From Clay to Human Hair: Jennifer Ling Datchuk On Her Practice
On Her Practice and The Gold Hill Art Project — Written by Laurie Britton Newell
Can you describe your practice for us?
My practice is multidisciplinary and primarily object based with a focus on the materiality of porcelain clay and human hair. I explore issues of race, gender, and identity through beautifully crafted domestic objects, performance, and documentation.
Can you tell us a little bit about your site in Gold Hill and your installation?
Star Crossed Visitors rests on a triangular plot of land situated at a cross roads and not far from the Richards Cabin, the original site of a working Chinese laundry house during the Gold Rush. I was particularly drawn to this site because of the two different views the cross roads created. The large concrete tub and hair fence could be seen from the top of the road looking down, providing a sweeping image of the installation and Gold Hill. The other road only provided an above ground glimpse of the installation when the bright red human hair rope stood out against the green landscape.
What were your first impressions of Gold Hill?
I arrived to Gold Hill at night and absorbed the long, winding road up the mountain. I captured what I can from the headlights of the car and my initial impressions were extremely quiet and isolated. When I woke in the morning and saw the snow capped mountains in my view, I felt like I had just been plopped in a very special place. I walked and explored Gold Hill with a childlike curiosity of all things Wild West.
How did you approach the research for this project?
I started my research by learning more about the function of a Chinese laundry house and the population and demographics of Gold Hill during the Gold Rush. I conducted research through library databases and the documented oral stories of Gold Hill. I examined the oral stories along with the information I learned from the book “Asians in Colorado: A History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State” by William Wei. After this research, I became very aware of the lack of documentation of the history of Chinese in Gold Hill and how oral stories can sometimes become historical fiction.
What is the significance of hair in your works?
Hairs are tiny threads that link us to our past and present stories. It is an extension of the body that grows in the womb before birth, and in the coffin after death, and the rate or length of growth is beyond our control. It is an everlasting material that can be seen as contradictory; it is desirable or disgusting, pure or processed, innocent or sinful, an afterthought or a crowning glory. I use hair to illicit a human connection to the ideas in the work. For the fence in Star Crossed Visitors, the black Asian hair has been bleached to blonde and then dyed a shade of Chinese red. The ten-foot-long ponytail rope is threaded through concrete pillars to form a broken fence. This hair fence connects the sense of loss, displacement, and otherness the Chinese migrants experienced during the Gold Rush.
Identity seems to be a theme heavily present in your work. Can you explain the different ways you have approached this subject is previous work?
My work has always dealt with identity, with the sense of being in-between, an imposter, neither fully Chinese nor Caucasian. I explore this conflict through porcelain, which nods to my Chinese heritage but also represents “pure” white – the white desire I find in both cultures. My focus is the emotive power of domestic objects and rituals that fix, organize, and soothe our lives. I make molds of these objects and cast them to convey evidence of the trace object and describe situations of manufacturing identity. Porcelain allows me to describe dualities, for this material can capture both fragility and resilience.
I view personal acts of applying makeup and the plucking of eyebrow hairs as moments of contemplation that slowly reveal pain and perfection. In my performance work, my body and hair are the emotive focus that I challenge through extreme alterations that confront the standards and ideals of beauty. Through video performance and digital photography, I am interested in revealing the layers of beauty and dysfunction in the search for identity.
Do you ever have any ideas that you have to abandon due to funding or lack of resources?
All the time but I tend to dream big and sometimes need ask myself if the materials I want are necessary for the work. Can I say this idea with less? Do I really need all of that? I have probably saved a lot of time and money vetting my ideas this way. Sometimes though, there is a material or idea I can’t shake, like a 5-foot-long human hair ponytail for sale on eBay for $2700. I can’t stop obsessing about it and have so many ideas and works planned for it.
What is up next for you?
I have a solo show at a contemporary art space in Houston, Texas called Art League in December. Next summer I will participate in a three-month residency at the European Ceramic Work Center in Oisterwijk, Netherlands. During this time, I will be working on a new body of work that incorporates 3D body scanning and 3D printing of clay to turn by body into a vessel of broken ceramic shards.