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In a Place of Sanctuary, I Found Myself: A Conversation with Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai’s collection Ensō (Entre Ríos Books) reveals a mature, interdisciplinary practice. Pai completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—an institution that encourages cross-genre experimentation. A poet, essayist, and artist, she also spent a lot of time in the photography darkroom. 

Ensō recalls Pai’s twenty-year revisitation of the Tadao Andō Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. It also documents a project in Seattle’s Carkeek Park where she stickered the skins of apples with letters and induced the sun to process prints, so that poems emerged on trees. “Heirloom,” a playful engagement with her multilingual son, Tomo, extends her iterative, embedded approach.

Pai’s parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, and she grew up in Riverside. She has described her childhood as “filled with long silences and loneliness that was soul crushing.” But poetry, she insists, “is a practice of hearing silences at the deepest level.” 

When you started working on the project involving the Tadao Andō Gallery, did you know it would become a long-term series of revisitations?

I didn’t know that I’d want it to be almost twenty years. I think that when I had begun to visit the gallery, it was a really remarkable place to me. Tracking the changes and activity and the things that were coming on and off display, it became this interesting space to me. It’s a kind of material that is so rich and can be mined over and over again for so many layers. 

Did you ever try to time the trips for when you knew there was going to be a changeover?

No, it was more like: I’m going to Chicago for this Association of Writing Programs conference, so I guess I’d better book some time in the gallery. The last time I went, which was in maybe 2018, I had no idea that the thing that was in the gallery the very first time I stepped inside would be back on display, and it pretty much had been stripped back to its bare bones. They still had taken the door off of the gallery; I don’t think they’ll ever put it back on because they really want to get people in the space. And they upgraded the lighting. But in all other ways, it had that feeling of being restored to what it had been. And that felt like the perfect time to kind of close the circle, which is one of the key motifs of the book. 

The gallery space you kept being drawn back to—do you know what feeling you were chasing or trying to go back to in that space? 

The first time I walked into that gallery, I just saw a darkened room with doors, and there’s a little plaque, Gallery 109 Tadao Andō. I didn’t know what was beyond those doors. When I stepped in, I felt it was truly this sort of magical world. The temperature was markedly cooler and maybe that was psychological because it was dark or the lights were very dimmed, and so it altered perception in a way with the conditions of the room itself. Tadao Andō set up that room with sixteen pillars, which obscure the views, so it invites you in fully, to move towards the perimeters of the room so you can see everything there. It was such an inviting space despite its strange conditions. It really created a sense of welcome. There were benches that invited you to sit down and to be in that space as long as you wanted. Having spent a year at the Naropa Institute in Boulder and having studied some Buddhist meditation practices, I think there was this feeling for me of coming home, returning to the self and also of the eyes opening and becoming awakened to the beauty around me. This place was like a home away from home, because Chicago was a strange and big city, but in this place of sanctuary, I could find myself.

The sense you’re describing of the invitation—being required to move around—is in the physicality of the design. 

It’s a very embodied invitation. You can’t experience the space unless you choose to be in your body. And that’s powerful because when we move through museums, we’re usually observing through the eye; we’re moving around things that we’re not supposed to touch, and so there’s a way in which we kind of dislocate from our bodies. And this was a different thing. 

Could you talk about the element of chance in your practice, which appears to have become more pronounced after you became a parent? 

That element of chance or happy accident is a language used a lot in the darkroom to talk about trying to make the perfect print, which is really, really hard. That fits well with what my life was post-motherhood, in that there was so much control that had to be let go of. I think of my work as structured opportunities for chance, where intention is built into it. In the case of “Heirloom,” it’s been a learning process, a collaboration with nature and letting go. That project is about using an apple orchard and the ripening apple skins as a light sensitive surface to basically do printing. There were a lot of variables of chance that were difficult to control, like all the different species of apples, and how long each one might need to ripen and to print, and weather conditions, and people and animals intervening with the work. I feel like the lessons I’ve learned over time about chance and control have more to do with needing to let go of the conditions in which a work is made in order to let it more fully emerge into what it needs to be. That’s an element at play in the series in the Tadao Andō Gallery, too, because I’d never know what visitors, what students, who would be visiting the gallery, or what the curators would have done to it while I was away. I never knew what to expect. And sometimes I’d get really crabby about it, because, gee, I want it to be the way it was, but there was something else that was being offered, and so I had to try in some way to be attentive to that. 

