An Interview with Furen Dai
by Marcus Civin
I approached the artist Furen Dai and asked her to help me think about some of the questions posed by Tiffany Lin's ongoing project, "24 Views." We understood those questions to be: How did we get to where we are in terms of identity and classification in the United States? How could our notions of categorization and inclusion change? What does the U.S. Census determine? What else might we consider in relation to the U.S. Census to understand it better?
Furen is an artist fascinated with language who employs multiple media from animation and video to drawing, painting, sculpture, and performance. She connects cultural and historical phenomena and asks questions about the human experience from a global perspective. She often likes to think and talk about two or more ideas at once. She's powerfully intelligent and extremely well-researched.
We met on a series of summer evenings in different locations in New York and recorded pieces of our conversation which we edited and supplemented later to make this interview text. In Boston, where she lived during the pandemic, she had recently passed her U.S. citizenship exam. We discussed borders, identity, citizenship, personal history, language, culture, COVID-19, artmaking, and museums. Our conversation somehow seemed to turn humidity into summer storms. We had to find temporary shelter from the rain as we discussed what happens when people disperse from their homelands all over the world, what Stuart Hall calls "overlapping stories of diasporization," which "cut across and interrupt the settled contours of race, ethnos, and nation."
In his 2017 book, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, Hall writes, "The identities constructed on the basis of a diasporic conception of cultural difference are palpably not unified or unitary. They are not unified because no one dimension, no one fundamental line of difference and antagonism, can fix them or secure them once and for all time. Their being may appear to be secured in that way when it is framed within the binary racialized discourse of difference that seeks to position such identities under "race," "ethnicity," or "cultural difference" in its strong sense. Yet, as we have seen, each of these are discursive constructs that, like all worlds of meaning, can never be finally fixed, and which are open to infinite sliding among the signifiers."
Marcus Civin June 17, 2021
Marcus Civin: Furen, let's start with a basic question: when did you start making art?
Furen Dai: I joined a drawing class when I was very small, probably around five, that didn't last very long. Making art really started when I was in college. I did some painting, copying master's works, and some doodling. I had this Russian literature professor who loved to paint. During weekends, he would ask several other students and me to his house and teach us oil painting. I remember that was the first time I realized one could forget about time doing one thing.
MC: I just read your text, "To Fellow Americans." Christopher Ho and Daisy Nam included it in their new book, Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts, 2021. Your text is remarkable. The White House sent you a letter, and you decided to edit it. The start of the second paragraph first read, "Our nation has always welcomed newcomers who embrace our values, assimilate into our society, and pledge allegiance to our country." You replaced this text with your own: "(Currently), our country adopts an immigration system that serves the Nation's interest. However, even though you are officially an American citizen, when there comes a conflict of national interest, you might still be considered an Other." Can you tell me how this edited letter came about?
FD: When Trump took office, I heard some newly naturalized citizens cheered about the fact that they were still receiving the leftover congratulation letters signed by Obama. When I received my letter, it was signed by Trump. The tone of the letter seems to contrast with reality. I went back to see the congratulation letters from previous presidents and realized the tone of the letter is very much a reflection of their style of governance. There are so many things in Trump's letter, so many word choices I found problematic.
I remember Obama's letter had this tone suggesting it was America's honor to have immigrants join the country. But Trump's letter, on the contrary, seems to have this attitude as if it's your honor to join our great country. Also, the letter seems to have an overly joyful tone, as if everything here is so great, but the reality is, the country has a heavy history, and as a newly naturalized immigrant, it would be helpful to understand what you are stepping into. When Chris approached me about the book project, I thought this would be a great opportunity to edit the letter, so instead of a picture only with the bright side, I edited the letter to reflect reality
MC: So, how did you start making artwork about categorization, counting, and surveying populations?
FD: It started with questions. What does it mean to have citizenship or dual citizenship? What is the difference between one nationality and another? I started making artwork about categorization when I encountered the discussion around whether to include the citizenship question for the 2020 census. I was listening to the debate about the pros and cons of including this question, which made me curious about what exactly was included in the census before.
I looked through all the questions listed on the census from 1790 to 2010. Reading through these forms, I was thinking about who wrote these questions, who decided to include what kind of question. One can also view the passage of time and document history through the census. Sometimes, ten years of events lead to one added option on the census form.
MC: Taxonomy seems to piss you off—classification systems, how the census organizes people, how museums organize things. All the apples are together, the oranges together—
FD: In your example, bananas stay in banana lane; apples only stay in apple lane. I wouldn't be pissed off about it; sometimes, I like that part. It can help you to figure out the logic behind the organization, but I prefer when there's an option. In the case of racial classification, it started with people only wanting to figure out how they are different, but then some people took that knowledge and altered it for genocide or eugenics. If you're the sole person or group who holds the power to do this, that becomes problematic.
MC: Absolutely. Classification also seems tied up with time. In museums, we sometimes learn that artwork from a particular place inspired another kind of artwork in another place. Then, unfortunately, we don't always learn that much more about the earlier artworks or the culture that produced them and what came afterward for that culture. I like when museums question and complicate those kinds of narratives.
FD: Sometimes, when you maneuver in the museum, it becomes very clear that you are walking in a linear timeline in an art history book from a Western perspective. There are many ways to look at time and experience time. When I grew up, we thought history would always repeat itself in slightly different ways. You can learn from the past to predict the future.
You are slowly evolving and moving forward, but it's not like a horizontal line going straight forward. You can always find a reference point from history in the present. Here we emphasize the cause and the result. The culture I grew up with believes that everything cross-references each other. There is not this rigid cause and effect.
