Gaye Chan's triptychs, from Doubt's Shadow, reveal her fascination with multiplicity and contradiction. She writes, 'At the edge where nature and culture meet, I often find our histories. I find ambitions and failures, hungers and regrets, doubts and affections. But mostly, I find all those purposes that I have invented for my life.' Chan's self-reflection becomes the point of departure for the exploration of what gives shape to humanity's quest to understand and explain physical and metaphysical experience.
In the first triptych, the series begins with a photograph of Chan's sculpted miniature concrete blocks, architectural fragments, classical figures, and barbed wire which appear heaped after some vague episode of destruction. In this image, scale is manipulated and the miniatures photographed from a bird's eye view make it plausible that some force has caused the stock market to crash or the National Gallery to explode; regardless of what event has occurred, objects that reference stability and refinement lay in shambles. The next image is a tuft of grass, a surface that most would see as relatively flat, but Chan represents it as dense and deep, swirled by the wind, or by a machine. This image looks at the earth's surface and the feeling that emanates is that the grass, like the building in ruins, has been played with by some larger force, or fate, that in turn dictates it's form. In the last image in this triptych, a hand backs a tiny white-collar shirt made by Chan out of tissue paper.
Again, Chan suggests an omnipresent force, a human hand, and uses photographic scale to reinforce the power of this hand. One can't be sure whether this hand watches over the shoulder of the white-collar worker in a protective way, in that it does possess a certain angelic light, or whether the hand is about to squelch some act of individuality, like Chan's desire to wear this shirt-- a representation of male professionalism. Again, there is the overriding theme that forms, whether the institution, the earth's materials, or the individual, are subject to malleability by the existence of predetermined ideas, by disguised powers or as Chan's imagery suggests, a hybrid construction of both.
In the center image from the second triptych in Doubt's Shadow, a leaf is caught in a nebula of grass. Preceding is an image of a cardboard ladder and it's shadow, both leading in different directions while an acupuncture ear model listens into darkness. Has this ladder been dropped from above as a result of the ear's careful listening to some indistinguishable voice or does it suggest the availability of some spiritual elevation as a result of listening... or... is it that the science of acupuncture can elevate the body to a place of balance if one braves the ascent. Ambiguity suggests Chan's own doubt about what path, faith or reason, nature or culture, eastern or western, will reveal the answers.
The triptych, also offers a metaphor for Chan's experience as an Asian-American, immigrant, lesbian, and woman who must transgress and choose between many belief systems. In the last image in this triptych, Chan builds a transparent torso from sticks, a measuring device, a calf's heart, the ground below, and faint water markings and scratches that seem to come from above. This body is built from scientific equations and natural elements. Its juxtaposition with the ear and the leaf suggest both the absurdity and the profundity of human reliance on spirituality and cosmic powers to fill the hollowed body's core with purpose and meaning. Chan reinforces the notion by building these metaphysical ideas out of cardboard or a decaying leaf suggesting that the beliefs are only as sturdy as the materials from which they are constructed metaphorically but never-the-less have the power to appear strong.
Chan's photographs create beautiful tension. She illustrates certainty and skepticism about what she 'should' believe while showing the interdependence of these two modes of thinking. The two are literally at play in Chan's mind and her response to this reality is to play back by representing that which appears to be fixed and understood with a shadow of doubt and a hint of skepticism. As she takes power structures and beliefs apart and puts them back together photographically, Chan's process is to '...doubt and re-evaluate all my actions, their motivations, my beliefs, the histories and experiences (both personal and collective) that shape my decisions.' She says that, 'Doubt is the only thing that saves me from unchecked vanity, hedonism, corruption, and stagnation.'
Gaye Chan is a Professor of Photography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She participated in Light Work's Artist-In-Residence Program in May 1993.
Amy Hufnagel (c)1993.