Traces of Time

By Jennifer Angus and Eva Ennist, 1997

Traces of Time explores memory and history, both personal and of historic record. The paper works of Emiko Nakano and Sharyn Yuen capture intimate recollections of family, which document their lives, heritage and identity. From points of view that are distanced by culture, generation and an ocean, each artist notes the passage of time within a scroll-like format, and the effect of the past upon the present and future. The ephemeral medium of paper enhances the notion of memory as fleeting. In contrast, it is also the material of official record. Combined, the result is a grey area - neither fact nor fiction - to be studied and interpreted depending on individual biases and backgrounds.

Emiko Nakano is from Tokyo, Japan where she currently resides and works. Initially inspired by older kimonos that were woven from the recycled paper of old account books and notebooks, she began to weave with her mother-in-law's used calligraphy paper. Once woven, the previously legible characters of the paper became reminiscent of ikat resist-dyed patterns. She revelled in the potential to weave secret messages and encode the cloth. She recalled her travels and seeing ancient rock paintings and stone carvings in which the key to the symbols was lost or only known to a select few. The messages of Nakano's cloth can only be revealed by its destruction. This idea is similar to the Japanese practice of writing prayers on rice paper and attaching them to trees in the compound of a shrine - the prayer is only received when the writing has faded and the paper deteriorated.

By weaving her mother-in-law's paper, Nakano marked a time and a relationship between them - its personal nature disguised as patterned cloth. In more recent pieces, such as Episode, she has written the names of family and friends upon the paper herself. Interestingly, as the kanji characters are written vertically and the English horizontally, the weaving process fully reveals the names of only those written in English. This is a small clue to the secrets of the cloth and the life of its maker.

While Nakano's record of her life and times is strategically concealed, the work of Sharyn Yuen seeks to uncover time past; time that has formed her identity. Yuen is a second generation Canadian of Chinese descent who lives in Vancouver. In this exhibition, a portion of a larger work entitled Like a Plague of Locusts focuses on the harsh life of early Chinese immigrants to Canada, particularly those migrant workers who laboured on the railway, in the mines and on farms. Yuen's father was such a man, and he travelled so often that he rarely saw his family.

Like a Plague of Locusts is composed of eight large panels of handmade paper, each coloured a shade of the earth ranging from browns to greys to greens. These colours represent the land the workers came to know so well as they toiled over it. On each panel is a silk-screened image, primarily drawn from official photo archives of newly arrived Chinese settlers. The immigrant faces imprinted on the paper's surface are distanced by time, but also by the photographer's eye, which views these people as foreign and different. Plaques of engraved stone beneath many of the pieces with words such as “will” and “desire” offer clues about the artist's commentary. Or maybe they are pointed questions for the viewer who is unfamiliar with this era of our nation's history?

The formality of the installation, and the poignant yet distant faces, summon feelings similar to those experienced while visiting the gravesite of a relative; in this case, feelings of outrage at their treatment, a pride in their achievements, and a sadness and longing for a greater connection to their lives. However, this is not merely a memorial of a bygone time, but a conscious reminder that history often repeats itself.

Yuen's use of historical archival photographs in the absence of family snapshots is moving and vital to the understanding of the loss and sacrifice experienced by many immigrants and their descendants. Her search of government records for the key to her past is in sharp contrast to the confidence Emiko Nakano has in creating her own time capsule, which preserves her memories and relationships in the structure of her woven cloth. As one woman weaves mysteries, the other seeks to unravel them.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada