“When I die burn durians for me to eat – just place them in my coffin”

On art and senior female culture.


Last year, I was brainstorming the creation of a publication on senior female culture I wanted to title The Grandma Reporter. My classmate suggested writing a manifesto. Here is an early draft still in the works:

“The Grandma Reporter is a publication committed to the subculture of senior females and their rich worlds existing across the earth, where elderly women have lived forever. We aspire to be accessible to young and old but especially to elderly women. We hope to energetically connect our readers, contributors and interviewees in a senior female culture movement. We believe in: proudly declaring your age and keeping it a mystery; dressing up, down and from the heart; talking about death and thinking about past and future lives; walking sticks, wheelchairs and flying in your dreams; wrinkles, bulges, spider veins and bunions; ‘old’, ‘elderly’, ‘senior’, ‘nag’, ‘ageless’, ‘prune’, ‘sage’; discussing disease, incontinence and great television shows; sharing stories of crime, adventure and nonconforming genders; considering the struggles of growing old in a young, technology-focused world; food, genes and other things passed through generations; uncovering long loves, heartbreaks and sex that evolves with age; swimming as a magical way to keep fit in spite of on-land mobility challenges.”

I ended up making a test issue within a frenzied week and a half, in part for the final assignment of the History of Art and Social Practice class taught by Ariana Jacob. I described it as “a publication on senior female culture (including the occasional senior male), exploring topics ranging from fashion, recipes, crime, love and adventure to bunions, caregiving, gender, aging bodies, ageism and death.” My hopes are to find new ways to express the experience of aging in its full spectrum. The name was inspired by The Asian Reporter, a Pacific Northwest news source. The font had to be big enough for seniors. I thought about the term ‘grandma’ and whether it might be alienating to certain sectors of elderly females. In the end, after soliciting advice from various groups of people (and receiving suggestions like ‘silver fox’), I decided to go with it and hope the word could gain currency as broadly referring to elderly females.

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The theme of the test issue was style, which felt like a fun, accessible topic of potential depth to start with. I decided to interview female seniors on their favorite outfit and their thoughts on self-presentation as they age. After that, I would pair each senior with a youth, who would recreate the outfit and ponder the same topic. The Hollywood Senior Center in Portland kindly agreed to put out a call for a group session. Eight seniors who were active members of their community showed up, one enthusiastic male included. Per instructions, most came in their favorite outfit. As each of them mused about their clothing and style through the ages, I sensed a bubbling curiosity amongst them and by the end, a couple new friendships were made. The session felt like a kind of “forum” (as described by one of them) holding a fun investigation on a topic we momentarily found to be of great interest, and that wasn’t usually discussed. It was, eventually, a counsel on identity in old age, and I was the fortunate collector of bouquets like using coke cans to curl hair and a self-confidence that comes with maturing age.

I then went back and intuitively matched each senior to a younger person I knew. I sent them an image and some quotes from their partner, and set out to meet each of them, mostly in their personal spaces where the outfit could be experimented with. Our conversations afforded moments of intimacy in which, for me at least, there was the invisible, comforting presence of their older style accomplice. Though both sets never met, the younger participants were evidently inspired by if not curious about their partner. Our conversations made me see, in spite or because of the unbridgeable gulf in experience between the generations, a kind of longing to reach across the ages. Pondering aging when you are five or twenty-four ended up being a curious, somewhat profound exercise. I was taken by an eight year old boy who recently decided his new mission was to be “funky and classy”, “because it makes me feel better”, and my friend who said, “I think about everything that I’ve done up to now, it makes me feel like I deserve to be 24”. From the start, I had intended the audience of this publication and my projects on aging to include young people; this experience made that desire clearer.

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With the same group of seniors, I conducted a discussion on what they would like to see in, and contribute to, such a publication. The wide range of responses included getting ready for death, how to keep your driver’s license, hoarding, dating, confronting ageism, protecting your bones, relationships with younger family members and having a hobby. These responses are presented in the test issue. Later this year, I may collaborate with these seniors on the next issue.

The first issue also included articles that reflected on the theme differently in terms of content and relationship/interaction with elderly females (personal essays, interviews). My hope is for future issues to include a range of articles centered around an organisation (for example, a senior center), country or topic. I also plan to invite artists to contribute to the publication, discussing or presenting artworks related to senior females.

Me with two of the younger participants, Hadar Kedem (L) and Gavriel Kedem (R). They made their mother read and reread their interviews in the publication to them.

Production costs were kept as low as color printing could reasonably go. I did it on Portland State University’s printers and would like to take a more sustainable approach for future issues. I sorted and stapled the issues together on my kitchen table. A few dozen were given to the Hollywood Senior Center for the participating seniors as well as others to enjoy. It is available as a PDF online (with a donation encouraged) and being stocked at an independent Singapore bookstore, with plans to do the same in Portland. Other possible avenues include senior centers and hip cafes that young people frequent.

