In the summer, I made a short film composed with all the little linocuts that I’ve created since the beginning of lockdown, with a voiceover of me talking about my private hopes, fears and absurdities. It’s six minutes long, with six months of prints in it: and you can see it here!

I’d like to talk about some of the extra prints which I put in the video.

Poison Cloak (2020) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut 15 x 20 cm

I know we are all now wearing masks, but I couldn’t help imagining the particles of our personal microbiome spilling out into the world, touching everyone who ventures into our zone. I was temporarily obsessed with the fear of being a secret super-spreader (a person who could merrily infect dozens more than the average carrier): and whether I would find out before it was too late.

Screen Overload (2020) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut and Monoprint

Working from home became a thing. It was something I was doing before, but only twice a week: now I was there all the time. I pictured my body attenuating under the strain of working through the screen, like some kind of spider trapped in a web of her own making.

Death by Email (2020) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut and monoprint, 15 x 20 cm

During Spring, the weather became absolutely and infuriatingly beautiful, but outdoor time was restricted. In my little flat, stacked above and below and beside a hundred other little flats, the westerly sunshine would stream in and cook the floor and fill the room with a dancing fug of warmth. Even with every window open to the max, the heavy air brought no refreshment, and the lassitude from computer work made me wonder whether it might actually be possible to die from too many emails.

Gilded Binbag (2020) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut 15 x 20 cm

I am so grateful to live alone. My space is safe and spacious for one person, and it’s the first time I have had a place I can call home. I wanted to draw this space as a kind of golden cage, but it turned out looking a little bit more like an upside-down parachute, or a bulging plastic bin bag…

Lockdown Chop (2020) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut and monoprint, 15 x 20 cm

Lockdown chop: actually, I’ve cut my own hair for a while. There’s two reasons: firstly I love the sound of scissors slicing and scattering hair, it’s very soothing. Secondly, I have a mild phobia of hairdressers (they usually marvel at the coarseness and thickness and always promise they’ll do something magical, forgetting to mention that a lot of styling products will be part of the magic)… This time round, I knew that my efforts would not need approval from the outside world.

This orchid plant is a gift from my Japanese Woodblock class students at East London Printmakers from 2013. She’s moved house with me three times and always blossoms for months and months. When movement was most restricted, putting my face next to her petals made me feel so happy, as if I had come really close to another living, responsive being.

Virtual Hands (2020) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut, 15 x 20 cm

When lockdown ended, I made a trip to visit my dad for the first time in months. It was so lovely to see him, yet so brief. For reasons of safety, I was not permitted to touch him, even though our usual interactions would have included me washing his face and doing his hair. I wished I could have sent over a million pairs of hands to his side of the fence.

My Love! (2020) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut and Monoprint, 15 x 20 cm

I have been helping out on weekends and evenings as a vet in my local clinic. This job always provides a welcome antidote to an overdose of solo time: unlike most vet clinics this place allows clients to enter with their pets. Direct work with real living beings provided a chance for me to remain in touch with the world. Working with people and animals in real life brings so much absurdity and adrenaline…!

Whewwww I can’t believe it’s been ten whole months since I last wrote a blog post. Life has changed, the world is upside down, and I’m still making little linocuts to soothe the soul, inject humour in the day, and explain to myself what I think is going on.

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The first few weeks of working alone, isolated in my flat in East London, were a mix of relief at stopping my commute, tinged with fear of the virus. I would spend hours looking at my phone, wading through pages of horror stories, like an unending river of disaster and dread. I couldn’t really do much but worry about my parents.

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The tree outside the bathroom window became a wall of blossom and I would open the window really wide, and stare out into the breeze, and pray that everyone I know would stay healthy.

Bracken House garden print

Likewise, the communal gardens were bursting into leaf, and it was just so nice to sit under the dappled shade, even though my thoughts were of death and destruction.

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Sometimes I’d make myself extremely sad by wishing hard for a hug. Then I’d think, that as no-one had seen my face for days and days in real life, that perhaps I didn’t have a face anymore, and that I was in effect just a paper bag ghost.

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My paper bag ghost would still be hungry. I’d think of my dream meal, inspired by mum’s mackerel with belly stuffed full of curry powder and onions, with blistered skin and sweet sticky rice. The sun was shining every day and I would set the table on the balcony and make myself a bowlful of raspberries with sweet vanilla ice cream.