MC: I wonder how, over time, this kind of thinking will influence the U.S. For example, I think about how English could change and incorporate aspects of how Chinese people express ideas in Chinese languages.
FD: Language is constantly changing and being changed by new influences. It also archives the user's and creator's cultural background and the social-political context of how and when the language is being used. We grow up in language, and we understand it has certain conventions that come with it. In my own personal experiences, I often find myself using Chinese metaphors in English conversation. I think metaphors are so rich in documenting the ways of thinking and culture.
MC: Can you talk some more about how you conceive your projects?
FD: At the beginning, I'm just exploring the subject organically, whatever is related to the subject, I will seek out and read, and if something down the road sparks, I will pick it up and follow its lead. Now looking back at all the paths of my previous projects, a method starts emerging. To start a project, first and foremost, I have to be interested in the subject, and there is something in it that triggers me and makes me want to know more.
It's a question that lingers in my mind. Then, I will dive into that question and read through as much material as I can find. Materials I read could be biased and reflect the writer's thinking, so as a second stage, if I can, I will always visit the site, talk to people, come back with first-hand material, respond to what I saw and experienced, then digest and interpret through my understanding. I know I want to insert my commentary into a project. That's where I'm thinking about why I am making a piece. For my project, "Language Product," 2016, my entry point was this nearly extinct language created and used exclusively by women. Then I shifted to put that in relation to cultural tourism because that's what I encountered in this village where they used this language to build a cultural museum.
The census is an entry point for me, but I don't want to talk directly about the census, so I approach it through museum classification. My original plan was to compare the encyclopedic museums in the West and the private art museums in the East, but it all got delayed by the pandemic. Most of the encyclopedic museums are situated in the West, but China has built a lot of contemporary art museums in the past ten years or so. Some of them are owned by a single business person. They hire renowned Western architectural firms to build landmark architecture for their private museums. The architecture becomes more the artwork than the art.
MC: Did you participate in the U.S. Census?
FD: Yes, I did. I didn't know how intense the American system is. They will come to your apartment multiple times. They will call two, three times and send you many letters. I did a whole series, ten drawings about the census. The drawings are from archival photos. I looked at the manuals for all enumerators, directing them how to ask questions, and how they behave while they are in other people's houses, how they take account. Some of the drawings are of the physical enumerator card, the design, or a drawing of the circuit when they first designed a calculating machine for the census.
MC: These drawings are part of your 2019 project, "How Was Race Made?" Can you describe the other parts of the project?
FD: Looking at all the census forms since 1790, the questions that have appeared on the form can be roughly divided into eight categories (name and relations, personal description, nativity and mother tongue, occupation, citizenship, education, health, and veteran status). It's interesting to see the language that has been preserved in the official documents. Some of the words have already disappeared from our daily use. Some seem inappropriate. The race question caught my attention.
The question started as "What is the color of this person?" and transitioned into "What is the race of this person?" I wonder what kind of discussion the people had when they drafted the questions in the census. I also notice the categories get more and more refined. Therefore there are more and more options. I selected a way to visualize the changes both in language and in the quantity of questions. I also selected this transparent vinyl as a material. While working in my studio, I noticed light cast a strong shadow of the words. I install all these pieces together so that when people walk in between the vinyl, the words cast shadows on their bodies.
MC: Your 2021 project, "On the Future Ruin," includes two videos you sent me that I watched on Vimeo. One is a silent, black-and-white, 16 mm walk around the museum and into the galleries. In the other, the viewer receives a tour from a computerized guide of an encyclopedic museum that once was—its architecture, organization, role, and activities. The tour guide says things like, "In the early twenty-first century, a pandemic swept across the world and changed people's lives. It also drastically impacted museums and led to many sites' unprecedented closures. Under this circumstance, people started to think about the archive, repatriation, and museum's own existence."
Do you mind describing more about this project, and specifically how it might relate to the U.S. Census? For instance, we've talked about what might be the arrogance of powerful museums in the U.S. or Europe who are reluctant to return objects obtained from another region under conditions that do not live up to our contemporary understandings of who objects belong to and how we might ideally learn about them and share knowledge. How does this relate to census-taking for you? I'm thinking about the relationship between the dispersion of objects and the dispersion of people.
FD: I like the word you choose, "dispersion." It's very visual. I remember when I was studying the census, particularly the question around race, I encountered this book that consists of a whole collection of essays with different racial schemes that people proposed, as early as 1684, and I started thinking about the purpose of classification and the aesthetics for beauty.
In some of the early documents for various racial classification proposals, the word beauty constantly came up. In what way and with what measurement can a person's profile be defined as beautiful? This line of thinking can be traced through the whole museum, in its work selection, room interior design, etc.
MC: What are you working on now? Last week you were trying to figure out how to participate in an exhibition in China where the curator asked you in an open-ended way to respond to our current times. You were considering: could you conceive a piece to be fabricated at the museum without traveling there yourself?
FD: Sometimes, it is challenging when the framework is very broad. I also thought about how time has been stretched during the pandemic. When a person travels from one country to another, they might have to budget almost two months more for quarantine. This has been a time when we couldn't, or can't, really hurry. So, for this show, I'm trying to figure out a realistic way to produce. I've thought a lot about time, mobility, the digital and real world, and also the role of art.
I decided to produce a tear-off calendar made of all the images I created in the past 14 months, either from reality or from the digital world. I blend them in a way that it becomes hard to tell the real world from the digital world. Audiences will be invited to tear off a page they select. I think it will be interesting to have the audience tear a piece of work from the wall in a museum.