MFA ’23 Photography
小凤 (Phoenix at Sundown)
Sometimes when I call my grandmother by her nickname, she is surprised and asks me how I know. I say I know a lot more. Then I say something about her past. She laughs, embarrassed to see I really do know her. She smiles guiltily, saying that she is in her sixties, and her memory is getting worse. “But my dear grandma, you’re almost ninety!” I laugh. She opens her mouth in surprise and exclaims, “Ah? Almost ninety?”
I make photographs in response to my grandmother’s lost memories. She steals apples from the kitchen after dinner, and puts them in her drawer. Then forgets. Occasionally, her shoes appear next to the apples. In the evening, she comes downstairs from her room fully dressed with her coat on. She asks my aunt, “Is it time for us to go home?”
I am in the United States and my grandmother is in China. I engage in a multigenerational collaboration where I direct my mother to make images of my grandmother and her possessions during video calls between her home and mine. After my mother sends me the images, I edit and re-crop them. I also make my own images here in the US, imagining what dementia feels like.
The images are accompanied by a soundtrack of my grandmother humming. She always hums when she plays mahjong, although she doesn’t play by the rules – rather, she arranges the pieces into her own “order”. The mahjong set she plays with was handcrafted by my grandfather. I made a traditional copperplate print of this mahjong set laid out in my grandmother’s arrangement – retracing the same carving my grandfather made.
The day I left home for the United States, my grandmother stood at the door of our house and asked if she could give me something for my journey. She reached into her pockets, found the only coin she had, and placed it in my palm.
“When you tell all your secrets to the flowers”, she told me, “You will never be alone, the flowers will always guard your secrets.”