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Somedays I didn’t speak out loud all day, and my train of thought would start to crumble, as if my sense of identity, without a listening ear, was optional.

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Somedays I would start drinking at 4pm to see if it made anything better. Somedays I tried video conferencing parties with friends. It didn’t really help…

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There are undoubtable benefits to working from home. I can now attend zoom meetings while sitting on the floor of the bathroom, with no trousers on, if I want to.

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I can go for a jog in the neighbourhood and terrify the locals by infringing on their two metre zone.

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Facebook Live videos of exercise classes have become my favourite moment of the day. With all the isolation, inactivity, stress baking and comfort eating, my bottom is getting bigger, but at least it makes mum laugh.

home studio at night

Anyhow, this series is ongoing: I have many more prints that I would like to make. My tiny desk in the corner of the living room is a lot more than I would have had if I were living in rented accommodation in one room, as I did for the past 20 years. And the best thing about a handmade print (oh! actual ink on actual paper!) is that you can chop it down, scribble on the back, and post it to wonderful people, like an old-fashioned talisman.

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PS.

I gave a talk on my print series a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned some of these prints towards the end. If you are interested, have a watch here (it’s 23 minutes long, and was a seminar hosted by the Centre for Fine Print Research, University of the West of England, Bristol.)

https://vimeo.com/413495704

 

 

 

 

I thought I’d talk a bit about how one of my prints is made, from start to finish…

This is one of my latest prints called Blue Table Porto, which is about a lovely café I visited in the spring.

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For those who know my work, I started the diary-of-a-printmaker project when I was offered a fellowship at the Royal Academy of Art Schools in London, as a print fellow, back in 2016. This series of prints is about places and memories and anecdotal humour, a little bit like making postcards to send home…

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So, how do I make a print from a place? First of all hanging out in beautiful cafés always helps (!)… though I’ve also made my fair share of prints about working at the vets and walking around in gummy suburban cities and the hilarity of communal changing rooms. All these situations have a unique sense of energy, and leave a strong impression on the mind.

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These impressions are full of visual narratives, even though there may be scanty factual details. Sometimes it’s as if the images are from a dream-bank because the stuff that’s there is pared down but the sensation of being there remains.

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So sometimes I take photos, other times I draw directly onto the lino from memory, and then go home and think about what it is that it felt like to be in that moment of time, surrounded by that space. What was the most enduring sensation? For this café in Porto, the pale blue expanse of weather-beaten table-top plus a skylight bringing light into a dark cave of a room, plus the battered Turkish carpet were the most significant for me. The feeling I wanted to convey was of being engrossed in drawing and being marooned in a sea of carpet, the table as a raft.

blue table porto the two blocks side by side

After one colour is printed, I transfer the still-fresh ink onto a second block and start to plan what I want to make. In this case, I wanted the carpet to be full of swirls and detail and the light to be the focal point. I knew that one block had to be pale blue. The drawing on the second block was partly copied from the drawing on the first block. It’s hard to explain what or how I carve the second colour in factual terms, but I think of removing every area in terms of the process of revealing the first colour, allowing the first colour (plus any areas which were already carved away and which would be white) to shine on its own.

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Then comes colour trial proof printing time… I try out different colour combinations and try to maintain a sense of rigour to the experiments, making notes of ink recipes and how much ink is on the slab in order to achieve my preferred effects. I’m always using the same brand of ink: Sakura Oil based Relief inks, because I love the way I can wipe the ink off the block and apply thin layers in places to achieve a graded look. I write notes to myself about what I’d like to differently on the next print.

printing slab for porto table_e

So, taking the proof above, I decided to start editioning but with the addition of orange to the red mix, in order to move away a bit from the candy colours that the pure red and blue were creating.

editioning blue table porto _e

The red still appeared red, but was mixed 50% with orange in the centre, and cut with green on the edges. When I put the blue layer on top, I was very happy with how the edges of the print appear to recede into darkness, a kind of black has formed from the combination of red/ orange/ green and blue on the sides.

blue table porto_e

The magic of ink is maybe why I keep making prints…

 

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Back in November, Marc Donaldson of The&Partnership agency got in touch with me about an exciting project for the Japanese car manufacturers, Lexus.

