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Beware “The Five Poisons”!

There are an endless amount of things in this dangerous world to look out for. This week I learned that  the middle of the calendar year is something to add to the proverbial “list”. It appears that, according to Chinese folklore,  poisonous animals emerge from the cold of winter, along with a herd of pesky hostile spirits, deadly diseases, and your most nefarious foes, out of slumber. and they aren’t here to make amends. As a tribute to this “most wonderful time of the year” artists Lauren YS and Makoto Chi have created twenty-eight works (and a mural, see below) for their new “Five Poisons” exhibition, on view in Philadelphia at Arch Enemy Arts. The show opens this Friday.  We’ve interviewed the artists about the work below.

Pardon my cultural ignorance, but my “research” on the Five Poisons has led me to find that in China the “Five poisons” are represented by animals, snake, scorpion, centipede, gecko, and toad and in Buddhism the five poisons of the heart are:  attachment, aversion, ignorance, pride, and jealousy, while wikipedia also includes: the “five perceived threats the Chinese Communist Party sees for its rule over Mainland China.” I see snakes and dangerous looking creatures with spikes probe-y parts swirling about in all the work for this show but am curious if you are both agreed upon what the poisons are and what they represent?

As with many very old wisdoms and symbologies, things morph over time, and shapeshift depending on their contexts. “5 poisons” refers to an ancient Chinese medicinal concept; in particular the centipede, scorpion, frog, snake, and spider. Mid year is said to be an inauspicious time , as poisonous animals emerge from cold slumber; along with them hostile spirits, disease, and often, enemies. During this time, talismans inscribed with these 5 poisonous animals, sometimes with an addition of a tiger to ward them off, were worn as protection. Some ingested tinctures infused with small amounts of poison, with the belief that “fighting poison with poison” could combat the threat of poisoning by one of the 5 beasts or other malevolent spirits. We are both drawn to ideas regarding poison within the medicinal and vice versa, and how that undergirds dynamics of how we observe people relating to one another. 

The figures in many of the paintings (hybrid human or otherwise) seem to be coexisting with these insects and animals…?

Both of us have been working with ‘hybrid’ creatures in our work for a while now, with subtexts surrounding mixed identities and heritage. It seemed fitting to bring these creatures together in one space, in homage to the ancient Chinese medicinal concept, and the result is a sort of multi-layered approach to hybridity between our respective backgrounds. Makoto is particularly gifted at creating compositions that evoke coexistence at the same time as struggle, passion, love—dynamics that are multifarious in nature, just as all dynamics are in our own lives. Lauren is deft in weaving contemporary and ancient mythos and deep cultural research, especially in celebration of genderfluid chimaeras and mythological beings. 

You both collaborated on works in this show. Can you explain how that process worked?

We each individually made bodies of work, some in each other’s presence, and then worked collaboratively on the title image (‘5 Poisons.’) I think the sense of a collaborative show here is captured in a more wide energetic sense, as we influence each other as people and artists. When working together, we plan and draw simultaneously, sketching first to allow various parts to overlap and interweave, and then take turns drawing. Painting is much the same; sometimes we took turns painting each other’s designated portions to experiment further and learn from each other. In this way we are able to achieve cohesion, allow for possibilities that we may not reach in our own work.

In this way we are able to achieve cohesion, allow for possibilities that we may not reach in our own work.

Did the collaboration evolve naturally?

Working together is quite natural; having known each other, influenced and collaborated with each other over the course of a decade. Coming to a confluence of ideas is always quite gentle and fluid, as I think we are both generally very aware of each other’s headspaces and what we are working on/thinking about. We are not protective of our respective work, and find it freeing to flow naturally in and out of whatever we are each feeling/wanting to convey, and to allow the results to surprise and inform us further.

When did you first meet?

We met sometime in (I believe) 2014 in San Francisco, so a decade has gone by! Hard to believe.

Was creating work for this show intuitive?

I think both of our processes are quite intuitive, coming from such imaginary/illustrative headspaces. Some work was created before landing on a title and theme; others are more clearly borne from a particular headspace (ie, Lauren’s pieces that discuss modes of therapy, for example.) I think you can see how working in each other’s presence led to crossover of details and ideas within our work, something we find really fun and interesting. These kinds of artifacts within our visual worlds reflect the ways we impact and influence each other’s lives, in a really lovely sense of visual intimacy.

