I feel I am a stranger in two lands.
Memory and identity are inextricably entwined. They shape the lens of perception, yet themselves remain mutable, rendering perception itself contingent. This is especially true for the migrant, whose memories are recalled in a new context and whose identity is no longer anchored in a sense of shared community. Or at least not the community of their formative years. The recollections of the past and the habits of the present jostle for a new accommodation one with the other. And they never quite settle.
When he was a young man, Wen Hang Lin left Taiwan to study and live in the USA. Three decades later the ongoing negotiation of memory, perception, and identity has become the inspiration for his artmaking. In the first of the two series we explore in this conversation he visualises the way in which moments of time become overlaid in memory and, in the process, their meaning shifts, opening out. It is no longer a matter of recounting the past but of interpreting a narrative that has become denser, yet more enigmatic, and so more richly suggestive to the imagination.
While that first series is abstract – a conceptual puzzle distanced from the self – his second is personal. Here, he uses a disarmingly direct means to create poignantly poetic images that capture the complex experience of being simultaneously within and beyond. The result is a visual meditation reflecting an elusive embodiment of migrant identity that continues to dance between recollection and experience. Both series, each in their own way, suggest just how much meaning is a product of imagination as sensory perception is shaped by memory and filtered by context.
When did you begin making photographs?
I was in my senior year of high school. There was a photo club, but no one wanted to join. So, since I have a background in painting, I was assigned to go. At the time, I knew very little about photography and did not own a camera. But, as soon as I developed my first roll of film, I fell in love with the medium. The sequence of thirty-six image frames is like a movie strip, it unfolds a narrative of those moments. For me, it opened up a whole new perspective on storytelling. While painting is an additive process building the picture up bit by bit, photography, on the other hand, is subtractive, distilling a three-dimensional reality down to its essence in a two-dimensional image.
When and why did you move to the USA?
I came to the United States in 1993 to study photography. There is no school teaching photography in Taiwan, even today. Anyway, I was not interested in the pictorial style that was fashionable in Taiwan at that time. Then I saw Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. I was shocked by the unapologetically tough photographs. They raised questions, rather than answering them. He became my idol.
You have lived in the USA now for three decades. How has the experience compared with the America you perceived in Robert Frank’s photographs?
I wish I could say that it is totally different. But, in reality, it has not changed much. The imperfect, melancholy country he witnessed is, many years later, facing the same sense of alienation. Tragically, the pain and complexity of race relations that Frank captured in the 1950s still exists today.
How did your series ‘The Riff of Silence’ begin?
I live close to the desert. On my regular walks through this vast landscape, I hear many different sounds. They come from all directions and come together in my head like a jazz improvisation. It reminds me of an ancient aesthetic concept from the Tao Te Ching. Written around 400 BCE, it says that the greatest music appears in the place it is least expected. That was my initial idea for this project.
How would you describe these images?
Well, they are narrative because they record the moment. But they are also surreal since they blend two different points in time within a single image. Then again, the double exposure merges light, shadow, and colour to create a new image that is quite abstract. The form is hybrid, the result unexpected.
How is the work made?
I shoot on 35mm colour negative film using a panoramic camera. First, I photograph a street scene that attracts me. Then, when the roll of film is finished, I rewind it back to the beginning and shoot for a second time onto the same roll of film. I don’t make notes of what I have shot or try to control which two exposures come together on the film. It’s like a form of improvisational performance, seeking the unexpected. I am looking for a surprise in my routine life. Sometimes, the result is way off. But, finding a juxtaposition of two exposures that surprises me makes it worth all the effort.
How should one interpret these images?
We take it for granted that we see the world as it actually is. However, our perception of the world is only the brain’s best guess at what is actually happening, based on the information it receives and the memories it holds. The images in ‘The Riff of Silence’ are illusions created from a mixing up of different realities. They require the viewer to interpret what they see. Since the visual information is confused and incomplete, the viewer’s brain has to fill in the gaps to work out what it is they see. Of course, how an individual reads my images will depend on their own personal memories and experience. The interplay between what people see in the image and what they perceive it to be or mean becomes a form of improvisation that is different for each viewer.
Initially, this series was called ‘Silence in Synaesthesia’, which you later revised to ‘The Riff of Silence’. Why did you make that change?