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The brief was to highlight the deep beauty of making something by hand, looking at the physical knowledge and near super-human skills honed over a lifetime of practice, and link it to the use of AI and digital manufacture. Essentially, it was a reminder that despite the inexorable increase in the digital world, ultimately it is humans who have a lifetime of knowledge who are still in charge.

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They had already commissioned a gorgeous film on the subject, called Takumi. This film follows several artisan makers talking about their craft and displaying their skills. Takumi is the Japanese word for artisan, a term earned for exceptional skill achieved after 60,000 hours on the job.

Marc’s vision was to create a Japanese woodblock poster from cherry wood that would use hand printing to embed traditional pigments into hand made paper, based on a design which he had created in the computer.

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I have to say that while I trained in Japan in Japanese woodblock, and printed large prints for several years, I found this commission extremely challenging…

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Japanese woodblock technique relies on a harmonious combination of humidity, speed and response to simple changes in the basic materials. The wood absorbs paint, and then releases it to damp paper. Too much ink, too wet paper, too much pressure, and the paper bleeds; too little, too slow, too much glue and the paper is patchy.

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Photo by Feng Ho

However, the air pressure, sunlight, temperature, the number of previous printings, the absorbency of the wood, how much glue is used, the number of brushstrokes and humidity in the brushes, the consistency of paint, the speed of brushing, the precise way the paint sits in or on the wood, all these factors vary second by second, hour by hour.

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Photo by Eoin O’Flynn

The colour had to be coaxed onto the page, like a dance of wills.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I have to admit, my first 50 prints were a disaster. It took a lot of determination to keep going, as each print took an hour, so it was days and weeks before I’d made a passable layer of colour. Having made linocuts for the past few years, it was a shock to be a beginner at a technique again.

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I had to learn how to ink up generously on the block with an almost foamy layer of ink, without leaving a drop of ink anywhere near my table, in order to keep the edges of the paper clean when they were placed face down.

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I made my own homemade recipe for ink, combining gum arabic with nikawa and pure pigment, a blend of graphtol red and ruby red, and added a tiny drop of sumi ink to help the colour depth.

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I learned to hold my elbows out a certain way to fix the edges of the paper on the registration marks accurately, and how to trust that registration mark when each poster needed two or three printings to achieve the required depth of colour. Every now and then, the registration would be out by a fraction of a millimetre, and the print would fail.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I learned that a lovely intense colour field would leak through the damp paper in the last stage and mark other areas, so I developed a way of protecting the paper with a spare sheet of newsprint to stop this from happening for the final layer of ink.

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As this technique needed solid day light and it was during the winter months that I was printing, I’d skip lunches to maximise the hours of printing. I rigged up the ceiling light to a scaffolding to give myself a bit of light boost. There were no short cuts. I didn’t get faster. I had to keep moving, at a slow pace, and enjoy the process.

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I learned to relax and enjoy the meditative brush strokes and listened to quite a few absorbing but calming podcasts to keep my mind occupied and body in the flow.

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Photo by Feng Ho

After a mere 100 hours on the job, I cannot call myself a Takumi by any stretch of the imagination, but have a renewed respect for the masters of the field!

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My mum’s from Malaysia and dad’s from Singapore, so I love visiting these countries even if they are relatively foreign places to me. My niece invited me to her wedding in May, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with family.

Study in Millenial Pink

The wedding was in a “Six” star hotel, called the St. Regis. We lounged around in the gap between official ceremony and evening fun, getting ourselves pampered and primped. It did amuse me to see that the epitome of luxury was a chilly air conditioning bordering on UK winter temperatures, and that the fruit bowl contained northern hemisphere waxy green apples.

Mellower Coffee

I spent some time hanging out with my brother and sister in law. They took me to a fancy cafe called Mellower Coffee, whose top hit menu item was a black coffee with a ball of candy floss suspended above. As the steam rose, the floss melted, looking like pretty rain. We tried the cake, which looked much better than it tasted. I was so happy lurking in the noisy buzz of this popular place, spending time in companionable silence.

Belly Fire

My sister in law was kind enough to let me come to her acupuncture session one afternoon. I was amazed by the number of needles that the doctor put in, and how calm she said she felt afterwards.

Teh Tarik and Mahathir in the Midnight café

After a long bus journey I arrived in Malaysia to see my mum’s side of the family. We ended up drinking Teh Tarik in the midnight cafe, and reading about the shock victory of Mahathir, who had just won a second term in office at the ripe age of 92. In hot countries like Malaysia, the night time is peaceful and cool, it’s a good time to get snacks once the appetite returns. I love the way people enjoy this time of the night together.

