A Speech Given at the Opening Night of Candy R. Wei’s Art Exhibition
Jewett Sculpture Court, Wellesley College, March 4, 2003
I would like to thank you all for coming. Some of you came to listen to a speaker address the thematic concerns of the Asian Awareness Month held here at Wellesley College. I also hope that some of you came because you are interested in my daughter Candy Wei’s art exhibition and wish to find out more about her. The organizer of this event very graciously told me that I should feel free to talk about any subject I think appropriate. I quickly realized that I am in an unfamiliar territory. I realized that this is the first time in my twenty years of academic career that I am addressing an audience who didn’t come to hear me talk about my research and scholarship.
I came here to speak in several capacities. I will speak as the mother of an artist-poet whose exhibition was the main reason that brought me here. I am a literary critic trained to interpret texts and meanings. I am also a professor of Chinese cultural studies at MIT where I have enjoyed teaching a primarily ASIAN American student body. And perhaps most relevant to the organizer of this event, I have been an advocate for the reform of university mental health services for students.
When Tuyet Nguyen first approached me about a speaking engagement in conjunction with Candy’s art exhibition, I hesitated. I had spoken twice in public about Candy in the past two years. At each time my mission rested on a singular purpose. The first occasion was intensely personal. It was a speech given at the memorial service held for Candy at Duke University where she grew up and where I taught then. My mission on that occasion was to help our friends in the Duke community come to terms with the pain and deep confusion that survivors often felt toward those who committed suicide. The second occasion was my interview with the ABC Evening News, aired last February. In that ABC news segment, the story about Candy was framed in the context of university mental health crisis.
I helped frame two different Candys for the public audiences obsessed with the message her suicide conveyed. The Candy commemorated at Duke was a dear child whom our community lost; the Candy presented in the ABC Evening News was a victim of inadequate mental health service on campus. Neither frame is viable because they tell us little of who Candy was and nothing about the organic co-existence of her art and her illness. So in my talk today I want to experiment with a different frame that will allow me to talk about Candy’s art and her mental illness at the same time, and, in the process of linking the mental to the artistic, I would like to introduce you an alternative vision about a creative approach to mental health education. This is an approach that emphasizes self-empowerment of the mentally ill students through the staging of their own creative projects. I am not sure if I will be able to accomplish everything I set out to do.This is a complex agenda. It has been a long time since I looked at Candy’s art and writings on her web site. It was an intense experience that required extreme self-constraint on my part to navigate through. I am not certain if I was able to sustain the same level of mental concentration that I wish to. Above all, I wrestled with an indecision as to whether I should speak as a mother or as a professor. Therefore, you may find what I will demonstrate later a bit fragmentary and perhaps incomplete because of the difficulty I am speaking of.
This is the first real art exhibition that Candy had. I would like to invite you to get acquainted with her as an artist who has a story to tell and a vision to convey through images. What is her vision like? There may be several visions. And I don’t feel entitled to monopolize the interpretation of her work. But the one vision that intrigues me and speaks to me most powerfully as a mother and a Buddhist is her dramatization of the passage through which the deceased have to travel before entering a new cycle of life again. I am speaking of the egg and sperm series in her work to which Candy devoted the last year of her life in conceptualizing and creating. The series is made up of three dozens of drawings, paintings, and wood block prints that celebrate the magic moment of the fertilization of the egg. If you immerse yourself in those works, you will experience her joyful vision about living, and her obsession with capturing the very instant when life comes into being. You would hardly suspect that this was created by an artist who was going to give up living.
I will show you several images from that series:
Sperms dancing on the egg. The dancing sperm in the foreground and on the left side resemble musical notes. A visual concert, light-hearted and festive.
sperm – A sperm swimming toward a matured egg which is absent in the frame. But if we put this image back into the context of the entire series, we would know that the absent egg is the home and point of destination for the bat-like creature of a sperm.
The next image I will show you is on exhibit – wood block prints of different colors – the centripetal lines that move toward the circle – the symbol of the egg – are representations of sperms.
Candy’s assignment to Justin Life and Justin’s drawing in response. Candy had a good friend in high school Justin, who is also an artist, who often looked up to Candy for inspiration and for new creative assignments. In this email Candy sent to Justin, she gave him a new drawing assignment:
Justin’s drawing in response.
January 31, 2000
hi there. i’m glad that school’s finally in session. i’m having an okay time here. i’m trying to finish an english paper on racial politics. it’s challenging because it’s such a complex issue.
i have a drawing assignment for you …after months and months of thinking…
draw an entity being born WITHOUT using the common imagery. like don’t draw a mother giving birth to her baby, and don’t draw a horse giving birth to her colt. don’t do shit like that. an entity can be anything. it can be human, but it can’t resemble one physically (it has to be representational); it can be an animal; it can be a star; it can be a machine; it can be anything, but it has to be representative of that entity in some way. you can use any medium you want. i’ll expect to see it during the summer. no hurry or anything.
