Languishing in 2021

Learning a new psychological concept, over year into the pandemic.

I related to this article so much! I thought getting my vaccine shot would change everything. The pandemic is still dampening many aspects of life, and I’m still stuck in my own head, for better or worse. Learning to name this feeling of languishing—and see that it is a normal, common reaction—is helpful. It’s also great to be reminded of the importance of flow, a concept I learned about and wanted to share via my Positive Signs drawings from about 10 years ago.

“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness….

…[as] the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish….

…In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless. Languishing is … the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being….

—Adam Grant, ”There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,“ NY Times, April 19, 2021

I am guilty of thinking in this duality between anxiety/depression and flourishing. This is a 5-part Venn diagram I made inspired by Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of flourishing.

a drawing in gel pen with a five-part Venn diagram inspired by Martin Seligman's PERMA theory about flourishing.
Positive Signs: United Theories, 2012, gel pen on vellum, 32 x 40 inches unframed / 35.5 x 43.5 x 1.5 inches framed / 81.2 x 101.6 cm unframed / 90 x 110.5 x 3.8 cm framed. Supported by Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center.

…when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive….

So much of my artwork inspired by positive psychology is about noticing your feelings!

Christine Wong Yap, take charge of your happiness, 2011, ~83 × 24 × 1 in / 211 × 61 × 2.5 cm.
Christine Wong Yap, take charge of your happiness, 2011, ~83 × 24 × 1 in / 211 × 61 × 2.5 cm.

Not to mention my work that aspires to delight.

4 photos documenting a flag procession and raising ceremony. the flags are colorful patterns without representational symbols.
Irrational Exuberance Flags, 2012–13, five flags and five sashes; flagpoles, bases; participation; flags: 48 x 48 up to 48 x 80 inches each, poles: 8 to 30 feet each. Supported by Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center. Photos: Susan O’Malley.

…When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself….

I just remarked how hard it is to ask for help—to allow yourself be held in support by others.

Photo of calligraphy that reads, "I feel most in control when I can feel comfortable being interdependent, which is to say out of control and held in support by, of, and for my friends, family and community."
Detail from an installation of drawings on interdependence and my artists’ personal impacts survey, 2015, ink on vellum, 12 × 9 inches / 30.5 × 22.8 cm.

Or, as psychologist Jenny Wang put it, “to let others love you better.”

It’s really neat to see how the answer may be in finding flow.

…“flow” may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow….

Fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence….

This really resonates with my takeaways from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.

drawing about pleasure and enjoyment
Positive Signs #49, 2011, glitter and fluorescent pen on gridded vellum, 8.5 × 11 in / 21.5 × 28 cm.

We now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress….

This is a revelation to me. I sometimes think I’m addicted to work. Often, when I write in my journal about what went well in my day, it’s often a list of accomplishments. I try to fight this urge to overvalue productivity. But it is very satisfying to know that you’re making progress.

…treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard.

I know, during work from home and remote learning, having uninterrupted time is a huge privilege. I try not to take it for granted. I try to schedule my work day bearing in mind that I’m my most focused and creative in the mornings. Learning how to single-task, rather than multitask, is an ongoing challenge.

One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation.

I think it’s so wonderful that a “meaningful conversation” is included here. Having deeper conversations is always important, but may be more so than ever, for combating isolation and pandemic-fatigue.

We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges.

May is mental health awareness month. In a time of so much disruption and upheaval, it’s so important to normalize mental health as part of our everyday experience, and de-stigmatize caring for one’s own mental wellbeing.


Writing Waves Indeed

The many reasons why Jay Caspian Kang’s “Writing Waves”—part memoir, part book review of William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days”—in the New York Times Magazine resonated with me.

Kang starts out by researching writing about surfing and pondering its difficulty, locating at the crux one of my favorite topics:

“I concluded that writing about surfing was impossible because surfing elicited happiness, and it is impossible to write about happiness.”

I think positive psychologists would argue that the sciences and humanities can intersect productively with happiness. It’s not impossible, it’s just very hard to do without cliché. Kang says Finnegan

“was the first person I had come across who could write about surfing without schmaltz or weighty metaphors.”

Here’s Kang quoting Finnegan’s description of Ocean Beach:

“San Francisco’s ‘giant gray,’ ‘ominous’ waves”

I can picture those waves, and OB’s riptide warning signs, posted at every entrance. It’s there that I watched M surf, in the same years that Kang surfed there daily.

Kang, inspired by Finnegan, even considers intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. To find flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, one should participate in activities that are worthwhile in themselves.

