All the Strings that Bind: Patty Chang at Friends Indeed and Cushion Works

An installation view of two video screens mounted on a wall. The left screen shows a man and a woman kissing in front of a yellow background. The right screen shows two women kissing in front of a yellow background.
Patty Chang, In Love, 2001 (installation view). Two channel video, 3:28 min. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

“Between [depression and acceptance],” writes LA-based artist Patty Chang, in a short letter inviting visitors to her multi-media exhibition Que Sera Sera, “I would add in no fixed order: repositioning, integrating, shapeshifting, imagination, enchantment, trance, transmogrification, invocation, mystification, and bewilderment.” Pain is a single rupture, she seems to say, but healing is a thousand little threads quilting repair.

Illness, now, enforces isolation. Many of our loved ones have visited hospitals alone, or even died, in quarantine. It’s heart wrenching to watch Chang stand beside a hospital bed in the video In Gait Remains (2017), holding her baby, singing to herself, the child, and to the resting body—her father on his death bed. You can see the pathos of the body, how it can be consumed, loved, or lost. How parts of it leave us all the time. Chang summons something akin to an image-memory, an impossible present. She reminds us of what life once was in a foreclosed other time, in the past.

The works on display in the two-venue show at San Francisco galleries Cushion Works and Friends Indeed were taken between 2001 and 2017. They wear 2020 well.

An installation view of Patty Chang's exhibition "Que Sera Sera" at Friends Indeed Gallery in San Francisco. The image shows the gallery's interior wall and floor-to-ceiling street-facing window. There is a mail drop box outside, and a Charles Schwab across the street. In the gallery, two screens playing videos hang on the wall.
Patty Chang, Que Sera Sera, 2020. Installation view. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

Nancy Lim, the shows’ curator, hesitates to say that this October was a good time to show Chang’s work—good being an inadequate word. What Lim means is that Chang’s bravery when looking directly at death, or grief, or fear, almost generates what Lim calls “an anticipatory grief.” The work suggests a way to grapple with loss in a year when so much death—by the police, by Covid-19—has happened so unfairly and avoidably. “Chang’s work prepares me for the deaths I myself will have to face,” Lim reflects.

A photograph from Chang’s 2017 series “Letdown,” which makes up a substantial portion of the shows, hangs perpendicular to In Gait Remains. Chang photographed cups of a thick, yogurt colored substance, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of the disheveled remains of food. Each image shows breast milk, which Chang pumped and was then forced to discard while traveling to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan without her baby. Breast milk in a sardine can, breast milk colored by a saturated tea bag, breast milk next to a crumpled paper napkin.

A framed and matted photograph of an airplane tray table with a small clear plastic cup full of a thick white substance. There is a crumpled napkin to the left of the cup. The seat is by the airplane window, and cool, diffused light illuminates the scene.
Patty Chang, Letdown, 2017. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

Between the video feed of Chang singing to her father in the hospital and the photographs of milk, doomed to be discarded, you see a proximity of generations.

Living requires the body to constantly shed waste, Julia Kristeva writes in meditations on the abject. She defines the word not as a lack of cleanliness or health, but as that which “does not respect borders, positions, rules.” It is “the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”[1] Chang’s work approaches abjection by refusing clear divisions. It’s mindful of the body, its fluids, but refuses to sterilize waste.

A street-facing window, like the one at Friends Indeed, has become essential. How else can we peer at art from the perceived safety of the outdoors? Through a sheet of glass, the demarcation between the spectator’s reflection and the photographs, also sheathed in an additional pane of glass, gets messy. Chang further troubles this layering by returning attention to reflections, the matrixial space of overlapping images she carefully attenuates, that unsettling in-betweenness.

A photograph can be a performance. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay characterized the camera not just as a technology, but the “invention of a new encounter.”[2] For Azoulay, viewing an image with active attention can reanimate the moment it commits to permanent stasis. The photograph begins to move, discontinuities thaw, and the still past creeps into the present. In this way, Chang’s work extends beyond the moments she has collected and suggests continuous processing, inhabiting a cascading grief, and activating a path towards healing.

A video still showing a man and a woman in white button down shirts sitting, facing the camera. Their bodies are semi-transparent and overlap at the shoulder. Both have their mouths open as though caught mid-sentence.
Patty Chang, On Love, 2003 (still). Single channel video, 4:12 min. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

In On Love, 2013, superimposed videos of a man and a woman, both wearing the same starch white button down, play simultaneously. They speak over each other, but harmoniously. Chang’s mother, the woman, says “he is a good father, he repairs everything for the children.” The video bleeds into the man, Chang’s father, making an equation out of love: “introducing person A, person B, having B act upon A, A react to B.” They are intensely in their bodies, hyper-exposed in the act of being—for themselves, for each other, and for their daughter with the camera. It’s a portrait of companionship, the way it feels to pass time in the company of another person.

Chang’s work displays a longstanding preoccupation with the boundaries and trace appearances of the body. In Que Sera, Sera, she honors the materiality of family, motherhood, existence, and death. All the strings that bind one to others—through sight, taste, song, memory, and loss—are taut with feeling.

[1] Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 4.

[2] Azoulay, Ariella Aïsha. The Civil Contract of Photography. (New York: Zone books, 2008), 89.

Patty Chang Que Sera Sera is on view at Friends Indeed and Cushion Works in San Francisco, CA, until November 6.