Lena Chen in Conversation with Chun Hua Catherine Dong

Chun Hua Catherine Dong. I Have Been There. 2015 – ongoing. Photo credit: Oliver Santana & Elizabeth Ross. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

By Lena Chen

The expansive practice of Chun Hua Catherine Dong utilizes the artist’s own body as a bridge between immigrant and nation, mother and daughter, and the personal and the public.

First and foremost a performance artist, her work has taken the form of photography, video, installation, and more recently, animation and augmented reality. Born in China, Dong immigrated to Canada, where she received a BFA from Emily Carr University Art & Design and an MFA from Concordia University. Her experiences occupying a racialized body and adapting traditions from her homeland have played heavily in her practice, which has explored marriage, death, and maternity.

Having performed and exhibited internationally, she was also a 2014 recipient of the Franklin Furnace Award for contemporary avant-garde art and a finalist for Contemporary Art Award at Le Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec ( Prix en art actuel du MNBAQ) in 2020.

Dong spoke with us about her experience of creating intimate body-based works that engage the participation of public audiences and spaces.

Lena Chen: I noticed that your most recent work, Skin Deep, and your long-running series I Have Been There, share a similar aesthetic through the use of traditional Chinese embroidered fabric. Can you talk about how they evolved?

Chun Hua Catherine Dong: These two works actually do not have many connections except using the same fabric. In 2014, I bought some fabric in Chinatown in Montreal, where the supply is very limited. The fabric was wrapped on my face very randomly and looked terrible, so I didn’t develop it further. But in 2017 and 2018, I went back to China and collected all kinds of new fabric that I began to work with. More recently, I expanded Skin Deep to animation and augmented reality to make this work more alive and architectural.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong. Skin Deep. Photographs with Augmented Reality. 2014-2020.

 You have performed in performance art festivals around the world from The Great American Performance Art in New York to Infr’Action in Venice to Dublin Live Art Festival in Dublin to Miami Performance International Festival. Can you talk about how the site-specific performative work I Have Been There came out of your lifestyle as a traveling artist?

I started I Have Been There in 2015. I love traveling and really miss it right now [because of COVID-19]. One of the good things about being a performance artist is the chance to travel because the body is your material and your body is your work. If you travel to a new city, you need to see the tourist attractions. But I’m also a bit of a workaholic, and I considered it a waste of my time to just go see attractions without doing anything. I thought what if I could visit these sites while making work?

Chun Hua Catherine Dong. I Have Been There. 2015 – ongoing. Photo credit: Oliver Santana & Elizabeth Ross. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

Chen: I’m interested in how the work deals with your relationship to your own mortality and Chinese traditions around burial, especially because of the material you’ve chosen to use.

Dong: In my hometown, there’s a tradition that when the parents die, each daughter of the family makes a shroud and they cover the body with it.  When my father passed away, he had six daughters. So, his body was covered with these six layers that he was buried with.

According to Chinese tradition, it’s your children who bury you. And if you don’t have children, it’s your family. But I live here in Canada and everyone else in my family is in China. I decided not to have children, so I thought nobody’s going to bury me. But I’m still very young. I have these fantastic [opportunities] to travel around the world, so why don’t I just bury myself in the most beautiful desirable spaces wherever I want?

I have been doing this project for five years right now. Every time I travel to a new space, I would do another part of the series there. So far, I have traveled to 33 cities and 15 countries in the world. My plan is that I’m going to do it until I die or until I can’t travel anymore. This is my commitment.

Chen: Death seems to be a common theme in your work. I was also very moved by how you made peace with your mother’s passing through your art.

Dong: I was supposed to visit my mother in the summer of 2016, but I went to London because a curator invited me to do something. Then in October, she passed away very suddenly, so I have a lot of regrets about that. In the tradition of my hometown, they only keep the body for three days, and after three days that they have to bury her. But my passport was expired at the time and I couldn’t get my visa in three days, travel to Beijing, and then travel to the village. It would have taken me at least five or six days.

I wanted to do something dedicated to her because I feel I should have been there for her death, but I wasn’t. So in 2017, I went back to China, and originally, I wanted to find her personal belongings – her shoes, her clothes, her bed – so  I could do something right. But after her death, my family burned everything because of tradition. They believe when a person is dead, they need access to their belongings right away in the afterlife.

