When I Look at the Unfulfilled Desires of a Mother I Am Looking at Decay Itself

Installation, three-hour performance, live video. 2019. Dimensions variable. 
Root Division, San Francisco.

In this performance, Wang Huimeng sat in a bathtub filled with soil and roses, loosely in reference to the infamous bathtub scene in Sam Mendes’s American Beauty. Through makeup, she appeared to be in her 60s - just around her mother’s age.

Throughout the performance, taken place in San Francisco, Wang’s mother, sitting at home in China, was virtually present on an iPhone screen via Wechat video call. The mother was engaged with the audiences, answering their questions with twelve selected quotes from Youth (2002), a semi-fictional autobiographical novel by J.M. Coetzee.

Those quotes, marked by a lack of warmth, comment on the becoming of an artist, relationship between artists and their mothers, and relationship between male artists and women whom they fantasize about and whom they find grotesque. Such as:

“He has a horror of physical ugliness. When he reads Villon’s Testament, he can think only of how ugly the belle heaumière sounds, wrinkled and unwashed and foulmouthed. If one is to be an artist, must one love women indiscriminately?”

“He knows that to condemn a woman for being ugly is morally despicable. But fortunately, artists do not have to be morally admirable people... If his own art is to come out of the more contemptible side of himself, so be it. Flowers grow best on dungheaps, as Shakespeare never tires of saying.”

“How can he make her (his mother) accept that the process of turning himself into a different person that began when he was fifteen will be carried through remorselessly until all memory of the family and the country he left behind is extinguished?”

“He is proving something: that each man is an island; that you don’t need parents.”

The installation remained in the gallery for another month, where the roses were left to decay. When I Look at the Unfulfilled Desires of a Mother I Am Looking at Decay Itself is a reflection on the many roles a woman plays and the perils she faces: as a mother, a daughter, a nurturer, a muse, an artist, an immigrant, an object of desires, and an objective of consumables.

*Image 1-2 by Lonnie Graham. Image 3-8 by Buwang Yang.