In her first solo exhibition at Jack Hanley Gallery, Maia Ruth Lee disrupts the stereotypical assumption that each woman will eventually have to decide between a career or a child through an unexpected system of geopolitical talismans.
The quasi-readymade design of Lee’s strewn bundles—kaleidoscopic medleys of plastic tarp, burlap, boxes, and neon rope known as Baggage Bondage (2018) — are derived from Lee’s observations of chromatic luggage belonging to Nepalese migrant workers in the Kathmandu Airport, who carefully wrap their costly goods (such as new electronics or clothes) to protect them from theft. It takes a fair bit of restraint to not unravel these packages and see what’s inside. As visitors step a little too close to each pile, the temptation of their familiar, portable ease becomes palpable.
A second series of wrought iron shapes, titled Auspicious Glyphs (2018), is reminiscent of alchemical symbols found in centuries-old scientific texts and spiritual treatises. An accompanying leaflet described these forms as “tools for self-defense,” meant to enhance the one’s sense of wisdom, balance, communication, and humor in times of personal turmoil. So it’s no surprise that each motif is arranged in neat rows like utensils in a craftsman’s workshop. These plastic bundles, created to transport the products of physical labor across precarious landscapes, coupled with Lee’s glyphs, whose metal was repurposed from boundary-forming structures such as fences and window bars, present a relationship between worker and commodity that is not entirely unlike that of mother and child. Both series of protective vessels contain within them embodied extensions of the artist’s present inner anxieties, possibilities of relief from the external demands of unstable socioeconomic systems, and represent the fruits of ongoing physical and emotional creative labor.
Lee’s projected video, The Stranger (2018), may feel out of place among these assorted objects, but it’s a necessary bridge between Lee’s experiences with migratory labor and motherhood. The footage is from her father’s linguistic research trip to the Himalayas in the 1980s. A child at the time of his travels, Lee re-inserts herself into views of vast, sparsely populated mountainscapes by reading journal entries she wrote years later while traveling during her pregnancy. “I’m self-contained in a self-sufficient sanctuary,” she says, evoking cycles of physical movement, of family history, of her own changing body as she comes to terms with little life growing inside of her. There is a relentless awareness of how motherhood has, over the years, nestled itself alongside her creative practice.
Lee’s show reads like a call to a new kind of subjectivity, one that considers maternity not only as a form of labor, but a long-ignored (and oftentimes minimized) site of artistic production and self-reflection. “Nobody asked, How does one submit to falling forever into pieces,” Maggie Nelson wrote in her 2015 novel The Argonauts in response to reading superficial advice columns in pregnancy magazines while preparing for the emotional and physical toll of childbirth, “A question from the inside.”
Moving through the displacing — and, oftentimes, highly gendered — striations of migratory crises, socioeconomic precarity, and limited access to proper maternity care, Lee reorients the physical and emotional burdens we carry with us into sites of resilience and self-protection. Her rereading of journals, reediting of her family’s films, reconfiguration of metal ornamentation into new tokens of personal care, reused plastics, draw the viewer’s attention to the nurturing toil behind each item’s original function. Lee takes notions of ‘use’ and ‘value’, oftentimes dehumanizingly inscribed onto the bodies of workers moving through the economic circuits of global capitalism, and reconfigures them into materials raw with spiritual potency.
Lee’s show, a toolkit for survival and healing, could not come at a better time, amplifying the voices of today’s mother-artists who continue to navigate hostile social and cultural spaces. As Adrienne Rich once said of motherhood, “the materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.” Lee’s swaddled suitcases and unpolished glyphs — improvised byproducts of unstable socioeconomic and emotional systems — make tangible the perilous emotional terrains many cross in search of security, of history, of family, of ourselves.
Originally Written in October 2018