I am slowly figuring out who this publication can reach and where. I imagine the networks of readers it might create in different pockets around the world, building a small movement in senior female culture. I am also thinking about the curiosity a Singaporean female elder might feel when reading about her Portland contemporary, maybe learning about lifestyles so wondrously different and others so universal. And perhaps I could organize a meetup for this issue’s young and older pairs to get together in more of their favorite outfits. The possibilities are endless, and I feel more and more like a self-appointed advocate for the elderly or someone whose serious hobby is ‘older people’.


Mama and I over this Chinese New Year

Senior female culture was validated for me through the lived experience of growing up close to my grandmothers. I have lived all my life with Mama (my paternal grandma), and Ah Ma (my maternal grandma) has always been close by. At some point in teenagehood, I started reveling in Mama’s everyday – from her schedule and the things she says, to her fats and fashion sense. I would share quotes and photos on social media, and started wondering if ‘the creative ways people live’ could be the beginnings of something that might be regarded as art, an idea I am sure most of my family members find bewildering.

When Ah Kong (my maternal grandpa) teased Ah Ma about being obsessed with durians, the potent Asian king of fruits, she said, “When I die burn durians for me to eat – just place them in my coffin.” Many Chinese believe that praying to your ancestors with meals they like or burning hell money (stacks of textured gold-leafed paper) will ensure them a happy, comfortable life in the underworld.

When Ah Ma says something like this, I start thinking about how that remark could, beyond her wildest imaginations, be transformed into something like an art installation. This might have the potential to “bring a new social imaginary into being”, in the words of Jonas Staal describing art’s contribution – except that where his commitment lies in alternative parliaments involving refugees and serious debate, mine lies in the geriatric, involving underwear choices, wrinkled body landscapes and bunions – an alternative political space of its own. Jonas’ words seem absurd in my context, where my hoped-for impact is miniscule in comparison to Staal’s. But to me this speaks to what art can do in small and possibly magical ways.


Sleepover with Ah Ma and Ah Kong for the first time as part of my residency with them

I am currently back in Singapore for the winter term and on a loose, self-initiated residency with my grandparents as site. I missed them so much in Portland that I decided to commemorate them and our relationship before it was too late. Some of the projects I’m working on are: an EP of Mama’s Hokkien (a Mandarin dialect) conversations; something on bunions; a talkshow with my grandmas on what they think of me; a short film on my grandfather’s eccentric inventions and habits. Progress has been erratic but I’m enjoying spending time with my grandparents, though their agreement to this is more of a whatever-she-wants-to-do approach. The nature of collaboration is food for thought when there are calls for deeper participation; there are just so many ways of working and being together. I am also thinking about the presentation of these experiments and would like to include my grandparents’ neighbours and friends in the audience, preferably in a personal or community space.



Coming from such an intuitive place, these artistic impulses are hard to articulate, but here’s a shot: I am transmuting my grandparents’ everyday lives, hoping to develop new ways of making art that take the sacred and banal everyday as material. In some private way not immediately apparent to even myself, I am hoping this will do something for my impossible wish that they may never pass on. More broadly, creating projects on senior female culture stems from my deep belief in the rich worlds that elderly females hold within them: fascinating, complex dimensions that go hidden today and which are at once warm, humorous, rigid, open, wise, eccentric and absurd. These worlds are inspiring material for relational art-making in thinking about form, aesthetics and audience. The geriatric has plenty of surprises in store for art.

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Harrell Fletcher: Notes On Claiming


What I wanted to write about today is the concept and practice of “claiming” in relationship to art and specifically social practice. I’ve always struggled with how much students and artists need to know about art to be able to function effectively as artists, sometimes I’ve felt like it might be better to know very little (so as not to be limited by existing frameworks and models), and when it comes to the MFA that I currently am in charge of I encourage people who don’t have undergrad degrees in art to apply, and we have happily accepted folks with degrees in lots of other disciplines, many of whom went on to make amazing art work. If it were in fact up to me, I’d also potentially accept people with no undergraduate degree at all just based on their work and life experience, but the university won’t go for that. 

At the same time my own knowledge of art history has been very influential on my practice and informs a lot of the work I do in a wide variety of ways both conceptual and aesthetic. Duchamp’s readymades, and Richard Prince and Sherry Levine’s work using appropriation have been very important to me in developing my own practice and projects. I was thrilled as a young student when I learned about those approaches, so it is always interesting to me how presenting those concepts to my own students can have such emotionally negative reactions, they seem to feel that those artists were cheating, and think that their success somehow undermines the students own skills in more traditional artist techniques. I’ve seen undergrads brought to tears when learning about Duchamp and his status in the world of contemporary art.

