The syllables “zhua jin shijian” have been ricocheting between my ears since childhood. This Chinese idiom translates literally into “grasp tight time,” and my mother frequently used it to hasten her children on chore days. Ironically, – and I’d like to think partly due to a literal interpretation of her directive – I felt compelled to marvel at and collect, rather than efficiently discard, the runaway fingernail clippings and evasive dust bunnies. In one sense, I was just a kid trying to make housework more interesting. But in another sense, I suspect this secret game of collecting mundane detritus was an effort to preserve the physical embodiments of otherwise fugitive increments of time.

As an installation artist, I think of myself as a constructor of tenuous moments who similarly oscillates between labor and play, propriety and impulse. I am allured by and sensitive to clay’s malleability, memory, durability, fragility, and mimetic capabilities. In many of my works, I often start by “documenting moments” through repeated actions, such as shaving leaf-like wisps of clay or categorizing shards. As I accumulate these traces of activity, they start to develop a voice, identity and life of their own (not unlike the birth of a dust bunny). I then physically interact with these unfolding existences and playfully respond to them like a two-year old amongst recyclables. Depending on the particular needs of each case, I may incorporate other materials, media, and phenomena such as wireless technology, transmitted and ambient sound, gravity, breezes, video, light, and bodily movement. The resulting object-systems, installations and interactive works often point to larger enveloping narratives that flirt with the possibility of collapse, chaos and disintegration.

In some instances the viewers also become part of the work, as in the case of Where A Lie May Land and If By Chance, A Rock. The former work goads the mischief-maker in each of us with porcelain rock-forms and toy birds precariously balanced on long wooden catapult-like slats that waver overhead from air disturbances. In the latter work, the onlooker is enticed to don hollow rock-like headphones that emit wirelessly transmitted sounds. As she intently listens the viewer-turned-participant realizes that she is eavesdropping on herself and others in the space, and thereby becomes a spy, a subject and a player simultaneously. I feel successful when I extract people from their hurried lives and reawaken their child-like capacity to wonder and to be present in their bodies and the moment.

Ultimately, my artistic research can be understood as attempts to “zhua jin shijian.” Certainly, in the context of an anxiety-ridden world facing an uncertain future, the relevance and complexity of this little Chinese expression can only grow.


– Shu-Mei Chan