Not A Single Story

Sarah Zhang, Explorations in Humanities: Connections and Conflicts

Reflection, Sarah Zhang, 2019, Chinese ink on Xuan paper

Something New – Non-Textual: Reflection

Something New

Non-textual work: Reflection, by Sarah Zhang

Reflection, Sarah Zhang, 2019, Chinese ink on Xuan Paper

The work composes of three pairs of hands. The portraits are based on my own hands, but I deliberately exaggerated some of the features so that they don’t look like mine, and in fact, they can be anyone’s hands, except the last one that shows the back of my left hand. The following are my ideas, but the gestures are open for different interpretations and the viewers are welcome to project themselves onto the work.

The inspiration of these paintings comes from gestures often used in discussions. The open hands represent “presentation.” For me, the discussion about humanities always start with presenting what the stories are. In the beginning, there shouldn’t be any filter, all the stories from different perspectives should have a place on these open hands.

Reflection, Part 1

The second pair of hands shows the process of measurements, a process through which we decide what stories should be told and what should not. The standard of this measurement varies from costs and benefits to cultural values. What weights more, are more valuable, are presented while those that are deemed unnecessary to be told are lifted from sight.

Reflection, Part 2

As what Prof. Quillen talked about how history is composed of a strand that selects stories out of the chaotic historical events happening at the same time. The result of this event is the third pair of hands. Some stories are taken for granted, while others completely muted, reinforced by the color blue. However, I purposefully added veins and the color red on this pair of hands, as a reminder that what is not seen still exists. Behind the stories we know are stories of real people, with flesh, bone and blood.

Reflection, Part 3

Reading the work from left to right shows the “situation” where all the stories I learned from Humanities could apply. Whether it is the story of Rwanda where “genocide” is denied due to a lack of motivation for action, or the tokenization and ghettoization under authentic voices that assign a single story and a single identity to a group of people with varying backgrounds, or the power of pictures that gives the viewers priority to patronize their own reality while distancing away from the existing reality, or the story of scientific revolution, of pragmatism, realism, or the stories in Tlön, and so on. But ultimately these are two hands, one and the other, with a sense of opposition within a duality. These two hands and the gestures together centers around the idea that I have experienced from humanities the sense of incommensurability.

On the other hand, reading the work from right to left shows an inverse process, which I personally have been trying to do throughout the humanities course. The raised hand should be put down, the stories of those muted should be told. But I am doing this from my own perspective. I am a human, I have an independent mind and may have a different story even when facing the same fact. I am among the many storytellers that, with cautious, tell the story of humanities. The hands should be put back together, not apart, not as the one and the other. The choice of material, Chinese ink and Xuan paper, also reinforce my presence in the work, trying to build a connection between my identity as an Asian and a Chinese with the Humanities, a connection that is barely visible throughout the course.

Buster 7, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, June, 2018

During the trip to Alabama, Montgomery, I found a lot of references to hand. The picture above is a statue in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Attention is guided, instead of to their faces, but to their hands. In the memorial, names, which are perceived as representations of identities, of the victims are stressed. For this statue, the identity is not made salient by the faces, but by the hands. The pain that they have experienced are documented on their hands, while the gesture of their hands delivers their situation. If we think of the security system that utilizes fingerprints, it becomes more reasonable that the hands become a representation of identity. The Legacy Museum also displays a sculpture in which three pairs of hands reach out of three holes, as if people, being locked in dungeons, are desperately grabbing any last sense of hope. These hands, protruding out of the surface, force the viewers to confront their desperation and this dark side of history. The hands in my painting are depicted from the audience’s perspective to stress the fact that the audiences are looking at the hands; they are meant to stand our from the flat paper and capture the gaze of the viewers. They try to ask the question, what do you see in these hands?

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