"Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced and unreadable inscriptions. He may content himself with inspecting what lies exposed to view, with questioning the inhabitants - perhaps semi-barbaric people - who live in the vicinity, about what tradition tells them of the history and meaning of these archaeological remains, and with noting down what they tell him - and he may then proceed on his journey."

Sigmund Freud, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” 1896.
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THE STORY OF THE LIZARD
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I. The Field of Lizards

I have a distinct memory of one day walking outside of my parents’ house barefoot, walking through the front yard grass, and stopping in front of a field of dead lizards in their driveway.

At first glance, each pile seemed to be a mound of dry, colorless eucalyptus leaves, but oddly grouped, somehow unnaturally accumulated on the pink and grey concrete. There were small baby lizards and larger ones. Some heads and torsos were crushed, exposing bright colored insides. Most lay flat on their bellies and a few were on their backs, brandishing their peculiar blue patterns. Normally these little blue belly scales were lustrous, but the sun that day relentlessly beat down on these bodies, and the resulting palette was a faded one. There was no definite pattern to the field, only that there were windy, active ant trails hastily getting what could be got from some of the wasted lizard cadavers.

I remember I had to walk on a shadowed perimeter hugging the adjacent garage, so that my feet stayed off the hot concrete that made up the driveway. From parts of this shadowed ground, there were vantage points to peer onto the groups of lizards. I would crouch down with one knee touching the ground and the other tucked under my chin and just watch the ants, mesmerized as they crawled over and over each detail, wrinkle, and crevice of these unmoving bodies.

The ants seemed to carry no weight as they crawled over these thin lizard fingers so tenuously extended and not bending them at all. The heads of the lizards, pitched this way and that, no longer felt these tiny scavengers, and thus were like small stones unperturbed by the frenzy that clouded their faces. Rigid, wiry tails lay on top of each other, stacked, and provided a provisional domain for these ants, in which they could crawl over in any axis or direction. Whether it be on top, on the side, upside-down, straight down, straight up, these ants saw no other ground than the one they were immediately touching.
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There is something cryptic in the idea of a material scattered on an even plane and accumulated, embracing a degree of chance, and then a sculpture made by way of moving the material around. With this painterly approach, there is an economy of changeability at work that becomes important. With the lateral scatter, my interest is in the rhythmic logic that presents itself by way of how the work is composed by the wandering viewer. Differing from the approach to a totemic work, in which the force of gravity points to weight, balance, joints, and seams as the relational parts of a sculpture, the process of viewing laterally utilizes the gaze across a sprawl, and this additionally, becomes a material. Works that sprawl across a lateral space form discernible moments over discernible objects, and the orchestration of these moments forms a pacing of the viewer’s gaze. Shifts of view, as one moves around a space, carve an illusional space and a different sort of relating each part to part. The viewer is then able to vacillate between a pre-meditated design of a whole and a relational study between several parcels.

The type of cardboard that is used in my work is a single-wall corrugation; that is, two sheets of brown paper sandwiching a sheet that is corrugated, giving its basic internal structure to keep the layers of paper somewhat rigid. Because of this simple design, cardboard is light and carries with it an immediate accessibility. I can move it effortlessly, measure and cut it down at the time and place it is used, carve spans of planes in space easily, find it anywhere if more sheets are needed, and upon seeing raw, is just so legible as cardboard!

The sight of cardboard is mundane. I see it quite frequently. Whenever things need to be handled, relocated, stored, or forgotten, cardboard is that anonymous character that carries those things, whatever they may be. Old or new, the layered matte brown paper always seems obliged to a function. Even the side profile of the corrugation draws out a humdrum wavy line of everyday routine.

Cardboard offered the possibility of being a platform; that is, a material that could be conducive to the mobility of an object across its surface. Cardboard has a kind of brevity to its look, with a crushable spine and paper skin. It stands as a temporary structure, and I saw it as a casual material that could be a simple plane to block sight, or provide a bridge.
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II. Catching a Lizard

If my fleeting memory was anchored to an extending flat plane, it would be littered with these scurrying blue-bellied lizards. They would dart to and fro across the lawn, the concrete driveway, the asphalt, the canyon dirt, always on the lookout, twitching their heads this way and that. They would be most visible in the summer and to catch them in their earthy terrain was a feat that I could never achieve. They were so acutely aware of their surroundings; if a shadow passed over their body, if the slightest sound of my foot was audible, they would flee. It began to be clear that they were just too quick, too responsive to be caught unawares.

The only way I figured out how to catch them was to accept the fact that it could not be done covertly. These lizards needed to be caught head on, with my predatory presence in full view, and soon I figured I needed to remove them from their familiar terrain. So I would chase them into my parents’ house and pluck them up effortlessly as their scrambling claws would find no grip on the slick kitchen floors.

