In Conversation with Heidi Lau
For artist Heidi Lau, sculpting is a ritual. She coaxes biomorphic forms out of clay by summoning stories from her family’s past. Her grandparents' Taoist religious practices and her youth spent in Macau act as seeds; in her hands, legends of goddesses or the levels of hell grow into uncanny figures, columns, artifacts, and structures. “I feel like ‘ritual’ means that you perform and then you believe — it kind of goes hand in hand,” explains Lau. “It's not that I believe these things exist,” she adds of the mythological beings and guarded entrances to unknowable worlds that her work evokes. “It's like I’m making these things real or something that otherwise wouldn't be.”
Lau does, however, believe in the spiritual power of objects. Into each piece’s surface she transmits energy — even of the evil sort — and memories, be they her own, fabled, or historical. The resultant objects call to mind archaeological finds, and often appear to have been extricated from a far-off cave after being exposed to the elements for millennia. Closer inspection reveals the presence of Lau’s hand throughout, and if there’s a culture these relics can be traced to, it’s one of Lau’s own making. Her current show, “The Sentinels” at Geary Contemporary (with artist Rachel Frank), is characteristically inviting yet perilous — a primer to her darkly enthralling creations. Enter it knowing that there’s always another tale to be intuited in her sculptures’ peeking eyes and serpentine tails.
Newest York recently spoke to Lau, who settled in New York after studying studio art at NYU, by phone. Topics include her grandmother’s relationship with hell, ceramics, and zombie videos.
Whereabouts are you now?
I'm actually in Minnesota doing a residency. It's kind of amazing. It's part of a monastery called Saint John's, and they have the largest wood-firing kiln in the United States. It's run by monks; they're a Benedictine school of monks that believe in work as prayer, so they have their own wood shop, they grow their own food — it's a very highly self-sustaining community here. It's something I've never been a part of before, and I had no idea [it existed], because on their website it just looks like they are a university. I didn't know it was under the umbrella of this big monastery.
How is the work you're making looking so far?
Uh, I think it's looking good. [laughs] I feel very inspired by the architecture around here to be honest. It's a mix of very religious monuments plus Brutalist architecture, because they hired Marcel Breuer to do a lot of their dormitories and the abbey on campus. That contrast, it’s so incredible. It's also very fraternal, for a lack of a better word — it's mostly men out here. It’s like nothing I've ever experienced before.
To dive into your practice more broadly, would you classify your artworks as talismans?
Talismans, hm. Is that because of the peacock chain [pieces]?
I was thinking of talismans warding off some sort of evil or as benevolent forces in objects, but those works specifically made me think about amulets that protect against the evil eye.
It's funny, I actually think that they might be the opposite of talismans, like I'm trying to bring the evil. A lot of the work is based on Taoist mythology, but it also has a strong family tie. My grandmother was made a goddaughter of the gate of hell by her parents, because she was very sick as a child, so then hell's gatekeeper cannot kick her out of hell; that's this weird underworld identity that's been ingrained in me since I was a kid. Every time we went to a temple, my grandma would be like, "Oh, say hi to your great grandfather," and it would just be a statue of this scary dude with a sword. [laughs] Her story of kind of passing through this ultimate border between life and death and afterlife has always been extremely inspiring for me, so I feel like if anything, I'm probably the anti-talisman, that's like, "Bring it on."
Going into temples and seeing that as a kid, was it was scary or did you think it was cool?
I thought it was really cool. Both of my grandparents were extremely Taoist and superstitious, which has caused both good and pain in the family. That's actually the reason why they moved to Macau, because my grandpa was running a temple in mainland China right before the Cultural Revolution, so he basically had to leave, because you can't have religion after the '50s. That's something that's important to me as a family identity, so I really value the time when I get to go to temples with my grandparents. It's the side I don't see of them in daily life, a more spiritual part.
How early on in life did you start making ceramics?
Very late in life, actually. I'm self-taught, and I went to school for mostly printmaking and drawing. But I've always felt a little bit unsatisfied by it, and when I did a residency, maybe in 2010 or 2011, my studio mate at the time had a kiln, so I started learning a little bit from her. Then when I came back I decided to take a class at the Y, and the rest is history.
How has living in New York informed your work?
I currently live in Chinatown, and living there has been a big influence on me. I'm very much influenced by all of the community organizing that's happening right now in Chinatown and Lower East Side against gentrification, which is something I wish I knew about when I was still living at home in Macau, because the very same thing was happening to my old neighborhood. I think there was a lot of unresolved confusion and resentment then of losing my family home that I just didn't have the language for, and I'm learning a lot about how to navigate that and seeing how people organize to fight it. The organizing for it is very inspiring; that's something that I wouldn't have learned if I didn't leave home, if I didn't live in the States.
