Culture  Going beneath the surface

"On the Surface" exposes Canadian experiences of multiculturalism

Lucie Chan’s exhibit “On The Surface”, currently on display at the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) uses a mixture of charcoal ink drawings and animated projections to draw its visitors into a portrait of a community shaped by diaspora.

The exhibit consists of two installations. The first, Yearning to See, comprises two projections displayed on opposite walls. Charcoal and ink drawings of faces, as well as projections form the second installation, On the Surface. Both offer meditations on the Canadian multicultural experience, based on the artist’s own experience as a Canadian-born Guyanan and her conversations with other Canadians.

Entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by hanging groups of monochrome faces. No particular face jumps out, rather, the many faces, of different ages and ethnicities, blend into a melange of shared yet distinct personal experiences. This grouping of individual identities creates a multi-cultural community, which, through Chan’s choice of showcasing her drawings as installations, simulates for the visitor the experience of walking through an ethnically diverse community.

Words like “language” and “changing” included in the animated projections illustrate the idea that communities are formed of individuals who have been changed only superficially through their experiences of displacement. This idea is explored further in On the Surface, in which drawings of faces cut into into shape of flames create a fire of multiple identities – in an attempt to symbolize the superficial burning off of identity, while essential components of self remain.
For her exhibit, Chan used cultural experiences collected through interviews of Halifax and Vancouver respondents to a posting on Craigslist. Respondents included first and second generation immigrants of Asian and South Asian descent as well as white Canadians. Accounts of experience portrayed in Chan’s projections include such seemingly mundane activities as “how to make shanghai dumplings.” Chan describes this focus on the individual element of immigrants’ lives as a deliberate attempt encourage viewers people to “search, bridge gaps…in order to understand one another.” Chan sees this effort as necessary in a Canada still characterized by much racial segregation.

Chan conveys through her installations her own feelings of fleetingness associated with these interviews. She blends with the participants’ accounts her feelings of scratching the surface of people’s experiences, expressing elements of social and cultural voyeurism. Her animations include phrases such as “the crossing of paths, cleaned off, washed away,” against a background image of hands being washed. Yet despite this emphasis on brevity, her installations manage to convey a sense of deep connection between individuals. By featuring portraits prominently in the exhibit, Chan encourages viewers to feel close to the portrayed subject, fostering a sense of communion.

Chan’s meditations on the immigrant experience offers a positive lesson for Montreal as an ethnically diverse city. By highlighting both the specificity and potential universality of her subjects’ lives, “On the Surface” encourages its viewers to reach out to their fellow citizens, bridging the gaps between different ethnic groups in order to form a true multicultural community.