Patty Chang and the Persistence of Water

By Gustavo Carvajal

Before visitors enter gallery 5 at the Queens Museum in New York, they encounter a sign informing them that the content in the Patty Chang exhibit may not be suitable for all audiences. Inside there is a U-shaped table where blown glass sculptures, made to look like cut, taped and twisted plastic bottles, are labeled as female urinary devices. There are some larger glass sculptures mimicking plastic bottles hung on the opposite wall and on the adjacent walls there is video playing. The exhibition is called The Wandering Lake.

Patty Chang, (detail) glass urinary devices, 2017. Glass, plastic and tape. Courtesy the artist and BANK_MABSOCIETY (1)_preview

The TV screens show footage of Patty Chang’s trip along the Yellow River in China. The images depict the artist’s journey, following the course of the river, in trying to find the site of three massive diversion projects that involve the 4 major rivers of China. The artist’s matter-of-fact voice narrates anecdote along with political and cultural observation: “this is the Huang He River, also known as the Yellow River, it is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, but also its scourge, due to its constant flooding.”

In one of the sequences of the eight minute video, Chang’s torso can be seen with the river far in the background. After a few seconds she pulls out a plastic female urinary device from her pocket and places it on her vagina. As part of one of the performances contained in The Wandering Lake, every time she needs to stop to pee along the road she urinates into plastic tea bottles that she carries around throughout the trip.

After placing and adjusting the contrivance, she grabs a loaf of bread and inserts the tube of the urinary device into it, impaling the bread. Then she starts peeing into an empty tea bottle, offering to a distracted eye the impression of a disproportionately wide
penis. When she is finished the artist closes the tea bottle carefully and then strokes her “penis” for the last urine drops to fall from the tube. Upon watching this visitors display one of 3 reactions: a gasp, a giggle, or a sigh of derision. The most frequent questions people ask are: ¿what is the meaning of this? ¿what is she trying to say? ¿what’s with the bread?

Patty Chang, Configurations (Bread), 2017. Inkjet print, 28in x 40in. Courtesy the artist and BANKMABSOCIETY_preview

I, the gallery attendant, recite a spiel that I have elaborated through the weeks and months of looking at the piece: “This exhibition is called the Wandering Lake, and as you may have noticed it has water, and bodies of water, as a central theme. This exhibition, including all the galleries that it takes up, is based on a book by the same name that contains a sort of tale of Patty Chang’s travels, and the performances that these travels prompted. It’s like a traveling blog, plus a record of her performances and a collage of images and texts from different sources. The name, Wandering Lake, comes from another book written by an early 20th century Sweden explorer, who went on the quest of a Chinese lake that ‘migrates’ throughout time due to a strange natural phenomenon. So regarding the peeing I would say it has a relationship with the flux of water in our planet, and the ways humans try to divert and tamper with that flux.”

There is a phrase in Patty Chang’s book that for me captures the concept of this exhibit: ‘water has memory.’ But obviously, –I stress to the visitor–the meaning of a performance, or any artwork for that matter, is open to interpretation. As for the bread, I heard her say on opening night that it was just around, and that she had the idea of using it on the spot (there is always an ingredient of improvisation in performance art). For me, the fixation with urination and urination devices in this gallery has to do with the fact that water pertains to a cycle of which we are, at best, servers, or products. To me, the image is simply saying that the planet’s atmosphere constantly runs through our bodies as rivers of air and water, and that our very muscles are made mostly of water, which means each of us is just a small link in that mighty cycle, a fact that we don’t seem to fully accept or choose not to consider.

After I have said all this I ask the visitor: ¿what do you think the bread and the urine are all about? Most times people will say that they are not sure, some people will say that they just love it, or find it fantastic, and others will just find themselves smiling and speechless. I of course, have had the privilege of time. Sitting here for many hours I have had plenty of opportunities to think about it (museum galleries are like tanks where time is stored) and seeing the bread and urine so many times, I have absorbed and then regurgitated the image past the moment of surprise or confusion. The visitor is still in a state of minor shock, not sure of what he or she has seen. For some reason I think about Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, and how he described the painting once as “an image that once seen, could not be forgotten.” So I wonder how long a visitor will remember this image: a woman peeing through a loaf of bread into a plastic bottle with the Yellow River in the background.

Despite the sophistication that some contemporary art presents to a non-specialized visitor, the aim of the images created by Patty Chang in the Wandering Lake is not that different from the one painters and sculptors have had since antiquity, which is to create
an image that lasts, something that, though never seen before, echoes an intuition in the brain or in the soul, thus lodging itself in memory.

By now the visitor has left gallery 5, but before I go back to work I continue thinking for a bit. It is established that the bread was an improvisation, but that doesn’t imply that is meaningless. At times I have come to see it as a feminist manifesto, mimicking a penis as a parody of patriarchy. It could also be an assimilation process between penis and vagina through prosthetics and other devises (I remember my dad saying jokingly to my mom when I was a kid that the proof men were superior to women was that they could pee standing up!). Again I wonder how long the image will linger on the visitor’s memory and then I remember something I read once about how a clitoris’s hood resembles a penis’s foreskin. I am not really sure what the bread means, and I don’t think this understanding is instrumental to an appreciation of the work. Most importantly I recognize a game of mirroring and conflation, between penis and vagina, river and urine, glass and plastic.

I heard Jorge Luis Borges say that the work of the artist is to create symbols. A writer creates symbols with words, a musician with sounds, and a visual artist with images. Patty Chang has succeeded in creating a memorable image which is at the center of a conflation of places, objects and ideas. But only time will tell if the symbol she has created is powerful enough to persist in the collective memory.

Photo credits:

Featured image: Patty Chang, Configurations (Aqueduct), 2017. Vinyl print, 108in x 168in. Courtesy the artist and BANK_MABSOCIETY

Image 1: Patty Chang, (detail) glass urinary devices, 2017. Glass, plastic and tape. Courtesy the artist and BANK_MABSOCIETY

Image 2: Patty Chang, Configurations (Bread), 2017. Inkjet print, 28in x 40in. Courtesy the artist and BANK_MABSOCIETY