Because it has become separated from its original context, no one knows for sure what the philosopher Protagoras meant when he said, “Man is the measure of all things.” Perhaps its very ambiguity is the reason the almost aphorism has been handed down for some twenty-four centuries and remains axiomatic if mysterious.
Few, though, recall that Protagoras’s entire known comment was, “Man is the measure of all things, of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.” There is a notable echo of Protagoras in Carina Cheung’s statement that her various projects, in essence, involve “looking for different ways to measure myself.” Many of those measurements are of things “that are not” Cheung.
A Spring, 2008 Resident Fellow of the Creative Glass Center of America, Cheung does not mention Protagoras. However, it isn’t a stretch to link her work to his supposed relativism, a recognition that the perceptions of an individual are truth for that person, a truth that is not verifiable by any other measure. In her processes, Cheung often takes fragments of scientific knowledge, protocols of attempts to establish objective truths, and applies or replicates them in idiosyncratic and personal ways. One assumption of her practice is that science has personal meaning and personal applications that follow (or should follow) from the general principals it postulates.
Though her methods are the reverse of “objective” and only reference science, Cheung’s process is process art. Her practice involves “pushing the material” (whatever it is) and problem-solving. What remains after one of Cheung’s processes is completed tends to become the documentation of the work. So far, she says that she becomes so engrossed in the inquiry that she tends to neglect photographs or videotapes of works in progress.
However, in Molt what might be called the detritus of the work process is preserved as a striking relic. For this piece, Cheung and an assistant covered her entire body in glue. She stood motionless for some three hours as the glue dried. She experienced the contracting, solidifying, stretching surface as an accelerated aging process. When it was dry, she carefully peeled it away, keeping the husk as intact as possible. “I was interested in the process of shedding skin,” she says. “Really it was about me regenerating.” The fragility and physicality of the Molt artifact parallel not only reptilian shedding and the more mundane fact that we humans do shed our skins in tiny bits. More profoundly, it reminds us that the body itself is no more than a temporary shelter for consciousness.
Insects are at the more minute end of the spectrum of sentience. Cheung has worked with bugs of different sorts and finds them appealing. When she introduced ants into a glass case filled with glass beads fused with sugar water (the ants could eat the sugar), unfortunately, some ants escaped and became a nuisance.
In the hot woodlands around WheatonArts, defying the possibility of Lyme disease, Cheung collected numerous ticks which she saved in glass jars. Part-way through her residency, she was planning to dip them in ink and use them as self-propelled instruments of drawing.
At WheatonArts, she also continued a year-long project relating to hair. Her first work involving this historically significant material was a 40” long piece of lace made from her own hair. Human hair is strong. In a project that may take a decade to complete, Cheung is constructing thirty-three long rope strands woven from her own naturally shed hair. Her ultimate goal is to suspend a glass vessel containing water equal to the weight of her own body from this hair. The planned form of the net of hair is decorative and pleasingly mathematical. As she saves hair, she’s collected various factoids of hair lore and when in Japan visited Nishihonganshi temple where massive ropes made in 1890 of local women’s hair are displayed. Again, this project will consist of things which are associated with the artist and partly meaningful because they are emphatically not her.
Cheung recently returned from a Fulbright in China where she made a project of observing the juxtaposition of handmade and machine manufactured objects. She visited some factories manufacturing glass. Her own past is interwoven with this visit, as one of her grandmothers was once employed in a Chinese industrial factory. In addition, her mother once owned a scientific glass blowing factory, a circumstance which links her to the history of the recreated glass factory at WheatonArts as well.
The heavy industrial pollution in much of China caught Cheung’s attention. She used the glue method to preserve deposits of pollution on living, natural things. She describes one of these works, Dust from a Rose in China, as a “secondary memento” of her time there.
Although glass is not necessarily central to Cheung’s work, it tends to be an element. At CGCA, an on-going project was a series begun with a fragmented glass cup held together by what glass-blowers call “stringers,” trailing fragile unwanted threads of hot glass that usually cool and shatter in a moment to be brushed aside as waste. One group of Cheung’s stringer objects has a possible relationship to Platonic solids or, perhaps, the forms of regular solids in solid geometry. Each piece is vertically divided into two halves connected by stringers.
At CGCA, Cheung worked on ways of blowing clear vessels in which interior stringers remain intact and visible. She’s considered using rows of stringers as a staff for music notation and placing her bugs on them as notes in a living composition. Similarly, making a symmetrically divided work, she tried to embed a real natural object (like an apple) between two bubbles of glass. Of course, the apple cannot survive the heat, but can its residue be preserved?
Stay tuned. Cheung works through indirection and her work tends to wind up with unexpected, sometimes obliquely poignant conclusions.