Manhattan Graphics Center
By Chiara Mannarino
Although she is known for her stunning, abstract work with alternative photographic processes, Ajuan Song’s most recent series, Tear of Nature, reflects an entirely new venture for the artist, one that Song notes has signaled a moment of artistic growth and coming into her own.
Unlike Song’s previous work, Tear of Nature is a deeply personal series that has allowed the artist to explore her own identity as a woman born in China during the years of government-enforced population control along with her relationship to and understanding of femininity. As a second-born child, Song witnessed her mother lose her job by choosing to keep her daughter alive. She grew up in a society where women weren’t permitted to do certain things merely because of their gender. Consequently, she felt so stifled by the societal expectations imposed upon her that she often wished she were a boy instead. Song sees these new photographs as a way for her to softly speak about the issues she has witnessed and experienced firsthand.
Although softness usually carries a negative connotation, Song believes that “soft” does not mean “weak.” While reflecting upon her upbringing in a society where women are expected to be docile and humble, she asked me to consider how water is capable of slowly eroding a stone over time, a testament to the power of gentle, slow work in the face of stubborn persistence.
As I walked around the Manhattan Graphics Center, I felt Song’s past, present, and dreams for the future coalesce in each photograph. All of the images contain the silhouette of a female figure composed of delicate tree branches, which intersect to create spindly webs that resemble human veins. The female figure is Song herself—each self-portrait is shot with film on the artist’s Rolleiflex camera and then digitally abstracted to include only the body’s outline. The tree branches that live within the figure’s form entirely fill the body and provide it with all it needs to survive, becoming its life force and infusing it with energy and vitality. These fine and bare wooden limbs were captured in photographs taken in parks across New York City mostly in the wintertime and later superimposed with Song’s outline through Photoshop layering. This digital manipulation allows Song to produce composite images that are entirely harmonious, from their serene gray background to their flawless union of images. Her melding of analog and digital technologies yields results that could not be achieved by choosing between the two. This artistic decision demonstrates her belief in the power of union and balance to create otherwise unattainable outcomes.
Every detail in these intricate images is significant for Song, and her choice to include her own body in the work reflects the personal nature of this series. Though natural, her poses are strategic, intending to embody the Chinese belief that one must be humble in front of nature, which holds divine wisdom. By artistically conceiving a harmonious accord between humanity and nature, Song envisions a reality in which all entities sharing this earth are equal, a condition that often seems inaccessible within the context of our current moment.
In today’s world, the once-ambiguous term “global warming” has become all too tangible, and, in New York, hectic inhabitants often fail to appreciate the few and precious patches of green that exist in the bustling hub of concrete high-rises and construction. Through this series, Song shares her belief that these realities could all be prevented if humans and nature coexisted respectfully and harmoniously with one another. However, she acknowledges the precariousness of this notion in her series title, which references the delicate line that lies between division and unity. Song revealed that she is currently in the process of creating the second part of this series, which will focus on the same motifs but now from a discordant rather than peaceful perspective. Through Tear of Nature, Ajuan Song is claiming ownership of her heritage, exploring the relationships that can exist between dualities, and sharing her vision of what our world has the potential to look like—and what a beautiful world it could be.
Ajuan Song’s Tear of Nature is on view at the Manhattan Graphics Center until Sunday, August 11th.