Can you describe what might be going on with the “Seance” image? Five people seem to be conjuring up a skeleton, which is being weighed down by money or tokens…

This piece depicts 5 characters seated around in a circle, engaged in a ceremony of mysterious intent, as a meditation on the multiplicity of self through transgenerational therapy and ancestry. This concept has its provenance in a trick photograph from the 1800s of a young Chinese woman captured at all angles regarding herself, a practice that captured the imagination of metaphor and identity during the early era of photography, touted as a system which would enable ‘us to see ourselves as others see us.’  I imagine a conference of personalities, at the center a “Jitong”, inspired by Chinese folk religious practitioners- a medium, or oracle. This character’s face we do not see but only imagine. 

A ‘seance’ is an attempt to communicate from spirits, the word seance coming from old French ‘seoir,’ “to sit.” Much of my work- as a biracial nonbinary person- of late has been in meditation about meditation itself, and the internal machinations of the identity, split into many factions, communicating with one another. I have been thinking in terms of trick mirrors and ersatz stairwells, foggy trails and pedestals. This vision of a ‘seance’ incorporates identifications of the sub-personalities present in a form of psychotherapy called “Internal Family Systems,” which separates parts of the identity between Managers, Firefighters, Exiles, Self- and the fifth, I leave to the viewer. IFS therapy is often utilized to conceptualize wounded parts of a person. Each character also represents a member of the 5 Poisons, creatures whom in ancient Chinese medicine represented dangerous elixirs: toads, snakes, centipedes, scorpions and spiders- which they would place in bottles together, waiting to see which would eat the others. The winning creature would produce a poison best to take an enemy. The Chinese, who believed in fighting ‘poison with poison,’ branded these creatures onto medallions in order to protect from them; these are the coins which hang from the skeleton in the mural. This scene hopes to bring the viewer into a precious ritualistic moment of communing with the self and through one’s bloodlines.

Serpents are a personal symbol of truth, especially the types of truth we want to avoid; and making art is a part of my own speaking into being. 

In “I Create As I speak” a multi-breasted person/hybrid animal seems to be fighting themselves with their own  teeth and snake-like appendages.  Is this an internal battle?

The title of this piece is in reference to Hebrew phrase “ebrah k’dabri,”, meaning “I create as I speak” or “I create like the word”; it’s, but this colloquially became the phrase “abracadabra”. I find it interesting that in Hebrew, and in the Japanese concept of Kodama, there’s this emphasis on speech, words, and story having a spirit of their own, that spirit being precious as well as a thing to revere as they hold immense power, and potential for creation. I am also struck by the internal tensions, yes, of the act of creating; and this self-aware tension came up a lot while I was putting work together for this show, with the backdrop of Israel’s insane siege on Gaza. Making work about being mixed race while being Jewish and witnessing unspeakable, gruesome cruelty, and related local community tensions unfolding on my phone, had me truly stunned. I couldn’t figure out how to make artwork. it seemed absurd (and still does, at times) to draw any kind of attention to myself. I don’t remember how, but the phrase “I create as I speak”, found me and dislodged some of the terrified stuckness I was experiencing. I made this piece to celebrate that; while thinking that we desperately need different ways of being in the world right now, and to make those reified, we must at least speak them into being. Serpents are a personal symbol of truth, especially the types of truth we want to avoid; and making art is a part of my own speaking into being. 

Any hints on any surprises in store for the “Five Poisons” show?

Lauren: There’s a drawing I made about a dream I had in which I was trying to figure out how to bring a robot to orgasm, given that it did not have any specific genitalia. In dream-logic I realized I was meant to recite poetry into its abdomen (which was riddled with holes, like a speaker). I had this dream after Makoto sent me a voice memo reading some kind of Sapphic poetry. I think that’s how my brain interpreted it. Anyway for me that is my fun surprise. Also we are painting a mural. 

Makoto: One of my paintings reveals how you will die if you stare at it long enough. Also yeah we are painting a mural in the gallery space, and will have small editions of prints available.

“Five Poisons” opens this Friday at Arch Enemy Arts in Philadephia. 

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