This e-mail documented the birth of the egg and sperm series in Candy’s mind. It shows us how consciously Candy had been grappling with the issue of the representation of birth.
Looking at those images, we can raise many questions. How do we reconcile Candy’s life story with her signature series of the egg and sperm motif? Did she embrace life? Or did she give up life? Did her suicide tell us one story, and her art another? Did the two conflicting versions deliver us the image of an artist torn between life and death? An easy and conventional interpretation. Or is there certain consistency between what happened to her life and what she created as an artist? Whatever the answer is, one thing remains clear to me: without her struggle with schizophrenia and with what comes with it – a haunting voice that told her to kill herself now and then – without that illness, there would be no egg and sperm series. She would not have consistently nurtured such a powerful attachment to images of life and birth.
As a mother, I read something more into her work which prompted me to name this exhibition “She is becoming.” I saw in the series Candy’s unconscious yearning not only for birth, but for rebirth.
Shortly after she recovered from her first psychotic episode at 15, she started a new zine – Yteicos – “society” spelled backwards.
She opens the founding issue with a quote from Jim Morrison:
“Why the desire for death.
A clean paper or a pure
white wall. One false
line, a scratch, a mistake.
Unerasable. So obscure
by adding million other
tracings, blend it,
But the original scratch
remains, written in
gold blood, shining.
Desire for a perfect Life.”
The desire for death is a desire for a perfect Life.
After Candy died, I came across this poem and the first issue of Yteicos again. It was another moment of epiphany for me. I understood, belatedly, that this Jim Morrison quote was a translation of her own mental condition. It spoke to Candy so powerfully that she used it as an opening piece for the inaugurating issue of Yteicos. It spoke to her because it would become a footnote on her own decision later. The desire for death is a desire to start over again. That was what Candy the artist always did. When she was drawing or painting, if she made a tiny mistake, instead of mending it, she always threw it away and started over with a new canvas. She had no tolerance for even “one tiny scratch.”
Now I want to show you two images that speak out loud her unconscious desire for starting over.
Candy’s last painting (water color) – December, 2000 – a little over a month before her suicide. The timing of this water color is significant. Living under the shadow of death, Candy was still thinking about birth. But I think the moment of “birth” here already takes upon the meaning of re-birth. The most unambiguous image of rebirth she created is found in the wood block print of an old fetus in a womb.
The concept of rebirth is visualized here in the old fetus stuck uncomfortably in an irregularly shaped womb, with one foot sticking out impatiently. In an earlier water color version of this same motif, the womb looks like a big box.
One foot of the fetus is already out. Outside the cube stands this little vegetation strewn with red berries or flowers. One tiny berry even fell inside the box. A sign of spring and rejuvenation.
Those images provide us her cryptic messages about rebirth. But there is at least one occasion where Candy placed “rebirth” explicitly in the context of death. It is found in a companion piece to the Morrison quote, her editorial for the first issue of Yteicos:
Quote Candy: “Death is the passing from this tortured existence to a better time, a better place. In some religions, this is a heaven, in some, a hell. Possibly the only afterlife is a void, where we sit waiting for rebirth, and a vicious cycle of pain will begin again.”
This strange condition of waiting in a void for rebirth after one died is captured in another series of her work – photo collages on the bardo. The “bardo” is the Tibetan term for the limbo between death and reincarnation. It spans forty-nine days.
The bardo is a painful state of becoming, visually captured in strange, alienating physical landscape. The dead is not made totally aware of her own departure from this earth and is roaming across unfamiliar realms she cannot recognize. There is a confusion as to where the landscape belongs and where she is. It is neither heaven nor hell, as she said, nor the earth. This series of photo collages captures the liminal state of becoming.
One final image I will take you to visit is a mind spot of Candy’s where the visual meets the verbal, where she named schizophrenia, visualized it, and rendered inseparable from her vision of rebirth which is ultimately overlapped with the metaphor of growth. It is a booklet she made that combined graphic design with words. It is a reinterpretation of Deleuze and Guattari’s famous postmodern classic A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
Candy was inspired by what the root meaning “schizo” could visually evoke. Every page in her booklet is split in half. She was also fascinated with the companion notion of “rhizome” (rizum), a term in botany. A rootlike subterranean stem that keeps splitting and growing. She writes on a half page: “When a rhizome is broken, it returns to the root and reconnects.”
This quote is accompanied by images of splitting, (therefore) multiplying sperms seeking to fertilize eggs.
This image and all those other images I have shown you recapitulate a paradox: Even though Candy’s art celebrates birth and rebirth, it foreshadows her death. Yet on the other hand, precisely because her art is preoccupied with images of becoming, it delivers us from total despair. I am, of course, biased as a mother, in my appreciation of Candy’s work. But I think even total strangers would have to marvel at her ability to translate her struggle with schizophrenia into an artistic vision that blurs the boundaries between tragedy and comedy.