I was very disappointed there was nothing left of her belongings. It was very sad. There were no smells. There were no visible things. When I was in China, I realized I was looking for my mother everywhere. If I walked around and heard a voice that sounded like my mother, I would turn around and see this old lady and I would notice that the way she walked or wore her hair would be like my mother. Her smile would look like my mother, so I was looking for my mother through other people’s mothers.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong. Mother. Photograph & Video: 14 pieces of photographs, inkjet prints, size varies, 2017.

Chen: Can you talk about how you decided to honor her memory by engaging with the women who were close to her?

Dong: I decided that I was going to looking for my mother’s childhood friends and relatives because since I came to Canada, I barely had contact with them. I visited them and I asked them because I don’t have any clothes to wear from my own mother if each of them could offer her clothes [for] me to wear. 

My mother also always loved these traditional beautiful cotton flower shoes. So, I brought a pair of shoes to each mother in my project. I thought about this kind of Cinderella story of whoever fits this crystal shoe is the bride. I started [to] imagine, whoever fits these shoes is my mother. I would take a photograph of us together, with me wearing their clothes and them wearing the shoes. At that time, I didn’t even think about what I was doing as work. I was doing it for myself, as a memorial to my mother.

Next year, I will return and live with each mother for a day as her daughter. I will document this day with the 14 mothers. This film is called Mothers with No Names.

Chen: Even though the work is very much tied to your own relationship with your mother, grappling with the death of a parent is such a universally understood experience. How has the public received this piece?

Dong: The mother is universal. Every time I show this work, people become very emotional,  People connect themselves to the mother in the photograph. When I showed it in Istanbul, this woman came to me and she was crying. She showed me that the jewelry she was wearing belonged to her mother.

The first time I showed this work was in South Korea and the curator said it made her think of her mother as well, who was getting older. When I had my artist talk,  she left and later apologized, saying that she knew I’d be talking about the piece and it was too emotional for her to be there thinking about her own mother.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong. Husbands and I. Photography and performance. 2009-2011. Series photo credit: Ruth Skinner and Chad Darnford. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Chen: Even though they’re very different works, I see connections in the methods you used for your series Husbands and I, in which you documented entire days you would spend with strangers who you “married.” How did you go about getting participants for that work?

Dong: That was 11 years ago when I was still in art school. I used Craigslist and dating websites, hung flyers on the street, passed them out to people, and left them in coffee shops. At that time, I was very passionate about a performance. But now if you asked me to do it, if I could spend a day with a stranger, no, no, no, I wouldn’t. I never thought about the fact that there could be danger there because I was meeting this person I didn’t know and I went to this person’s home to spend a whole day with them. I could’ve been killed.

Chen: And did participants know this was supposed to be an artwork or was there also an expectation of intimacy?

Dong: Of course, they knew it, because I asked them to sign the contract. But also, there were many men who wanted to spend a day with me, until I said, “Okay, I’m going to film it. It will be an art piece and exhibited.” And then, 90% dropped out. They said, “Oh, I would love to spend a day with you without the camera” and I refused. 

I remember two participants. One still calls me his wife, but of course, he knows I’m not.  We had a ceremony, because he had a party, and I was at his house and he announced me as his wife, that we were getting married. He put a ring on my finger, and he felt that he really married me.

There was also another guy, and he was begging me to spend a day longer with him. He wanted me to be in his real life, but I couldn’t. Before this, I believed in the idea that art is life, but then I realized, if your art is really your life, you are going to mess with your life. I could not bring those men into my real life. I didn’t want to have any more connection with them, but of course, after that, [they] kept calling me, and I had to say no.

Chen: How did the project affect the way you thought of power and identity, as an Asian woman living in a Western society?

Dong: A reason I stopped doing the project is [that] after I spent the day with some of the men, I actually felt a little bit like I was taking advantage of them. The reason I was able to stay a day with them is because they don’t have partners. They are lonely people. Otherwise, they were not going to allow me to be in their life. Even though they know, it’s going to be filmed and it’s going to be an art piece, they still wanted to take this chance, because they needed this company and this kind of excitement. [In] the beginning, this work was a political piece because I always felt like I was an outsider despite living in Canada for a long time. But when you close the door and spend a day with this so-called privileged white person, I realized we were just two normal people, staying together and chatting. Before I was working on a lot of identity issues, but my work started to change after that.

Chen: What guidance do you have for other artists working in performance?

Dong: If you don’t doubt yourself, then other people won’t doubt you. When you do the performance, you have to 120% believe in what you’re doing at the moment.

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