[The American War. Harrell Fletcher]

Anyway, what I wanted to write about here is the potential use of what I’m going to call “claiming” as an artistic method. What I’m talking about has all sorts of potential applications from ones that are just expansions of readymades and appropriation, which is in many ways what I was doing with my project The American War (though I added in site-specific participatory events as well), to other uses which start to operate further afield partly because they can function outside of the need to create some kind of object that can be bought and sold and displayed in an art world venue. I recall that Fischli and Weiss had a project in the late 90’s as part of the Munster Sculpture Project where they just claimed a community garden as their project and directed people to go see it. Actually, I just looked that up and it turns out it was a garden that they had constructed to look like a community garden and it was temporary just for the exhibition time, so that doesn’t work as an example of claiming in the sense that I’m talking about. (Though it does fit well into another topic I’d like to write about sometime which is how prior to the use of the internet it was sometimes hard to find out accurate details about temporary projects and through the reliance of limited documentation or even just word of mouth artists would often be inspired to create something new based on a misinterpretation or lack of details of something that had happened before. That might be something that is being undermined now by so much digital availability to vast documentation and information on the web.)

So let’s just say Fischli and Weiss had not created the garden, but had instead just claimed it, would that be valid? For me it’s no different than a photographer taking a picture of a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) and then presenting the print as their work. Some would say that the formalization of the photograph (composition, technical elements, printing, framing, etc.) are what makes the photograph art, which from my point of view (as a fan of appropriation) isn’t necessary to call something art. It’s really just the act of calling it art that makes it art, but in the case of an artist claiming a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) as their art, there are still various formalizing aspects to doing that.

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[photo credit: Fischli/Weiss: Garten, 1997/2016. Bild: © Fondation Beyeler]

Let’s once again take the garden as a hypothetical example even though in reality it wasn’t done in the way that I thought it was, but let’s suspend reality and pretend that it was. If that had been the case then the project would have been formalized by its inclusion in the program listing along with the other projects that were a part of the show, it would have been on the map showing where all of the sculpture projects were located, there would be a title, description, etc, it would have been included in the exhibition catalog, it would have been documented and re-presented, basically anything that would have happened to a constructed outdoor sculpture that was included in a major exhibition would also have happened to the pre-existing, site-specific, ongoing garden or whatever.

There is a potential problem with this approach that goes beyond just being valid or not as art. It could also be thought of as an imperialistic approach in that the artist without having actually made anything other than a claim, would be seen as the author of a project that someone else or some other group actually created and maintained. This hits on something I’ve also written about related to crediting, and I think it is applicable not only to conceptual claiming projects, but also to almost anything that involves other people’s un-credited contributions to art projects from assistants, fabricators, silent collaborators, participants, etc. In the case of the garden and projects like that it is simple enough to find out who actually created and maintained the garden and then to get approval from them to use the garden as part of an art project and credit them for their role. If it is possible or desirable to share funding then that can happen as well. My sense is that most people would happily have their garden (etc) included in a major art exhibition, especially if they are getting credit and potentially even payment.

Ok, so what if the claimed pre-existing thing isn’t part of a major art project. It can still work without any validating institutional approval or inclusion (though as with all art, that makes it easier to be seen as significant and valuable). There are still other ways for artists to formalize their claim. They can program their own event related to the site or object, they can document it, title it, etc. and then just put it on a website, make a zine about it, present it at a lecture, etc, etc. It could also be more than a single claim, imagine for instance a series of spots that an artist locates and formalizes to go together, like making a music playlist the artist could suggest that people check out a certain tree, talk to a particular person at a store, look at a specific book at a library, eat a suggested item at a food cart, etc. all in a detailed out sequence with potentially added information about each location, sort of like a walking tour of the senses. This selection of claimed spots could be made available in a variety of forms, for instance maybe published in a local weekly newspaper or put up as a flier, or just told to a set of people, and in that way becomes applied and no longer just an idea, then can be listed on a resume, presented in lectures, printed in publications etc, just like any other work of art.

[A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey by Robert Smithson (1967).]

A related example that also had a huge impact on me were two works by Robert Smithson, his 1967 photo article A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, in which he describes in a very conversational tone a set of “monuments” which he observed which were in reality industrial units and piles that he was giving extraordinary significance to, basically treating things like art that weren’t intended as art. In a similar piece, The Hotel Palenque from 1972, (initially presented as a slide lecture, and later published in a Parkett magazine where I first encountered it) Smithson details with photos and more nonchalant but validating language a hotel in Mexico that he stayed at which was undergoing at the same time a process of literal construction and de-construction. The only real difference between the Smithson pieces and what I’m suggesting is the way that an audience can be invited to participate in experiencing the chosen claimed places, objects, sounds, etc.

I think the concept of claiming has all sorts of potential artistic and curatorial applications and would be a welcome addition or even substitution for much of the work produced currently by art students and other artists, who instead continue the largely futile production of studio based objects in the hopes of showing and selling in galleries, which is very unlikely given the high volume of art object production and the scarcity of status quo venues.