Oscillations of life

Passing by the Stanford Art Gallery, I tried to recall the last time I had visited this place. The doors of the gallery were open, making me feel like I was supposed to go inside. A mystical calling for the arts. Suddenly, I found myself climbing up the stairs of the gallery across the Lane History Corner.

Usually, this gallery is empty, so I find myself looking at the art alone, trying to dissect the meanings of the artworks on my own. This time the gallery was crowded and lively. As I walked around, looking at these abstract pieces of art and skimming through their descriptions, I overheard details of a discussion. MFA students whose artworks were on display were explaining their artworks! 

They were standing by a wall covered in small square pieces of paper that formed vertical and horizontal lines. A fan was making the papers fly around in arbitrary directions. The wall was also illuminated by colorful lights, changing the colors of the papers constantly in a fluidic manner, from tones of yellow, to red, to blue, to pink. 

The whole piece had something soft about it — it felt welcoming like it had a story to tell. I approached the group to listen to the discussion, only to realize that the artist himself was answering questions. It felt like eavesdropping on a secret conversation I wasn’t supposed to know, about the secrets of the art by the creator itself. 

I sat on the floor across the artwork, titled “Prevailing Winds,” contemplating what the artist was saying as I was looking at it, trying to integrate his artistic vision and choices into the work in front of me.  

“Prevailing Winds” symbolizes the journey of Chinese immigrant workers from southern China to San Francisco, during the Gold Rush of California, where “over 300,000 Chinese immigrants endured a month-long steamship journey,” as I learned from the description. The movement of the papers and the arbitrary oscillations reflect the experience of immigration, leaving home, and coming to a new world. Glancing back at its description, a sentence sticks with me: “The prevailing winds that propelled the ships symbolize the forces that drive individuals to leave their homes”. It questioned what these forces were. At that moment, I felt as though this artwork didn’t only capture the experience of the Chinese immigrants of the California Gold Rush, but actually the immigrant experience as a whole: we, as immigrants in California, are drifting around in life, trying to find meaning in our new worlds. 

I listened to the artist, Yunfei Ren, explain how he moved to the US when he was 19, and how he didn’t feel like he belonged to contemporary China anymore. Hearing this comment made me sad because there is something terrifying about the idea of becoming detached from home the more time you spend away from it. I heard an older voice reply to this comment, with a thick European accent that seemingly couldn’t decay away despite the passing of the years, and say “As an immigrant myself I’m from nowhere, and I’m from everywhere at the same time”. Upon hearing this, I felt a deep stab in my heart, reminding me of who I am and what I am composed of. This idea of belonging, and where to belong as an immigrant… you grow up calling a place home, owning a language, and a culture, and knowing only one way of how people are and how they behave; only to leave, wanting to find something more fulfilling and exciting, only to realize that the new world is simply different. You are faced with a completely different way of life, communication, and expression. And that sits with you, forever, because I will never belong to California and I left my Istanbul, denying my belonging to that beautiful city with history, chaos, and mysteries. 

Feeling hypnotized by the changing colors through the movement of the papers, I heard the artist say “People come, and go” while discussing the oscillations. I thought about how true it is — like the fluidity of moving papers, people enter our lives in waves, linger around for a while, and if they are strong enough they stay with us, or have an impact on us in one way or another, like waves that carry you away. I thought about the people I used to have in my life, and how close I was to them once. I only remember the versions of them when they were in my life. I’m holding onto memories, and those people of my memories don’t exist anymore, because we are all constantly changing over time, just like the sudden waves of the ocean, and the arbitrary oscillations of the papers on the wall.  I thought about my old life in Istanbul and the people I used to know. These contemplations make me feel pessimistic but peaceful at the same time. 

Yunfei Ren chose to use Joss Paper, a paper used in traditional Chinese offerings. Such meaningful material transcends the artwork from simply being a physical object to a representation of cultural significance. Noticing that the papers on different rows have uniquely different shapes, I asked the artist if the shapes of the papers were intentional. He answered me by saying that he used the Joss Papers in the natural ways they ended up burning, without changing anything. He sees this as a form of destiny — we are born with destinies we don’t decide on, but we shape our lives upon them. This idea of destiny is perhaps captured as the region of the world you are born into — after we are born, we make choices on how to live, oscillating through life just like these pieces of paper do. And just like the random oscillations of the papers, life is filled with surprises.  

“Prevailing Winds, with the movement of the papers in arbitrary directions under the realm of changing colors, tells a story of immigration and chasing the American Dream. Sitting on the floor with my knees to my chest, I felt deeply touched by all the meaning this artwork carries. I thought to myself, is immigration a serendipity or a melancholic misery? I walked towards the gates outside, thinking about my belonging, and my experience as an immigrant. Under the beautiful California sun, I feel like a foreigner, and deep down, I know that this is just one of those feelings that simply don’t go away.

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