Editor’s Note: Artist, China Blue, lives and produces art in the New England region. She is founder and executive director of The Engine Institute, an organization fostering collaborative explorations between artists and scientists through research, development and presentations, with the goal of facilitating the spread of scientific and artistic literacy. A light and sound artist, China explores human sensory and perceptual abilities through her investigations and explorations into bioacoustics, ultra and infrasonic sampling devices, brain wave monitoring, and robotic sensory avatars. Here, she sets her sights on a complex human condition–Alzheimer’s disease–applying her creative abilities to discover new ways of understanding the way we think and feel.
Richard Friswell: I see your work on display in galleries and installation settings in the greater New York area. It is a pleasure to finally explore it with you, in depth. First, tell me about the overarching message of your recent series of paintings?
China Blue: This work explores how we connect and hold on to our life experiences. Memory is transient. Our recollections occur in fragments that arrive as flashes detached from time. “Memory Networks” is a project that investigates linking and preserving them in beautiful abstract figurative forms to hold them together. Made with aluminum based paint the shiny globules and lines make for stunning examples of how we can hold on to our thoughts and experiences. xxxxx
RF: Your work has a poignancy that is not immediately apparent. What prompted your interest in memory?
CB: As an artist, I always wanted to make works on the topic of Alzheimer’s and the loss of memory and identity associated with it. This is based on my experience seeing grandmother suffer from and finally die of complications from its impact. It is an unusual topic for an artist but for me the impact on my life was emotionally scaring. When I realized that my grandmother no longer recognized me or knew my name was a breaking point that I could never come to terms with. But it is not just me that has felt the painful process of the progressive loss of a loved one’s ability to function well in the world, it impacts the lives of all people whose parent, grand parent, husband or wife who suffer from it. This disease not only affects an individual but also leaves behind a growing community of people living with loss. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative mental disease that destroys memory and other brain functions. Although, it has been recognized for at least 100 years researchers have yet to find a cure. An estimated 5.3 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease in 2015 and by 2025, the number of people age 65 and older with disease is estimated to reach 7.1 million. The statistics are numbing yet what about the emotional impact it has on the survivors who live with seeing their loved ones hit by the long process of decline? They too are affected emotionally and financially for their lifetimes. It is creating a cultural scar that is perpetually reopened by many for each case that appears.
RF: How does this experience get translated into art?
CB: I like fabricating the things I use to make art. I am in some ways a DIYer (do-it-yourself person) who solders electronics for my interactive installations, creates innovative recordings like monitoring the iron of the Eiffel Tower to make unique sound based work and mixing my own paint although I have not painted seriously since my college years. Over those years I felt I never had an interesting topic yet recently, I realized that the topic of the diseased brain would be a good one to address in paint. For this work, I began with experimenting with making a paint based on aluminum. In the early 1970’s there was a nationwide rejection of aluminum products like cookware, antiperspirant, vaccines, antacids etc. due to the fact that aluminum was associated with the disorder. This turned out to be a fallacy yet it points to the fact that the disease has continued since then.
Left: Memory Networks IV (2015), mixed media, 22 x 28″.
The paint was difficult to master because one component turned out to be very sensitive to humidity which was be difficult to manage in the New England summer time. But, eventually I learned how much humidity it could handle so that defined when I could paint. With this new luscious paint in hand, I decided to apply it to the frightening images of Alzheimer’s impacted brains. These images are not for the feint at heart. They show literal holes in the brain that have been whittled away by the disease. I focus on these voids and fill them with this beautiful glossy and scintillating paint that has the fluid look of liquid silver. I then draw organic styled lines to reconnect what was lost designing a biology based figurative abstraction.
RF: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced developing this work?
CB: My relationship to painting has been fraught with issues. Although I found painting with acrylic and encaustic painting in my college years compelling, I was never totally comfortable with it. Years later did I realized it was because my first experience painting was not based on the western tradition of creating an illusion of reality rather it was influenced by the Zen concept of focusing on spontaneity while locating the primary qualities of the object. This idea was perpetuated during the three years I spent studying sumi-é painting with the Berkeley based Japanese master Chiura Obata. Obata is known for his dramatic paintings of nature and Yosemite and the daunting illustrations of the Tanforan detention center where he and his family were held with other Japanese Americans who were feared to be an American security risk during WWII.
Right: Memory Networks VII (2015), mixed media, 22 x 28″.
At Tanforan, Obata not only painted but he also created and ran an art school that attracted 600 students. Years later, weekly in his home/studio I felt humbled to be able to learn how to make iris, Koi (Japanese goldfish) and frogs from him by developing spontaneous gestures. It was an exercise in trying to set aside the rational side of my mind and trust the power of intuition. The Zen Buddhist concept is to go beyond our mind-driven egos and compose spontaneously from a deeper dimension of consciousness. Although this sounds vague, it was a natural effort that needed no illustration for me. I had spent a period of time studying improvisational dance which taught me that through movement one gesture connected to the next and lead to the interconnectivity of people and life.
RF: That seems an unlikely direction to look for inspiration as you develop a scientifically-based series like this. Were there other sources you looked to?
CB: At that time life, art, poetry, dance and music in the San Francisco Bay Area were interconnected and heavily influenced by Zen philosophy. Discussions and readings were regularly presented by the philosopher Alan Watts on the Berkeley radio station, KPFA. Books like the Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” and later Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” caught the minds of the hippy generation, while Zen influenced art was made. Yet this influence was not new. The American Avant Garde that began in the 1940’s focused on the Zen concepts of spontaneity and humor. This was embraced by people who are now contemporary icons like the musician John Cage, the poets Jack Kerouac, Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg and artists like Ad Reinhardt, Isamu Noguchi, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and later Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles and Yoko Ono.
Below: Memory Networks VI (2015), mixed media, triptych, 22 x 28″ each.
RF: So explain to me how you finally made the leap to paint and canvas?
CB: Although, I admired these artists I was not directly influenced by their art work. What lingered in my subconscious is the idea that the spontaneity of action is a pure form. This idea surprised me as it became visible for the first time in my application of paint. First, I draw the shapes of the voids then I fill them, but without the usage of a brush, rather I just pouring the paint. I then create the organic lines with an architect’s stylus. These are formed by gestures called up from my physical memory of the undulating line I used to paint iris stems established over that three year period with Obata. Now strangely, this process takes no thought at all it comes to me as if I have been making them all of my life leaving time to think. In the process of making these works I think of spontaneity of action in relationship to neuronal triggering and the interconnectedness of neuronal firing that creates an organization or a system larger than the individual: a network.
Right: China Blue, with her Firefly series
RF: So, how do a complex neurological phenomenon and paint finally mix?
CB: In the brain, nerve cells never work alone. In a neural circuit, the activity of one cell directly influences many others. This is called the neural network. With “Memory Networks” I am considering this concept but basing it on the Alzheimer’s disruption of cellular communication and what is lost in the brain. “Memory Networks” defines a system that connects the voids and proposes that this disruption is a network unto itself. It illuminates the possibility of individual and social networks based on loss, the usage of degeneration and disability to shape design and provides insight by finding beauty in destruction.
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
Explore the intersection of art and science at China Blue’s site: http://www.chinablueart.com/
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