On clean, January days, surfing, even badly, was enough to give me a purpose in life. But on choppy, stupid days in September, as I paddled futilely straight into the first line of white water at Ocean Beach, I would think about Peewee’s vision of silent, simple doing over Doc’s vision of daily, ritualistic heroism. I did not really believe surfing was nothing more than surfing, but I hoped I might one day get good enough at it to drop all its sentimental trappings.

He seems to be yearning for an un-self-consciousness state of engagement, where one’s skills are matched well to the challenges: flow.

He also covets Finnegan’s freedom to solely pursue surfing, not unlike my jealousy of Matisse’s lifetime of art-making:

A surfer feels an even mix of nostalgia and envy reading that passage. The boundlessness of Finnegan’s wave chasing now feels at once out of reach and dated, in the manner of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.

I’m intrigued by the humility, insight, and craftsmanship from both Kang and Finnegan. I adored Finnegan’s “Off Diamond Head” in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, and now am especially eager to read “Barbarian Days.”


What not to do at a phenomenological art installation

[CURMUDGEON WARNING: This is going to be an angry, misanthropic post. I try to be optimistic and share the positive, but all my efforts yesterday could not save my experience at James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim from being marred by other viewers.

Turrell is one of my favorite artists. He creates spaces for one-of-a-kind perceptual experiences and transcendence. I went to his exhibition to restore my faith in why I make art, to be freed from mundane constraints; so I cleared my schedule on a weekday morning to avoid crowds, and I cleared my head to be receptive. When I got there, I tried to block out other viewers’ inane conversations (first mentally and then physically by plugging my ears) and ignore their persistent, distracting photo-taking and mobile device addictions. I even conducted positive self-talk about personal boundaries and controlling my psychic energy(1). But it was all for nought. Having enough physical and psychic space to appreciate Turrell’s subtle installations was impossible.

As an artist, I need viewers. But as a viewer, especially for phenomenological installations like Turrell’s, I could do without 90% of them. I know most viewers have good intentions and, by dint of being at the museum, want to appreciate art, however, I could not help but feel how selfish and self-sabotaging many viewers were at the Guggenheim yesterday. What follows is ranting and conservative—for the positive, come back another time.]

What not to do at a phenomenological art installation:

  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden. It’s disrespectful to the artist and the institution. If those entities seem too abstract to you, at least use your self-control to not disregard and thereby disrespect the guards as fellow human beings. They didn’t make the rules but they bear the brunt of enforcing them, thousands of times a day, week after week, when the rules are clearly stated.(2) While many institutions allow picture taking, it’s a privilege, not a right. Furthermore, picture-taking forces guards to verbally enforce the rules, which further distracts other viewers from the art.
  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden and the host institution has posted plentiful pictures on their website. It’s especially selfish and pointless.
  • Take pictures or use a mobile device when viewing a finely-calibrated light installation that utilizes the entire space. You are inside the artwork. Just as you wouldn’t add paint to a painting, do not add your screen’s light to a light installation.
  • Take pictures of a phenomenological, durational exhibition, whose very intention is for viewers to be present, slow down, quiet the mind, and free oneself from contemporary distractions.(3)
  • Make shadow puppets, or let your children make shadow puppets, in the light installations. There are endless places to play with shadows in the world, but only a handful in which to view a Turrell installation. Behave yourself for the same reasons that you wouldn’t climb on a marble statue at the Met.
  • Take one of the highly coveted seats inside the installation to read a newspaper or use your mobile device. If it’s an emergency and you must use your device, excuse yourself to a lobby or hallway. If it’s not, stop sabotaging your own experiences and be present! Further, to pass your time not engaging the artwork is especially inconsiderate when there are over a hundred people waiting in line outside due to the installation’s limited capacity.
  • Start up a conversation about how too many people are talking to fully experience the installation, and carry it on, contributing to the problem.

1. From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow:

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

2. I probably saw over a hundred people taking pictures in the hour or so I was in Aten Reign, Turrell’s once-in-a-lifetime, site-specific installation in the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda. Visitors blatantly felt that they did not have to follow the no-pictures rule—that their need to take a photo surpassed any of the artist or institution’s logic or any basic respect of the guard as a human being just doing his job.

This is how bias works: People understand that bias exists—but we believe that only other people are biased, whereas we think that we see things as they really are. The flaw, of course, is that if everyone else is biased, no one, including ourselves, is unbiased. In fact, we are all biased. (See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006).)

No photography means no photography. It doesn’t mean that other people can’t take photos.

3. Louis CK takes down mobile phone addictions beautifully on Conan: put down the device, be present, experience art, and let yourself experience real emotions.

