Xiaoyi Gao

Interview by Krista Schoening

The piece you are showing at the Henry is to relive the past, to recover the future/Memory Rubbing Lab. Would you describe it for people who won’t get a chance to experience it?

I took the title from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. For the centerpiece of the installation, I invited different people to tell me about their unforgettable memories, and I have five monitors playing the audio recordings of these memories paired with video of another five people, the listeners, who were asked to visualize memories and draw pictures based on the descriptions. So the installation work is composed of five monitors and five headphones and above the monitors there are five mirrors. Also, on the left side of the monitors, there is a QR code, and, by scanning it with their phones, viewers can use their own devices to record their own memories and then listen to a recorded memory from someone else and complete a drawing of that. So this is a way to interact with the piece.

What kinds of memories did people share for this? Did you ask for specific types of memories?

I gave them a sheet of instructions that says: remember an object, or place, or person from your memory that you can think of without checking your photo album on your phone or Google. Describe the shapes, the colors of the surroundings, the lighting, the weather, the temperature, the smell in the air, the texture of everything… They have to read this first, but it doesn’t say anything about what kind of memory they should provide. We’re talking about the five videos that are shown in the actual installation. There is one person talking about her experience when she was in a little town in China preparing for her graduation. Another one talked about their experience of their first relationship with a girl before they came out as a gay man. There’s also one talking about his experience when his wife was giving birth to his son, like how intense that was. And then there’s one talking about when she first got to America, she was an immigrant in New York, and she really suffered because New York is very different from what she had imagined from the movies and TV series — fancy and glamorous everywhere — but instead because she’s a foreigner she just feels very left behind. The last memory was from a person whose house was burnt down and she describes what she remembered the first time she got back to the house.

Can you talk a bit more about the idea of the rubbing here? Why specifically did you decide to refer to this as a rubbing?

I think rubbing is interesting because you struggle and you’re trying so hard to copy things, but you will never get a 100% copy of reality. Before I decided to make this project, I took a class with Michael Swaine. There was a project we had to do: make five rubbings of something we found in our apartments. So I made five rubbings of the outlets. I think I was a little confused because, I thought, “why are we making rubbings?” But then I realized how rubbings could be like sculptures, a rubbing is kind of 3-D but it is also 2-D because it consists of fine pencil marks.

This is a wonderful idea of the rubbing being something that translates from one medium into another.

Yeah, I find the translation you can make between media really interesting. For example, verbal descriptions are so specific and rich, but on the other hand they are so uncertain and formless. I think this is true for the relationship between language and vision too. And also, this is precisely the state of connections between people, because we understand each other’s language or we can translate, but our emotions may not be identical.

You are translating the experience of one person to another and that there’s that gap, that experiential gap, between people. This work does a lot to form empathy between strangers because you’re doing all these things that are getting strangers to interact with the memories of other people. So, in that way, it’s very strong in terms of its social aspect, but it also repeats the impossibility of actually closing the gap. You can’t get across that gap between self and other. The process of translation from one person’s memory into another person’s drawing is full of places where there are slippages and misunderstandings. Is distance as much a part of this work as the impulse to bring people together?

Before I started doing all the interviews, I was planning things and I was like, yeah, I want people to share each other’s memories, I want people to listen to each other and understand each other — or try to. But, when I actually started, I realized that there is definitely difficulty when people are trying to understand each other, and I think that’s interesting too, so I think the gap is something important — or being aware of those gaps. Listening does not mean understanding, but if you’re asked to translate this language into drawing that actually forces people to understand more. Understanding seems simple, but it’s also hard because you’re always trying to be infinitely close to reality, but you can never touch fact.

You said to me that this was a sort of trade, in that a person could submit a memory and experience someone else’s memory while giving that other memory a drawing.

Something important about the trading here is that it’s purely random. Also, for the actual website interaction too, it is totally random because the computer will decide which person’s memory you will get. I think that’s interesting because, in society, you get to talk to people who are similar to you most of the time, and I realized that you never talk to those people who have very different lives. So, I think the important part of the trading is that it is pretty random. And it can lead to some special moments that we won’t get in real life.

As you have mentioned, the viewer’s memory is engaged in this work in part by the experience of being invited to participate via the website. Can you talk about the way the viewer’s body is engaged by this work?

The video monitors are hung at the same height as the table where the interviews took place. It is meant to feel like what I experienced in the interviews with the participants. And when the audience’s eyes move away from the monitor, they can observe their eyes from the mirror. Everyone has a different height, I mean — this is a very difficult part of the installation — but luckily, we experimented, and you have to use the headphones so you cannot stand way back to see the video. So, from that distance, if you look at the mirror and you adjust your head a little bit, you can see your face — maybe not eyes, maybe the forehead or nose — but hopefully you can see yourself.  I want the viewers to interact with the piece a little bit more so, instead of just passively receiving the information, they can actually track their own reactions by looking at a mirror and maybe they will observe themselves in a way, being really tired, or bored by listening to these memories, but I think it’s okay. It’s just being aware of your emotions, no matter what.

You mentioned that you titled this work after a line in Invisible Cities. How did Calvino influence this work?

Reading Invisible Cities inspired my imagination.  All of these cities that are invisible, I had to make them visible for myself, so I actually made drawings. The influence of this book is coming from everywhere: the phrases he put in the book, and the descriptions, and the formats of the conversations inspired me. For example, I love this conversation when Marco Polo is describing to Kublai Khan, who is just, like, sitting there and trying to imagine, and Marco Polo is using all of his gestures, like body language, to help with the translation. I was obsessed with that passage because I think there’s something language cannot get. You can only understand as far as your own imagination will let you.

This work and your other recent work makes use of layers of media, images, and realities. What is it about that layering that is so useful to your practice?

There are some things I find really interesting, like, for example, physical motions. I use some of them in my work, for example, brushing of my hair in the work Things I don’t usually think of and the video of drawing in the Memory Rubbing Lab. For me, physical motions are a kind of representation of intimacy that I don’t know how to access in some media. For example, paintings, which for me are more like objects — I want to bring the feeling of intimacy into my work, so I layer on some other media. Sometimes I use projections of physical motions, or bodies. I’m interested in collecting photos — for example, I use them in one of my old projects called Everything is Ok, Don’t Worry, which uses screenshots I collected from Facetime videos. What I engage with most in my life are conversations with people, and I want to use my phone a lot, so I collect photos and audio recordings. I like them, because I want to listen to something I recorded previously — the past me — who had different feelings.

Some of your recent work includes references to family or material drawn from your interaction with family members, especially your mother. What role do family and memory play in these works?

I think it’s all kind of related to the Memory Rubbing Lab. I value personal experience, but previously I have been silent about it, though now I realize that the private part of myself is also important. My plaster paintings are from archival photos of my family — actually all of them are my female relatives. Subconsciously I’m influenced by them, their life experiences, their history, their emotions. Their vulnerability and the emotions they shared I share with them too. That’s something I always wanted to get away from before, but now I want to be more honest and candid with this part of myself. I feel like this is a valuable part of myself.

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