I would flip them over on their backs and rest them on my palm, their small chests jumping up and down in quick breaths in an otherwise still body. Each one was perhaps paralyzed from anxiety, or disoriented from being on their backs and wavering in and out of consciousness. Whichever the case, their fate was under my thumb. I did not need to squeeze them, grip them, or put any pressure upon them at all. I was free to just look at them.

Their bellies were so strikingly strange to me. They seemed to each have their own design. The blue scales that made up this design on each belly equated more so to a tattoo than to natural ornament of skin. Sometimes I would softly stroke the bellies; they were cold to the touch, I remember, and sometimes, quick thoughts of crushing the small bodies, or petting them with more and more pressure until my finger pulled the skin off by friction alone, would pop into my head. But these thoughts would just as quickly go.
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When I had discovered this publication, the particular look of SHOW magazine’s design and that of the models therein offered the possibility of using these images as material. A question that seemed only answerable in the comfort of naïveté, and still will not quell: What is the armature of these images?

I see a glass. Through this glass, I see a shape of a woman, but it is a body that is manufactured. Leafing through, every body is different, but repetition is the magazine’s strongest ingredient in reducing these individual bodies into a homologous form. The women in this particular publication are actively shaped. It is initially unmistakable that the eye of the publication is exclusive. There is a clear decision prior to the click of the shutter upon who is in and who is out of these pages. I see a repetition of figures visually affirming typologies of bodies that are decided as ideal forms. The ass is definitely favored, the bigger the better, and following the demands of a fetish, is produced more as a thing in itself rather than an extension of a body. These photographed bodies clearly defined for me, a specific morphology of the female body that has estranged itself from past representations of the female nude.

The selected poses are repeated far past replete: standing straight up, bowing, sitting on a stool, squatting, kneeling, lying on their belly propped up by their elbows, lying on their back with knees bent. Each pose could be coupled with hands that are cupping the breasts, pulling down lingerie attire, running through their hair, grabbing their lengthy high-heels, or holding their head. The skin is an oily substance, with a rubbery sheen and some wrinkles, veins, hair, and moles exposed in a calculated effort to render the models less doll-like. Many bodies seem contorted, unnaturally twisted, as though the hungry eye of the consumer is pulling these bodies apart. In its repetition, the poses instill a sense of mobility in the most static way.

Accompanying quotes from the models are peppered in the pages to suggest exuberance of the women in being a part of the magazine. The quotes work to aggressively single out a distinctive relationship between the model and viewer. Despite the effort of the magazine to promote textual depictions of individuality, whether of the models depicted or their coupling with a viewer’s own desires, these words further affirm conformity within the publication’s structure of desire.

Despite the stretching and turning of the models, or even quotes to push voices out of the pages, these images of women are just as flat, thin, and bound as the paper they are printed on. Underneath each body’s treated contours, there is rarely a projected fantasy background to give these subjects an immersive setting, or rather, any reason to take these bodies out of the confines of the frame. Instead they are laid on top of bright solid-color backgrounds that are just as processed and formalized. And yet, despite this very thin space between figure and ground, these bodies seem to be able to peel right off the page.

This depiction is a way of seeing that has been derived from the traditional male gaze upon the female form, but in no way has settled there. The publication has employed men and women all hustling, promoting, modeling, photographing, smiling, smirking, typing, clicking, and shaking hands, all making up the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments of these images. The armature of these images, however, is located in the publication’s skin. I see SHOW’s skin all around me, as if it were skinned and grafted onto the unconscious state of culture. It is so embedded in the waking culture around me that this residual skin is denied.

When I look at these images, something stares back at me. It is not those glassy eyes of the girls that in actuality could never stare back. It is not even the eyes of a culture that spawned my affinity to these manufactured curves. Like hunting for images of faces within the black wisps and swirls of a white marble floor, what stares back at me are eyes that are dismissed as hallucinations, part of a schema of a face, but are never really there. Something close to seeing eyes reflected and not perceiving them as my own, these images are projections manifested by the collectively shared desires of a group that is at once apprehended and denied.
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III. The Lizard

A few months ago, I was backing out of my parent’s driveway running late for a meeting at school. As I shifted the car to move forward, something had caught my eye, and without moving my car so much as a few inches, I stopped cold. It was a sunny day, and I peered through my streaked and dirty windshield at something like a strange scribble on the asphalt. Turning off the engine, I clambered out of my car to have a closer look.