Having witnessed gentrification and colonial architecture in Macau, do you see that visually in your work?
Definitely, but I think not maybe on an immediate level. I always think of the story of Medusa as making work about some sort of traumatic thing; it’s like you can't look at it into the eyes, or you can see all of the stone statues that were created as a result. It's tricky to make work with a nostalgic sentiment, which is why I'm maybe distantly referencing Taoism, a religion [prominent in] Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — places that have a long colonial history — as a basis of my work. Also working with clay, the history of porcelain and ceramics runs parallel to a lot conflicts in the East that were happening, so I'm constantly very aware of the material history and let that inform the work.
I want to talk about The Primordial Molder, which was previously installed at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, but it's also in the show at Geary. You added raw clay to it for the new show, right?
Yes, I did. For me this piece probably had a few different installments. The piece [without raw clay] at the Bronx was in part because of practical reasons; it had to be outdoors for a few months. It was a very pristine, very robust body of this snake goddess [Nüwa]. But the story of her that's interesting to me is she not only slayed another monster and used his column to support the sky from falling down, but she also sacrificed herself and buried her own body to create basically the terrain or the land that we live on now. So for the piece at Geary, I was very drawn to creating her body with her guts spewing out, turning into clay, and the self-sacrificial aspects of the piece. I feel like maybe in the future I could push that more and make sculptures that are kind of mountain-like, with remnants of scales or limbs.
Is this the first time that you've continued a piece in that way?
I change up my work or build on top of old work sometimes, that I have done before, but using raw clay as a more ephemeral expansion of a created piece, this is the first time. It also helps that I work very modularly because of the scale of my work usually, so that makes it possible.
That’s interesting because time seems like a subject you deal with frequently, but in this way it's also a material.
Yes, definitely. Time is such a big element in working with clay, but it's also so limiting at the same time. Once the piece is fired there's not much you can do, so I'm always trying to look for ways to make it changeable.
Your sculptures often connect to specific histories or stories, but they also make intuitive sense without knowing those references. How many hints do you want to give to the viewer for further exploration of the history versus just letting them take away what's readily apparent by looking at it?
It's extremely important to me that my work is complex enough on a surface level for people to get something from it without the history. I think that's why I insist on the handmade nature of the piece, and it's also, not to go back to the spiritual, but I really feel that a certain energy or emotions get embedded into the work. Like when you scratch into clay, I really feel like something gets transferred that we're able to see on a gut level without knowing the story behind it.
What do you think the role of these stories, like the snake goddess you were talking about, can be in contemporary life?
Specifically with The Primordial Molder, that's maybe a comment on the matrilineal nature of, to me, everything — and also the idea of female bodies and their unspoken labor and sacrifice. I feel like that's why I've started to be interested in creating body-like but monstrous creatures. So often Asian bodies are fetishized or gawked at dependent on how we are perceived in the world. Like I mentioned earlier with porcelain, the relationship of porcelain and the history of China and bodies is so intertwined. I feel like using that material to comment even on contemporary culture now, where it's still very much relevant.
Is your video work something that's happened more recently?
Yes, very recently. I've always been — not to bring more evil to the world [laughs] — but I've always been very into '80s, early-'90s campy horror movies from Hong Kong, because that's kind of all I watched as a child. It’s probably not very talked about, and you can still make ghost movies in Hong Kong and Macau right now, but in China, you cannot depict a contemporary ghost. You will be censored. But if you're wearing a Qing Dynasty costume, that's fine because that's before the Revolution. In contemporary life in China, the belief in spirit, it has no place. Ghosts, which already have no form, are censored. That's always been a really crazy thing to me, which is why when I started thinking about making a video, I really wanted to follow that genre of making a very ridiculous hopping zombie video.
Last question — is there anything that you're reading or watching right now that you’re inspired by?
Well, since I have been in this residency I've been going through this YouTube channel that’s the podcast of antiquities. Right now I'm at the sack of Rome by the Visigoths. I'm kind of a history buff, so I listen to a lot of that. And I follow Ask a Mortician, another YouTube channel. I watch it religiously because I'm very interested in post-mortem physically, which is also the reason I made the video [on view at Geary, Do Jiangshi Dream of Living Ghosts?, 2018]. The hopping zombie is literally a corpse that's not able to decompose, and there's this belief that if you are buried really far away from home, then you have to hop back as a zombie to be buried. It's campy, but I think it also comes from a very real fear of the early Chinese diaspora.