Addictions erode self-control and the incredibly important characteristic of being able to delay gratification. The very definition of addiction is when people continue an automatic behavior out of desire, even as pleasure diminishes (see Paul Martin, Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure). If feeding the addiction leads to selfish and self-sabotaging behaviors, self-regulation is in order. There’s a profound difference, anyway, between fleeting pleasures and lasting enjoyment.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

Impressions, Research

Points of Reference: Haim Steinbach, The Meaning of Things, and Irrational Exuberance Anew

Christine Wong Yap, Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), installation view at Sight School, Oakland, CA. 2010.

Christine Wong Yap, Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), installation view at Sight School, Oakland, CA. 2010.

It’s been three years since I created Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), a body of work inspired by discount store culture, pleasure and decoration. Recently, I’ve encountered salient art and writings related to those ideas. These references are not too late—in fact, they are perfectly on time, as I’m currently revisiting Irrational Exuberance to envision a new body of work and self-initiated project.

The references are like three planets with shared orbits:

A Two-Hour Drive. A Three-Year Journey.

Featured guests (L-R): artist, writer and theorist Ginger Wolfe-Suarez, curator and critic Glen Helfand, and writer and curator Patricia Maloney.

Featured guests at As Is, the dialogue at Irrational Exuberance at Sigh School (L-R): artist, writer and theorist Ginger Wolfe-Suarez, curator and critic Glen Helfand, and writer and curator Patricia Maloney.

In the dialogue that accompanied Irrational Exuberance in 2010, artist and theorist Ginger Wolfe-Suarez cited Steinbach’s work (download her interview with Steinbach from his site):

I’m interested in looking at Christine’s work, and work like Christine’s, that transcends consumption as a closed system of signs and symbols. That conversation can be transformative. … I was really interested in how [Haim Steinbach and Allan McCollum’ talked about their objects. …. There are political ramifications for words like consumption—like nihilation—so I think the ability to tackle, and transcend, those conversations is really exciting for me.

I had looked at reproductions of Steinbach’s most iconic works: found objects displayed on shelves. I was inspired by how modest they were, but also found the objects un-transformed, recognizable identities difficult to overcome. Like the drawing instruction, “Draw what you see, not what you know,” when I as faced with Steinbach’s artworks, it was hard to see what was in front of me when it kept on insisting to be what I knew it to be. I couldn’t find the space for visual or conceptual discovery at the time.

Haim Steinbach, Untitled (bird, nesting dolls, vase), 2006  MDF shelf; ceramic bird; wooden nesting dolls; Korean ceramic vase 11-3/4 x 33 x 10-1/2 in. (30 x 84 x 27 cm). // Source:

Haim Steinbach, Untitled (bird, nesting dolls, vase), 2006 MDF shelf; ceramic bird; wooden nesting dolls; Korean ceramic vase 11-3/4 x 33 x 10-1/2 in. (30 x 84 x 27 cm). // Source:

I was still curious to learn more, so I visited once again the world is flat. Bard is a two-hour drive from NYC, but it was worth the trek. I gained a profound appreciation for Steinbach’s work by seeing it in person, in abundance, and with exceptionally keen curatorial direction by Tom Eccles and Johanna Burton united with spot-on exhibition design for maximum effect. I didn’t love all the work, or completely understand it, but I fully respected it. I had to wrestle with what Steinbach was doing, what the viewers are meant to do or experience, and what I felt, which was at times pleasure, bafflement, and also despair—the world is flat, leaving my preconceptions about value in limbo. While Steinbach’s work is still potently mysterious to me, I found the accompanying catalog to set interesting parameters about what, exactly, Steinbach’s ideas and works are.

Brute Material Facts

Haim Steinbach, Untitled (skull, vessel, figurine, toy, fruit bowl, sphere, peasant), 2006  Birch plywood, plastic laminate and glass box; synthetic polymer skull; Korean ceramic vessel; plastic figurine; plastic baby toy; Chinese fruit bowl; straw ball; Chinese ceramic statuette 37-3/4 x 53-3/4 x 14-3/4 in. (95.8 x 136.6 x 37.5 cm) // Source:

Haim Steinbach, Untitled (skull, vessel, figurine, toy, fruit bowl, sphere, peasant), 2006 Birch plywood, plastic laminate and glass box; synthetic polymer skull; Korean ceramic vessel; plastic figurine; plastic baby toy; Chinese fruit bowl; straw ball; Chinese ceramic statuette 37-3/4 x 53-3/4 x 14-3/4 in. (95.8 x 136.6 x 37.5 cm) // Source:

The aesthetic experience of contemporary art is often like an act of unraveling a riddle. Familiarity with the tropes usually leads towards plausible hypotheses: commenting on this, re-contextualizing that, hybridizing this plus that—you get the idea. Steinbach’s work is more abstruse. It offers no Tootsie Roll center like the center of a Tootsie Pop. In her essay, “Some Collectables,” from the exhibition catalogue for once again the world is flat., curator Johanna Burton points out:

These are not … representations of things, but rather presentations of them.