Hungry cat café

Malaysian food, even breakfast, is the best. Every now and then I long for a bowl of fresh slippery salty noodles in gloriously bright purple plastic bowls, lit by the flicker of neon cut by a whirring fan. My cousin and I had a quick bowl before we set off for Singapore together in the car. The cafe had a little scrawny cat who poked around under my table; I wanted to take him home.

I’m still working on some more of these prints, and they have brought back good memories of fun times with family. I know that taking pictures would have been more immediate, and accurate, but these slower images bring back the sounds and smells and heat of the place… for me, at least.

 

Last year, when I was on a residency in China, I made a series of fifty water-based woodblock prints (mokuhanga prints) which ended up becoming an animation called Smiley Rock.

Smiley Rock still frame

The technique of printing successive thin layers of watercolour is called bokashi and some of the frames for the animation were made from progressive stages of the printing process. I took photos of the print, while printing fresh layers of colour, so that you can see how the colour builds up. I edited the piece in the Royal Academy Schools in Piccadilly, London, and talented musician Eliot Kennedy made the music for me.

Smiley Rock frame being photographed for the animation

The animation is currently being shown in West Yorkshire Print Workshop, as part of their group show called Japan, until 1 September. Read about the show here or at https://www.wypw.org/blog/japan/

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Smiley Rock is also coming with me to the IMPACT conference in Santander, Spain next month… I’ll be showing the animation alongside some of the frames. Watch this space!

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You can watch the animation here or go to https://vimeo.com/237974015

 

Oh! I’m so happy to be included in the Tokyo Mini Print Triennial!

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She Dreams of Flowers (2017) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut, 15 x 20 cm

Have a look here to see the prizewinning works and here to see a list of the artists selected (yes, it’s loads of people, but I am still pleased to be in it!)

Tama Art University Museum

Date: (Sat.) Oct. 27, 2018 – (Sun.) Dec. 2, 2018

Open Hours:10:00 – 18:00 (last admission at 17:30)
Closed:Tuesdays
Admission free
1-33-1 Ochiai, Tama-city, Tokyo, Japan
Tel. +81-(0)42-357-1251
Access:7 minutes from Tama Center Station (Keio Sagamihara Line, Odakyu Tama Line, Tama-monorail)

I’m very tempted to go over and see the show, as they will have a full programme of printmaking events running alongside…

The Novosibirsk International Triennial of Contemporary Graphic Arts in Russia: Oh, What a fancy sounding show! I’ve seen some technical and graphic excellence from Russian and former Soviet Union artists, and imagine the show will be full of excellent work.

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I’ve been invited to take part by a curator of the digital section, Derek Besant.

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For those who know my work, it’s resolutely analogue, except I do make many of my prints into animations! So, the use of digital software qualifies me to take part.

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I’ve submitted Shadow Boy and Shadow Girl, as two sets of still frames (nine frames per panel) and the animation on a flash drive. Fingers crossed the film works over there!

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The Novosibirsk International Triennial of Contemporary Graphic Arts runs from 14 Sept to 4 Nov.

If you’d like to see the animation, it’s here:  https://vimeo.com/208883758

 

 

Buckingham Palace is beautiful, golden, sparkling, opulent, baroque, rich. If it were a dish it would be molten duck egg yolks, velvety on the tongue… However, I was thinking how even though it’s filled with life-like marble statues, their ghostly pallor and illusion of softness might make one yearn for the reality of a living, breathing, messy, optimistic dog.

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So I made this print, which is of my friend’s ornate chair in her living room, one that kind of resembles a throne, and her happy dog, Lily. It was a lovely experience to sit in such a grand chair, and have Lily leaning on my legs. In way she was half mascot, and half protector, fully present.

I sent one of these prints to The Queen to thank her for inviting me over. I hope she didn’t think I was being blasphemous…

Last Sunday I was invited to give a talk at the Association for Group and Individual Psychotherapy in London, which got me thinking about the nature of the image, and how it can play an active role in life and society…

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Farmhouse in Changsha, 2015. Photo by Wuon-Gean Ho

When I was thinking about how images are seen by the viewer, I realized that the intensity of looking long and hard at a print could amount to some sort of love or devotion. Rural homes in China may lack surface pattern and decoration, yet many have a framed picture of Mao on the wall. Set up high against the ceiling, the face is instantly recognizable, yet because his eyes are facing a vantage point that cannot be met, there is an inscrutability to his gaze. I imagine generations of people living in the household being constantly aware of the presence of Mao, represented by a bit of ink on a piece of paper. The situation is probably similar with other households across the world that include an image of a religious figure, for example, such as Jesus or Mary: images which brought the impossible/ incredibly important/ into the home/ humble daily life. 