There was a peculiarly postured lizard lying in the middle of the street. As I followed its form, I could not understand how this posture came to be. The lizard had somehow dried up to be scarcely a skeletal structure and skin. The cadaver carried an effortless grace born through a delicate three-point landing. I began to move over the lizard with my eyes:

The first point of contact to the ground starts with the very tip of the tail, gracefully leading up to the mid-portion of the tail, now flattened into a razor sharp plane wavering up and dipping down like a thin column of smoke, leading to the next point of contact, the thin, wiry toe of the right back foot. All other appendages become spasmodic knots, twisted out of place, only identifiable on the body of this lizard by merely the fact that they are still attached. From this toe, the back and belly are another flattened plane, the ridges of the underlying skeletal structure climb up and down, transitioning into the cylindrical volume of the neck and head, and finally ending on the third point of contact, the nose.

Though I saw that it was a lizard, one that was strangely intact with no parts missing, I denied what it was. The nose was no longer the nose that had once led that lizard to navigate the ground. The toe was no longer the toe that grabbed the ground to propel the lizard away from predators. The tail was no longer the tail that would snap off to allow the escape of a lizard if caught. These three parts of the body were parts of a sculpture, a delicate sculpture, which needed these specific parts to stand. The lizard, out of a freak accident, had embodied a platonic form, and it was sitting right under my nose!
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Steel was at last introduced into these works as the armature. Thin steel poles are inserted into the cavernous spaces made by the corrugation of the cardboard. It was a reluctant addition, I remember, because the steel represented a lie to me. I wished for these planes of cardboard to stand up by themselves, to be left alone as they were, as propped up floating planes, but they were just too light, too susceptible to collapse.

Though the steel was introduced to the sculptures as a sure way to hold them up, they bring a type of uncertainty that I had not considered. They become building blocks for a simple infrastructure, one that employs a process in finding a solution to the balance and distribution of weight of the materials I am using. The thin poles need to support their own weight and that of the cardboard, so there is a specific weight economy that needs to be played out in order for the overall structure to stand up.
These steel poles are fitted in trenches that span and guide them. The play between the orientation of the corrugation, the direction of the spanning steel poles, and the placement of the pins atop the resulting structure began to develop a system that I could see. A wavering environment, with walls at a larger scale, manifested in my mind as a way to draw a viewer into a legible cardboard arena, walk them through searching, and eventually loom over the viewer by a fragile and tenuous viewership.

The steel, once fastened, gave the sculptures a source of titillation. What kind of space is formed through suspended collapse? Or slow recoil? These movements are softly spoken with these works and are always present. The steel gives breath to the works - a fragile breath that supports a momentary life.
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I stood for a long moment looking at this curiously postured lizard, crouched down, walked around it, and thought about it. I was worried the small lizard would break apart if I touched it, so I hastily resorted to using the camera on my phone to capture it. I could not leave it unprotected on the street, and feeling the pressures of attending my meeting, I very carefully picked it up and scrambled to find an area I could put it provisionally until after I could return. I found a place for it, left it there and drove off. When I came back later that day, it was gone.
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Epilogue

I had found a small shiny black spear-head looking thing in a large, filled to the brim, refrigerator-size cardboard box in which my older brother had been storing and accumulating all sorts of things (papers, books, drawings, memorabilia) since elementary school before moving out. Upon moving back to my parents’ house, I began making moves to claim his room as my own, as it was, in my opinion, the best room in the house. While trying to move this box out, it burst. I began looking through the pile, seeing what I could throw away or keep for myself. At some point, I had remembered that my brother used to hide Playboys and erotic graphic novels in his room and it occurred to me that those must have eventually been sequestered into this “last-stop” storage box. This slight memory hastened my search. I didn’t find any of those however, and instead, this black thing had fallen out of the pile.

The object seemed to be a part of a larger whole, because I distinctly remember first trying to stand it up, pointy tip up, but failing to do so because the one apparent flat side wasn’t flat at all, but bore the topography of a chance break. It was light and the familiar “ting” sound it made when hitting a hard surface was undoubtedly that of ceramic.

The black, shiny thing held a light weight in my hand, and I would turn it over and over in my palm. I would look at it and notice some oil smear marks from my palm and it was during one of those moments that I thought it expressed some libidinal feedback. The acute point wasn’t sharp so I didn’t think the object wanted to puncture as much as it wanted to be inserted. As estranged to the object as I felt I was, it expressed a familiarity to me, then, and I thought it to be a harsh and aggressive object, wanting to be shoved into an orifice in a brutal way. The form points to an imaginary and perhaps, primal familiarity.