Creativity and Mental Health Education
I spoke earlier about my reaction to how Candy was framed in the ABC Evening News segment – she was framed as a victim of delinquent mental health services on university campuses. I have very mixed feelings about that frame. On the one hand, I was using media to gain public support to pressure university campuses to reexamine student mental health services. But on the other hand, I disagree with those advocates of mental health reform who take the conventional approach of presenting those who died of suicides and the mentally ill as victims. I think it is the wrong approach because it implicitly denies the agency of mental patients. It leads parents and mental health staff to stake all their hopes about possible changes to come at the institutional level only. That is a top-down approach that offers a support system located externally to the patient. Therefore, it fails to recognize the possibilities of self-empowerment as a viable instrument of healing, and as an instrument of preventive therapy. But what does this have to do with Candy and artistic expressions?
The point of connection lies in the potential of creativity as a means of healing and self-empowerment. Candy had her first psychotic episode at the age of 15. It was a very severe episode. It took her a full year to be able to stand back on her feet again. She coped with it by writing poetry and thinking about starting her first literary zine. And during that long period of recovery (1995-96) she never stopped painting. The androgynous angel and the screaming female figure – two pieces in this exhibit – were completed during that time. Through the creative outlet, she was able to maintain a precarious balance between living a mental patient’s life and a normal life. But eventually, we know it was not enough for Candy to fight alone – in isolation.
This alternative, creative, approach to mental health education that I want to talk about has a real life model. It is a group model called Mentality. Mentality was established in 1996 by a small group of passionate students at the University of Michigan who were dedicated to addressing issues of mental health in a new and provocative way. Mentality is a performance and mental health advocacy group. At the core of this student organization is the use of creative art and expressions to “create safe and liberated spaces” in which participants feel free to “share, discuss, and explore their own pain, hope, fears, and ideas in a step toward both individual and community healing.” They are particularly interested in using theater as a medium for connecting. They have staged their performances in the form of theater, dance, art, poetry, and other means of creative expressions. Contrary to the stereotyped images of mental patients, the performers on stage are capable, intelligent, functioning students who either have a mental disease, or are their allies in the movement to educate the public about mental illness. They fight stigma by re-humanizing the issues, empowering not only the performers but the audiences. What is most valuable about this model is its potential to break through the thick wall of silence about mental illness. It is the best preventive model available that stresses the self-healing capacity of the mentally ill.
Inspired by the model of Mentality, I have grown a curricular vision which is still premature. But I would like to share that with you. I envision a credit-giving course on the Psychology of the Theater. The course will examine materials in both Asian and world theater, of both classical and modern period, that deal with depression, mental derangement, and suicides. The course should be publicized to the entire student body, but more importantly designed to reach out to students who have experienced symptoms of instabilities & depression at the present or in the past. Side by side with those historical plays, clinical literature on depression and mental illnesses will constitute the other half of the syllabus. Performances of the students’ own skits and plays — what we will call “laboratory work” at MIT – will constitute a major component of this class. The challenge is staffing. Because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of role playing, and by implication, the use of human subjects in research and teaching, this course would require team-teaching involving both a staff member in clinical psychology and a professor in Theater and Drama. I approached the authorities at MIT and gathered some interest in this curricular vision. But I have yet to follow it up by identifying interested colleagues in Theater and Psychology and persuading them to work together to develop the course. It is not going to happen overnight. This is, in fact, the first time I am tossing this idea out to a public audience. I don’t know if it is feasible.
What I do know is that somebody like Candy would appreciate this course. She would feel invigorated by the experimental spirit of a structured creative peer group like this. It would help her relieve feelings of oppression imposed on her by the silence that surrounds topics of mental illness and suicide. There are many endearing moments about Candy that linger in my mind to this day. One such moment comes alive whenever I am thinking about this hypothetical course. It was an afternoon when she came back from school (her last year in high school) and told me in an outburst of excitement , “Mom, I was chosen to play Ophelia in Hamlet!” She was proud of being cast in the role of the insane Ophelia. I couldn’t quite understand her excitement then. I thought that being intensely shy and private, Candy was out of her character to say yes to such an assignment. But I was wrong. Today, my mental image of a liberated Candy on stage, acting out her fears and her shame for being mad, stays very much alive in my mind. This is my personal footnote on the pedagogical vision I am speaking of.
Finally, coming back to the main reason of why we gathered here today, I hope that catharsis, which is the emotion that links creative performance with self-empowerment and healing, is the emotion you will experience as you walk through Candy’s work and appreciate her vision of the comedy of becoming.
I would like to give my heart-felt thanks to the three people who made this event possible. Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Tuyet Nguyen, and Wileen Kao. I am very grateful to my colleagues and friends from Foreign Languages and Literatures at MIT who drove all the way from Cambridge to participate in this event. And my thanks to all of you who came today to explore with me the mind of an artist and to create new meanings in life through Candy’s art.