Creative expression is often responsive to, or even dictated by, circumstance. German playwright Berthold Brecht recognized as much with his 1939 poem “Motto.” In dark times, he wrote, there will be singing. But, the singing will be about the dark times.
Although plans for the show began in 2019, it’s not lost on this writer (and hopefully not on readers and exhibition visitors) that it has opened during a time when women in Texas—and by extension, women everywhere—are once again forced to fight for their rights to reproductive healthcare choices which are, this time around, being threatened by Senate Bill 8.
“We are told that we live in a country where we have so many freedoms and choices, but there are numerous cultural, political, and social systems that hold us back,” says the artist.
The red, white, and blue color scheme of the exhibition is simultaneously intentional and unintentional, which Datchuk likes. A first generation Chinese American (she grew up in Brooklyn), she explains, “Red is a very important color in Chinese culture. It’s good luck, prosperity, and wealth. Red is in abundance in our households. But it’s hard to talk about red and not acknowledge that red was the political color during the pandemic, a time when the most awful and racist things were said about Chinese and created a whole other level of fear. So red has very complicated associations with it now.”
Thick is a large red curtain of synthetic red hair strung with beads from China, a reference to the infamous red velvet curtain of the theatre stage, with a performer on one side and an unknown audience on the other. “How do we cross this threshold once it’s parted?” Datchuk asks.
The Center held community events during which participants wrote words of affirmation and respect on the beads. Datchuk read every bead as she threaded them into the curtain.
“I am thinking of these metaphorical transitions we make in the world of going from girlhood to womanhood, or being a woman and walking into all male spaces, or being a person of color and walking into all white spaces,” she says. “What can we do to help each other during this time? What are affirmations we tell ourselves to help us keep going when things are hard?”
In Tiny But Mighty, a porcelain table and stools are adorned with blue and white paintings of the artist’s Chihuahuas which, she tells me, are among the most misunderstood dogs. The stools, though seemingly fragile, are made for sitting. And forming a protective ring around the table is a braided blue and white synthetic hair rope inspired by horsehair ropes made in Texas. Legend has it that snakes won’t crawl over the ropes.
Synthetic hair is central to other works as well, including a ladder titled We Climb; Giddy Up, miniature blue and white porcelain Victorianized cowgirl boots with streamers of red and blue hair; Break Like a Girl and Ache Like a Woman, blue and white porcelain garnitures, just out of reach and modernized with images of Powerpuff Girls and neon pigtails, seemingly holding hands or braids, as it were. Also playing with out-of-reach subject matter is Heavy, a large scale string of concrete “pearls” placed on the floor. Glass ceilings are hard for women to break when they are weighed down with expectations of how they “should” dress, act, look, and speak.
The piece references the time between a woman’s period and ovulation, a welcome cycle or not, depending. But it is also a nod to the required two weeks of quarantine due to COVID-19.
“I really do think the personal is political. I use domestic objects that are familiar to the viewer, so that in some ways they can see themselves. I want the viewer to be confronted with themselves for a second. And to have them ask questions,” she says.
Embedded in that familiarity, Datchuk uses humor to prompt questions and conversations about difficult subject matter, sometimes hidden in plain sight in the scale, adornment, presentation, and language of her work. But, she notes, there is something that happens with uncomfortable humor that makes us assess why we’re laughing. What nerve, or complicity, is being poked?