Control over the female body, expressed in porcelain, rope and hair
HOUSTON – While researching the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center in 2018, Jennifer Ling Datchuk came across a poster that caught her eye. Shanghai People’s Publishing House’s Chinese Carry Out Family Planning for the Revolution features a smocked, smiling woman holding a bottle of birth control pills and surrounded by cartoons of a woman and child indulging in to lively activities. The slogan below reads: “Later, Longer, Less”, encouraging women to have later marriages, longer periods between births and fewer children. The 1974 poster was a precursor to China’s one-child policy that was instituted five years later to slow the rise in the country’s birth rates.
As inspiring as the poster’s message may sound, it also draws some parallels to the more recent restrictions on women’s reproductive rights in Texas, where Datchuk has lived and worked for 13 years. Responding to the poster, Datchuk wrote: âThis post suggests that women have the power and access to resources to make these decisions in the first place. Today as then, from Shanghai to San Antonio, women’s bodies are subject to state control.
Later, longer, less: the work of Jennifer Ling Datchuk at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft takes its title from the propaganda poster, but also echoes its apparent goal of empowering women through their own bodies. In the exhibition, Datchuk’s thoughtful multimedia sculptures, large-scale installations and performance videos operate in the tense spaces between high and lower decorative arts, found and artifacts, and Asian and Western stories. Created between 2012 and 2021 – with the majority completed this year – the artist’s works move with agility through a variety of everyday materials, including rope, clay, cement, and human and synthetic hair. . Datchuk’s intelligent and approachable perspective resonates particularly in our political and social moment, which continues its heavy fixation on the control of women’s bodies.
The exhibition space is filled with the haunting and rhythmic sounds of the gently slamming porcelain. The video “Tame” (2021) shows the artist holding a basket of porcelain “China girl” figurines, her hair braided in the shape of a horse bridle. Whenever Datchuk’s hair is pulled by someone off-screen, the figures in his basket rattle. As sweet as it may be, the sound takes on the urgency of a time bomb as the delicate porcelain figures threaten to finally shatter, and the artist’s neck and head recoil again and again. Hair pulling is something that many young girls have come to know, and in adulthood it has connotations of sexual dominance. But it also refers to the larger forces that try to âtameâ us, âbreakâ us or hold us back.
The body is involved in many of the works on display here, but it is only in the video that the physical body – in the form of the artist herself – appears. âAs someone who can be seen as racially ambiguous because I am not the Asian they know or see represented, it was important that my body represented everyone,â Datchuk told Hyperallergic in a recent e -mail.
“Silent sorority” (2021) is a body-sized necklace made of beads cast in the shape of the Venus of Willendorf. The piece is made from porcelain produced by Laguna Clay, which is often used for the skin of porcelain dolls. The names of the corporate colors – “NS-127 Asian” and “NS-128 Native American”, for example – condense groups of people into a single shade. Again, there is a connection to childhood: so many young women look for signs of themselves in their childhood dolls. But with the fertility numbers, Datchuk suggests that women share an ancient and powerful unit despite obstacles.
Another oversized necklace sits on a low plinth nearby. âHeavyâ (2021) looks like a huge pearl necklace, but its cement beads and softball-sized rope remind us of bondage as well. “We are taught as women that we have choices and opportunities,” said Datchuk, “but we have so many societal, cultural and political systems that continue to hold us back.” Anyone attempting to wear this piece would likely be unable to move. The fact that a simple act of adornment can be crippling reminds us of the many times women are blamed for their marginalization, abuse and even murder because of what they wear.
Many other works by Datchuk – a stack of doormats, a large curtain of hair, a staircase covered with handmade candle holders, a larger-than-life ladder made of braided hair and beads – involve crossing a threshold . This threshold can be in time, space or consciousness. For the artist, the latter is particularly important. âI believe the staff are political and while a piece of art doesn’t change the world, I think art can be a call to action,â she says.
Later, longer, less: the work of Jennifer Ling Datchuk continues at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (4848 Main Street, Houston) until January 8, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Kathryn Hall.
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