The intensity of the transformation of the printed image into an object of power and authority shows us how prints on paper can be transformed into an icon with the look of love, or the loving gaze. Importantly, the figure depicted usually does not return the look of love, allowing the loving contemplation to continue. The viewer can fantasize about the thoughts of the viewed and start to imagine a relationship.

 

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Vintage Postcard from Pinterest, unknown source

 In a practical way, relationships have started and flourished as a result of the trade of images. Joan Fontcuberta, the photographer, writes in his book, Pandora’s Camera, of how his father met his mother. It was the custom in Spain in the early 20C for young men to have a photo printed of themselves to send to girls that they fancied. Fontcuberta says that his father’s photo was a winner, a dreamy Hollywood rendition of a handsome young man. Her mother would have had the chance to look at him without the fear of meeting the real person, and begin to idolize the image, and imagine a relationship developing. Her gaze could have caressed his cheek and traced the outline of his jaw, smoothed the unruly eyebrows… When she did eventually have a chance to get to know him better, there was already an amount of affection in the mix.

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Agatha Bas (1641) by Rembrandt van Rijn

Then that got me thinking to how often lovers have depicted their loved ones. One only has to think of Rembrandt and Reubens, Freud, Picasso, Dali, Hockney and Bacon to think of how artists have taken the opportunity to caress the flesh and illuminate the skin of their loved ones. The movement of paint on canvas with a brush is like the application of cream to skin, like the grooming of fur, like the licking of lips. Look at Renoir’s flickering depiction of light and shadow on skin of his nude female models. Hockney’s clear depiction of the angle of the neck, the incised outline of the pencil mark must have reverberated in his mind as a virtual tracing of the muscles and shape of the body. It’s not just a mechanical rendition of muscle and form, it’s an involved description of what is there in front of him.

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Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) by Lucian Freud

The intense gaze of the artist deconstructs and reconstructs the figure, making the portrayal of the subject a sort of intense familiarization. I wonder if the act of portrayal might also cause the artist to fall in love with the subject. I also wonder if the portrayal of a fragmented/ split/grotesque individual might result in contempt in the artist for the sitter. It certainly seems to me that Lucian Freud had much contempt for his portrayal of a benefits worker, not only does his gaze look down on the body, sprawled in an ungainly way on the sofa, but also that his treatment of the folds of flesh is reverberating with repugnance.

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Film Still of Anwar Congo from The Act of Killing (2013) by Joshua Oppenheimer

Truly repugnant individuals have been portrayed in surprisingly sensitive and loving ways. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing, the camera spends a long time lingering and looking at the chief protagonist, serial killer Anwar Congo, as he recounts his exploits during the Indonesian massacres in 1965-66. Unlovable from his actions and his behaviour, the long intense gaze of the camera, that does not seem to blink or become diverted by other issues, allows the viewers to develop some sort of connection and ultimately try for a connection or a kind of empathy.

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Film Still from Like Water for Chocolate (1992) directed by Alfonso Arau

But why am I telling you about this? I don’t make anything like this at all! I wanted to talk about an aspect of image making that is to do with the casting of spells. The creation of a print does involve a certain amount of time and energy in its formation. During that time, the artist can invest hopes, dreams and prayers in the fabric of the ink. In the film, Like Water for Chocolate (1992) the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry her true love, Pedro, who is offered the hand in marriage of the middle sister instead, which he accepts so he can be close to Tita. When Tita is making the cake for the wedding, she cries into the batter; and as the cake is consumed by the guests, they are all overcome with sadness and sickness and grief.

I wonder whether the printed image could be a repository of hopes and desires, and perhaps even convey the thoughts and emotions of the maker which were experienced while the image was being made.

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Scarf Blur (2014) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Photograph and performance.

Whether this is because the paper retains the energy of the making process, or whether the energy of the shape and lines is able to convey this mysterious message to the viewer is something I’m still looking into…