Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Photography - You are close be-side me by Chin-Jie Melodie Liu (Canberra)

Photography Review by Brian Rope

You are close be-side me | Chin-Jie Melodie Liu

Photo Access | 29 June to 12 August

You are close be-side me by Canberra-based Taiwanese artist Chin-Jie Melodie Liu, questions traditional memorialisation practices in the digital era, drawing from her experience of virtually attending her grandfather's funeral last year.

This is a fascinating exhibition. Personal experience tells me it is hard enough to participate remotely in the funeral of an old friend whom you haven’t seen for some considerable time. Virtually attending your much-loved grandfather's funeral must be an extraordinarily emotional experience. A great deal of the emotion felt by this artist is not just shown to gallery visitors, but very much shared with each of them who take the time to look closely at the images. The exhibited prints are actually CMYK screen-prints on Stonehenge paper, not matted or framed but simply pinned to the wall.

Almost all of the works show screenshots that the artist took during the Zoomed memorial service – sadly with patchy and disconnected video when there were network issues and when guests at the service accidentally knocked the phone stand over. We see Covid-masked people at the funeral, floral tributes, musicians playing, a photographer using a camera, and a man bowing in respect. We see Melodie herself as a zoom participant. Most of the screenshots are paired with phone camera shots taken by her sister Annette An-Jen Liu who, because of pandemic restrictions, was the only grandchild able to be at the Taiwan funeral in person. Despite only Melodie’s name being on the image list in the catalogue, it is, therefore, very much a collaborative exhibition with Annette.

Looking at her sister’s phone photos, which have been described as footnotes to the screenshots, Melodie noticed they were of things she had not seen on Zoom. They were of ceremonial proceedings intended only for immediate family members – of which she, of course, was one. From that she realised she had only been “present” for a portion of the funeral and “excluded” from the parts intended for immediate family. So using Annette’s images provides additional context to the scenes she did not witness.

The titles of the artworks reveal much of the artist’s feelings. Anyone who has ever had just a little experience of Jewish or Christian worship, or read the best-known parts of the Bible, will recognise words from the much-loved Psalm 23 which uses a shepherd's care for his sheep as a metaphor to describe the wisdom, strength, and kindness of God. For many, the words serve as a reminder that God is faithful and can be trusted in life or death, good times or bad. Every exhibit title comes from one or another version of that psalm, which was sung at the funeral.

Chin-Jie Melodie Liu, You are close be-side me, 2023, CMYK screen-print on Stonehenge paper, paired with footnote image by Annette An-Jen Liu (2022, digital photograph).

Chin-Jie Melodie Liu, lead me by the quiet stream, 2023, CMYK screen-print on Stonehenge paper,  paired with footnote image by Annette An-Jen Liu (2022, digital photograph).

So, as we look at the images and read their titles, we can see and know the author’s emotions as she felt close to her grandfather and drew personal comfort from the familiar words assuring her that she (and he) had nothing to fear as they rested in green pastures beside a quiet stream. She took strength from knowing the days ahead would be filled with goodness and mercies.

Chin-Jie Melodie Liu, You have spread a feast for me, 2023, CMYK screen-print on Stonehenge paper, paired with footnote image by Annette An-Jen Liu (2022, digital photograph).

Whilst not all of the gallery visitors will have the same understanding of Psalm 23 or have had the same experience of faith as this family, each person looking at these works should, nevertheless, understand what is being shared with us. With both sisters’ images and the words of the psalm, it all hangs together most effectively.

The exhibition absolutely shows us the sisters’ shared grief and different mourning experiences, one in person at the actual event and the other via the digital access available in today’s world. In the exhibition catalogue, sister Annette says she is reminded of Susan Sontag’s description of photographs as “an invitation to sentimentality”, for the way they “turn the past into an object of tender regard”.

This review is also available on the author's blog here.