In the beginning, I used the idea of synaesthesia as a metaphorical way to describe my project. It’s a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory system leads to involuntary experiences in a second cognitive pathway. So, for example, a sound may make you think of a colour. Later, I felt this work is more about a kind of improvisation riffing off more mundane experiences, while ‘silence’ suggests the uninspired everyday life. The rhythm of a good riff lifts us out of our seats and onto the dance floor…!
How did ‘And I Wander’ begin?
There are many things that led me to start this project, and they all have this in common: searching for a sense of belonging. I have lived in the United States for almost thirty years, yet I still feel like an outsider in a newly adopted land. As a poignant example of this unsettled feeling, when I was setting up my will my attorney asked where I would like to be laid to rest. I found that I could not provide a satisfactory answer. In fact, living in this country for so long, I have trouble recalling what my hometown in Taiwan looks like. I feel I am a stranger in two lands.
Why did you call this series ‘And I Wander’?
The title was inspired by William Wordsworth’s poem that begins “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. In it, he describes the beauty and elegance of a long drift of daffodils with a mixture of joy and loneliness. It is that mood I am echoing in the title.
In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang describe how apparently opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interconnected. I use this analogy to describe the interaction between the environment and me that is suggested by the figure in these images. The mirror and the landscape are two different things, yet they can still merge together.
That nebulous humanoid represents me taking selfies in various locations. It’s a kind of metaphorical self-portrait that seeks to express the tension between conspicuous individuality and environmental assimilation, providing an analogy for my subjective experience of America as an immigrant. However, this visual metaphor is inextricably bound up in the struggle faced by all marginalised groups, be they racial, religious, or LGBTQI+: the struggle to be recognised and embraced by wider society.
What is your experience of being an immigrant in the USA?
This is a hard question to answer. ‘And I Wander’ is the first project in which I explore issues of identity and belonging. Although I’m an immigrant, I have tried to be part of American life. I went to the ballpark to watch the baseball game. I took classes about rock and roll and Broadway musicals. Despite all my efforts, I still feel like an outsider.
How are these ethereal images made?
I was inspired by the Hungarian artist André Kertész and his 1933 ‘Distortion’ series [in which he photographed nudes reflected in variously curved flexible mirrors]. In ‘And I Wander’, I cut carnival mirrors to resemble my own silhouette and placed them in different landscapes in the American Southwest. Each mirrored figure is partially concealed or revealed, depending on its relation to the camera and immediate environment. If the foreground and background are similar, visual continuity is maintained and the figure appears to merge with its surroundings; if not, this continuity is ruptured to surreal effect, making evident the hazy human form. While the figure’s rippling depth appears to be a digital effect, it is entirely the result of this analogue process.
The landscape of Arizona is very different from that of Taiwan. How has the environment shaped the way you make art, if indeed it has?
The difference is not only reflected in the landscape, but also in the culture. There are many great photographers who have captured the American Southwest, and some of them influenced my early development. But I was hungry for more. That is why I went to Ohio for my master’s degree in photography. In Ohio, I expanded my learning beyond photography to include painting, sculpture, and mixed media. The experiences gained over those two years gave me a new direction in artmaking.
What other influences have helped to shape your practice?
I am interested in how Chinese painting, under the influence of Taoism and Buddhism, sought an external expression in a scene. Chinese paintings are seldomly mere representations of the external world. Instead, they are expressions of the mind and heart of the individual artist.
The same principle can also be found in the work of my favourite movie directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Wes Anderson. They use cinematic metaphors to allude to ideas rather than giving direct information. These are characteristics that I want to adapt to my work.
What have you learned in the process of making your art?
As a photographer and designer, the process of creativity is a journey of self-reflection. It allows me to deliberately pay attention to my thoughts, emotions, decisions, and behaviours. At the same time, it is also a Zen meditation. It teaches me about mindfulness, awareness of the self, and being in the moment.
Wen Hang Lin was born in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1971. There being no tertiary photography education available in Taiwan, he moved to the USA in 1993, subsequently graduating with a bachelor’s degree with honours from Arizona State University (1998) and a master’s in fine art from The Ohio State University (2000). His photographic work has been exhibited throughout the USA. He has won several national and international awards including Praxis Gallery’s Directors Choice Award (2018), and first prize for fine art and abstract work at the Prix de la Photographie (2017). His work has featured in a range of print and online publications, among them the Dutch weekly ‘De Groene Amsterdammer’ (2021), LensCulture (2014), and the textbook ‘Photography: A 21st Century Practice’ (Routledge 2020). Wen Hang Lin currently lives and works in Mesa, Arizona.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.