-Personal Notes, 2009.
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When I look into a mirror, I see an image of myself. This image is a single point along a lengthy line of images as it has aged from the days of my youth to the days as of yet to come. As I grow older, I realize that my reflected image is and has always been illegible unless defined by the bodies of others. This mirror is anamorphic, with an image that is continually elusive.

“If, by being isolated, an effect of lighting dominates us, if, for example, a beam of light directing our gaze so captivates us that it appears as a milky cone and prevents us from seeing what it illuminates, the mere fact of introducing in this field a small screen, which cuts into that which is illuminated without being seen, makes the milky light retreat, as it were, into the shadow, and allows the object it concealed to emerge.” Lacan suggests a situational gaze; one that, depending on a viewer’s conditioning, a gaze can work to conceal or reveal an otherwise legible object. The “screen” is a type of engagement of the viewer to an object that could effectively lift a viewer outside his/her own skin. In what ways can a reflection estrange itself from its owner?

Over a lateral space, these images atop their cardboard forms dance in activity. I knew from the beginning, I did not want to obliterate the figure by merely rendering the images illegible. In a surface-level contradiction, I wanted to construct a sculpture from a pure form, and yet, embrace the clear-cut legibility of the girls. Their abstraction stems from where their bodies are located in relation to each other, their viewers, and the structure beneath and around. I begin to think of the apprehension of these images, at a glance, and the differing approaches of the viewer to these pieces, that of a curious viewer, that of a hungry viewer, that of the jaded viewer, and on and on, all rolling through converging, scrutinizing, debating, and reflecting atop these slight, wavering cardboard forms.

As the collective desires of any given group are continually infiltrated by the desires of others, an individual’s form is continually reshaped. Through various genders, cultures, and bodies, each individual draws a distinctive seam throughout. Common flows among these different seams coagulate and only begin to murmur the collected voices of the aggressive masculine and the passive feminine. At the face of these weighty terms, there lies a skirmish in which one attempts to locate oneself. However, one cannot be defined unless defined by the bodies of both voices. These days, I think of a sculpture as a model for manifesting a sense of placement, and this model becomes parts to building an environment that surrounds a viewer. These sculptures walk through space with pinned images marking territory across their surfaces. It is my hope that a viewer will walk with them and hunt for the face that s/he identifies as their own.

Is it not the direction of the artist to look at the face of things, unperturbed by lingering expectation; to see a thing as itself without retreating into shadows of projections? I often wonder if individuals can, by way of the work, separate themselves from their own biases and that of the underlying mandates of culture. Sculpture is residue, work that is shed; a body outside of one’s own given body with the capacity to reflect a truer image.

I frequently see those lizards scampering around. I always see one at a time, popping its head out underneath a roof tile, scaling a wall, running across the canyon dirt, and I playfully think it is the same blue-bellied lizard recognizing that I exist, and that it has watched me develop over the many years. The pretense fades fast though, as I recall a recent memory of the moment I had, by chance, caught a lizard in its own terrain.

As I had usually done, I began my walk in and through the canyon trail behind the Visual Arts Facility pretty late in the day. I was trying to figure out a problem concerning a fast-decaying lizard cadaver I had found and was using as sort of a positive model in making an idealized recreation of the lizard I described in, “The Lizard.” The problem was that the decaying body was not intact and consequently a poor subject for making a mold.

I reached a clearing in the valley of this canyon. In it, there was an area littered with pieces of various refuse. After mulling it over, I began to convince myself that perhaps the whole image of that peculiarly postured lizard was unnecessary to illustrate by way of a three-dimensional idealized copy. In fact, more than the problem I had with the decaying subject, the thing that really killed me was that it simply wasn’t the same lizard. And making a positive casting from a mold of a model of the memory of that lizard seemed more and more an illegible fog as the process passed through the many translations of form in my head.

A small lizard, just then, zipped under my gaze, and dispelled this fog. It stopped a moment, and retreated under a cardboard fold stemming from a crushed cardboard box lying in the clearing. I bowed down, and crept slowly up to this fold. As I pressed my boot toe down slowly, the scrambling claw sounds and murmurs under the cardboard flap reassured me that this lizard was caught. I stood a while thinking about this opportune moment and carefully worded out in my head the ensuing steps in order to move this new intact subject from under the fold back to my studio, put into a jar, and subsequently suffocated. The thing was right under my foot, and the frantic sounds of scraping and struggling limbs began to slow.

I walked away from that clearing, thinking just how far-gone I was; I couldn’t kill that lizard, and it quickly darted into the neighboring shrubs. As I watched the lizard twitch its head momentarily and fly away, out of sight, uninterrupted, untethered, and free, I began to realize that I have always had a companion that just never belonged to me.
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© Edward Tong-Ha Chung, 2010-2015
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