Cathy Lu, Peripheral Visions, 2022. Ceramic, porcelain, water pump, tubing, and containers, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the Chinese Culture Center

Cathy Lu

San Francisco

Chinese Culture Center

The four ceramic installations in Cathy Lu’s “Interior Garden” (on view through December 17, 2022) may take utopian garden myths as their starting point, but their impact derives primarily from the more worldly narratives with which they engage, either slowly and subtly or in truly spectacular ways. The poetic and powerful stories conveyed in each of these spaces bring us face to face with the disjunction between the American Dream and the experience, both physical and psychological, of immigration to a land where one is forever regarded as “other.”

The Chinese Culture Center, tucked away on the third floor of a Hilton Hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown, has the most unusual location of any exhibition venue in the city. It’s also a somewhat difficult space for art. A long, cavernously high-ceilinged room is divided into four areas, defined by partial walls facing a continuous stretch of massive windows. Lu rose to the challenge of the space, using traditional elements from Chinese garden design, such as rocks, water, ponds, and borrowed scenery of distant views, to address the obstacles and issues faced by people of color and specifically by Asians.

The first installation, Pile, features a heap of old bricks and other debris, recalling what most of San Francisco looked like after the great earthquake and fire of 1906. City leaders apparently saw the double disaster as a heaven-sent opportunity to appropriate Chinatown properties and push residents out. The only way to prevent this land grab was to rebuild as quickly as possible, using burnt and distorted bricks found in the streets. Architects such as Julia Morgan would later adopt this so-called “clinker brick” as a design element, but for San Francisco’s Chinese Americans, its use was a matter of necessity. Homely ceramic traffic cones placed around the mound, which also includes Lu’s signature ceramic fruits (a sign of resilience), offer a reminder of the many kinds of barriers faced by immigrant populations.

The sound of water—and not just light splashing—is inescapable, though it’s not yet visible. The second installation reveals the source. In Peripheral Visions, 14 pairs of immense ceramic eyes hang on three walls, all of them weeping copious golden tears into brightly colored plastic buckets, basins, and inexpensive porcelain bowls via a Rube Goldberg-style arrangement of tubes. The eyes, set in flesh-like oval surrounds glazed in shades of yellow, glance sideways, their silent-movie sadness set to the thunderous crashing of the ingeniously re-circulated, onion-stained water. A little bit spills on the ground, as if all of these tears can’t be contained. Benches set against the windows suggest that this might be a good spot to rest and contemplate how the circularity of the water’s flow expresses how Asian women simultaneously experience invisibility and hyper-visibility, trapped in cultural stereotypes. Sorrow and rage, Lu suggests, are often channeled and recycled, but rarely allowed to flow freely. From the benches, the contrast between the eyes and the deep-blue walls behind them becomes particularly striking, especially in light of the fact that such a blue, extremely inauspicious in Chinese culture, is most commonly found in funeral parlors.

The third installation, Drain, is austere by comparison, consisting of a rectangular table/basin of handmade tiles lipped with a low wall and raised up on concrete blocks. Just enough water flows in and out of no fewer than 12 shiny gold ceramic drains to suggest the idea of a reflecting pool. But the excessiveness of the drains—with their almost defensive allusion to hyper-cleanliness—is also a reminder of unfair and unfounded allegations of poor hygiene during the Covid epidemic.

In the fourth room, Nüwa’s Hands, viewers metaphorically ascend into the heavens, meeting the goddess Nüwa in a spectacularly undulating form that hangs from the ceiling, her greenish-yellow curves covered with golden ceramic peach pits—each one an allusion to immortality. At either end, her serpentine incarnation narrows into dangling, graceful hands. Long fingers terminate in the kind of impossibly curled fingernails that ancient Chinese aristocrats were said to have cultivated as a sign that they performed no labor. Yet Nüwa was the creator of the human race, molding yellow clay into bodies—an impossible task with such nails. Is Lu saying that a goddess wouldn’t need to mold clay in the same way that she, a mere mortal, must? Perhaps Lu’s “borrowed scenery” consists of such myths and contradictions, seen from the mediating distance of time.