Throughout Ensō, your work strikes a very meditative chord. 

I think that you’re remarking on a quality of time in these poems, or in these works. In the Japanese tea ceremony, there is such a slowing of the experience of enjoying the drinking of a tea, or the eating of the sweet, or the being with the host, so you are fully present to receive what they have to offer you. There’s some kind of imperceptible shift in time or the experience of time when you’re in that space. When I was writing and making that series about the gallery, I was thinking of it as almost a way to explore what I was imagining as Japanese time, but is actually time, in general, more than Japanese time. But the Japanese are very interesting in the way they deal with time, in terms of seasonality and the tracking of the passage of time. When I look at some of the other time-based projects I’ve ended up doing—like the apple project—it is very much a way of durational unfolding, not just of chance, but of time, a time that is kind of outside of ourselves but also becomes inside of ourselves, like overlappings of time. That also grew very much out of the process of being pregnant and becoming a mother, the strange disorientation that happens to time and requires us to develop a different relationship to it. 

Could you talk about the parallel between the solitary nature of a writing practice and the aloneness of being pregnant?

I had a miscarriage before my first viable pregnancy, and I think that’s important to say. My relationship to time shifted in many different ways when I became pregnant. There are all these measures—things that are supposed to be developing or happening—these markers of time that are observed in a calendar from conception to birth. There’s almost a hijacking of a normal sense of time, in some ways, because the time that was yours and your conception of time is now taken over by this other being you’re incubating and their time, which is operating differently from yours. There is also a strangeness, in that it feels endless. Sometimes it’s super physically uncomfortable, and maybe you want the time to move faster, but it’s moving at the pace it wants to move.

That experience began to sort of reorient me, rewire me, I feel like in some unusual ways. The apple project was the first work I made after the birth of my son. I’ve become more interested in work that requires me to have a period of time to incubate what the project is going to be and to evolve with it, rather than just making this polished, edited thing that I’m handing off.

The idea of reclamation also seems present in your poetry.

Yeah. I think that’s an idea that I’ve been getting closer to over the last ten years. There was, for me, reclamation in the radical act of deciding I’m not going to be a translator. Instead, I’m going to write the columns and the essays that need to come from me in my embodied experience.

That was maybe the first example of coming to terms with this question of whose story am I telling? Who does it belong to? What is my story? And the idea of reclaiming, the idea of exploring a place over a long period of time is about the development of a deep relationship with that place or the people, a sustained engagement that is about coming to terms with the thing I want to say about it.

I am of the diaspora, and so this is very much about sifting through the things and the qualities that have been of value to me from the Taiwanese culture that I want to retain, that I want to keep or pass along to my son. But also reclaiming and centering my voice because so much of my work has been, I think, about the question of what to preserve. Am I here to further my father’s project or my parents’ legacy, or to make sure that their stories—what they want to transmit or to culturally preserve—don’t die? But I think reclamation also exists in my work; I, as a Taiwanese American, have felt very displaced. I have moved a lot, west to east, to south, to north and back again, re-exploring places more than one time in my lived experience. I think that in this way, I haven’t felt a sense of place or a sense of belonging. I have had a sense that these places can be created in the imagination, like the Tadao Andō Gallery and how it felt to me. I began to feel it when I made the apple orchard project in Carkeek Park, because it was for me, not a way to claim that space—which isn’t mine—but to claim my experience there in a very personal way.

Abbie Reese is the author of "Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns" (Oxford University Press) and the director of the documentary "Chosen" (Custody of the Eyes). She has an MFA in visual arts from the University of Chicago and is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction writing at the University of California, Riverside.

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