictorial.

My floor pieces are also floating spaces, such as bodies of water or seaweed, which is why my knitted floor piece has an open weaving, so you still see the gallery floor. Placing ceramics in floor pieces makes the whole piece temporally ambiguous, between being futuristic or coming from the deep past.

 

I sometimes place stacks of ecological poetry books next to my floor pieces. The poems are about Hurricane Katrina, migration, or one’s own physical ecology. Visitors are invited to lie down on these floor pieces and listen to the poems being read, be momentarily submerged in another world. The first reading I ever did was In Search of Lost Time by Proust.

 

Can you tell me a bit more about your interest in horizontal structures when it comes to constructing sculptural installations?

 I am interested in constructing textile works in relation to the body, as objects that can be made and activated for people in a certain frame of mind, with the possibility of unfolding and being folded back. My floor pieces can take up space, but also can retract. I like how they are associated with ideas of covering or hiding.

 

I also like how one floor piece is a proposal for many. Additionally, the possibility of lying down is baked into the work. Especially with my open-knit floor pieces, reclining on them creates a space to resist. As an artist it’s very difficult to witness all the political upheavals, so I want to intentionally create places where you could find a space to reflect on these world events. For my 2022 show Still Shifting, Mother Field at the Vienna Secession, I wanted to create a space that might refer to horizontal areas in nature. One floor piece references the oceanic intertidal zone, and another work references the core of the Earth and its movement.

 

Could you tell me a bit more about your ceramic practice and your interest in making dome shaped ceramics that can evoke taoist magic?

 For my 2014 show Occult Geometry at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, I envisioned a fictional meeting between Hilma af Klint and Kandinsky. Both artists were interested in the spiritual impulse behind abstraction. My domes are inspired by such convergence. In that show, one of my domes looks white on one side and on the other side looks black and shiny. You must walk around the work to see all the changes, which reminds me of the atom and the universe, how these elements are reflected in each other, and how what’s inside is just as complex as what’s outside.

 

For ceramics, I work with different bodies of clay, from black clay to red clay and to white clay. Under different temperatures they give different tones, which are also related to where the clay is from. For instance, if I make works with iron-rich clay from Huangshan, they will already have spots in them. I am interested in creating textures that seep through into the glaze from the clay. As clay often accumulates sediments from rivers, it becomes a metaphor for the undercurrents of migration.

 

I want to switch gears a bit here and talk more about your interest in recreating your own versions of Tampan, cloth traditional to the people of Sumatra, Indonesia, through tulips.

 My interest comes from the main motif, which is a ship with the Tree of Life as its mast, transporting humans, animals, and sea creatures from the earthly world to the afterlife. The motif also relates to my family’s history of migration and the modern history of migration in general.

 

My recreations of Tampans using tulip collages are seasonal works. I can make two per year based on the tulip harvest in the springtime. Each spring, I go to different tulip growers to look for a specific type of tulip that has this broken pattern. To me, the pattern looks like a paintbrush.

The Tampans I made are often very close to the real ones, but I mix patterns from practical and ceremonial cloth to allow for new translations and new contingencies. I do this because I see Tampan as a cultural memory that documents the Sumatra region’s exchange with other Southeastern Asian and Arabic countries due to the history of the pepper trade.

 

I am also interested in the weaving technique of Tampans which combines vertical lines and horizontal lines to create patterns that are not perfectly symmetrical. As a result, it is very flat, sprawling, and spread out. There is no one ideal vantage point. It feels both very futuristic and primordial. For example, in some Tampans you see shapes that resemble ovaries. I am also reminded of the tulip bulb, where you keep peeling it but cannot find the center, which is similar to the Tree of Life.

 

To me, the Tampans represent our place within planetary history and our collective unconscious. My practice aims to snap people out of their indulgence in the present moment and encourage them to think about ecological history and meeting points between life and death. 

 

You also deploy digital technology in your Tampan series.

 Yes, I first make original collages in four parts because they are quite big. Then, I scan my Tulip collages and 3D print them out. I am interested in the relationship between technology and time. The original collage is the archive piece, and its color fades over time. This is why I use scanning to capture the moment of harvest, almost like a timekeeper. Then, there is climate change, which makes the timing and amount of tulip harvest very unstable. In a way, my fascination with tulips becomes a social technology that archives our changing positions within ecological time. Tulips capture what standard clock time cannot document.

 

Do you have personal investment in the materials you choose to work with?

 I am interested in studying materials that have cultural significance, yet I also don’t want to enter anthropological discourses when working with them. I am interested in the immediacy and perceptual elements of the materials. For instance, I also work with bamboo, and I like how bamboo can bend and still stay very resilient.

 

One of my interests is abstract textiles that work with bird feathers from traditional Indonesian villages. They are often checkered and have ceremonial functions. When you look closer, there are all these very small details; and when you look from a distance, only the motif is recognizable.

That’s also how I felt with my father and his family’s history of migration. He moved with his parents by ship to the Netherlands from Indonesia in the 1950s. This history both feels very personally implicated and opaque to me. I wanted to get very close to it, but it is impossible to truly be in their place.

 

— Qingyuan Deng

June 28, 2024
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