Steinbach’s objects are not metaphors or symbols to be deciphered. They are all surfaces and cultural associations. They are the point. Whereas, discussions of the readymade, appropriation, and mass production, Burton states,

are only tangential to the brute material fact of what’s actually there.

That “brute material fact” is exactly what I couldn’t overcome initially. And this may also be another point of Steinbach’s—for me, as a viewer, to look at what’s there and to forget habits of looking. As Burton says, the very title

asks us to reconsider what we think we know, and to survey the terrain around us, as if we were seeing it for the first time again.

In other words, Steinbach is asking viewers to move beyond recognition to perception. In The Meaning of Things, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton explain John Dewey’s ideas of perception versus recognition. Recognition is

when we experience a thing and interpret it only as something we already know

Hence, there is no new organization of feeling, attention or intentions within the viewer. Just as I could only see the objects’ identities when I first encountered Steinbach’s work, I could not garner a meaningful aesthetic experience from them. On the other hand, perception is

when we experience a thing and realize its own inherent character … [the] object imposes certain qualities on the viewer that create new insights.

Certainly art objects are intended to create aesthetic experiences that “create new insights” on the viewer; Steinbach challenges viewers to perceive quotidian objects anew.

The Quotidian

In Irrational Exuberance, I sought to question class and value distinctions inherent in decorative objects. Many of the works in Irrational Exuberance are multiples, reinforcing discount stores’ feelings of immediacy and abundance. The subtext is that idea serialized objects can also be personally meaningful. Burton explains that this holds true for Steinbach too:

Steinbach’s interest … in collecting as a mode of production would seem to court the individualistic, affective drive toward objects, while also acknowledging the serial nature of every such ‘special’ object.

For the Things authors, everyday objects bring together the self and the world:

household objects become sights of a wider network of meanings that embrace the whole world.

echoing the very title of the Steinbach show: once again the world is flat. This leveling works two ways: bringing art objects ‘down’ to the same level as quotidian objects and elevating everyday things ‘up’ to the rarified realm of artworks.

In “Not a Readymade” (reprinted in the exhibition catalog and also downloadable from Steinbach’s site) Anthony Huberman interviews Steinbach, who reveals that his work

embraces the idea that art is always with us, a function of the everyday.

Vinyl Ficus #3 & 4, 2010, vinyl, mylar, thread, lacing, wire, ~18 x 12 x 12 inches / 45 x 30 x30 cm each

Christine Wong Yap, Vinyl Ficus #3 & 4, 2010, vinyl, mylar, thread, lacing, wire, ~18 x 12 x 12 inches / 45 x 30 x30 cm each

The Things authors even wrote about the role of objects in visual art thusly:

Creative artists are those who can find a convincing visual solution to a problem that was never previously formulated. In the solution, and even in the formulation of creative problems, objects stimulate and help develop the artist’s thought.

In 1980, they could not known to what extent Steinbach would use objects expressly to advance thought.


Cute ___ Calendar, 2010, collage of found calendars, 12 x 12 x 0.5 inches / 30 x 30 x 1.2 cm

Christine Wong Yap, Cute ___ Calendar, 2010, collage of found calendars, 12 x 12 x 0.5 inches / 30 x 30 x 1.2 cm

In 2010, I wrote that Irrational Exuberance was an immersion in sentiment:

… an exercise in pleasure, modest expectations and accessibility.

With its unabashed enthusiasm, … Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors) marks a shift … I became enamored with the aesthetic, symbolic and conceptual potential of discount store culture, the decorative impulse, and the search for happiness.

…sentiment and immediacy are embraced. The exhibition’s title highlights the paradox of thinking rationally about emotional and internal experiences.

My previous work had been “cool”—often black-and-white, reserved, and materially minimal. I found kinship in a quote attributed to G. K. Chesterton:

The meanest habit of humankind is to be skeptical of sentiment.

In the public dialogue, sentimentality appeared divisive; perhaps in the age of irony, audiences automatically assume that elation and enthusiasm cannot be sincere. It’s a comfort to me that Steinbach does not shy from sentiment either. In Giorgio Verzotti’s “Object, Sign, Community: On the Art of Haim Steinbach” (reprinted in the exhibition catalog and also downloadable from Steinbach’s site), he states:

What Steinbach highlights …. is the object as a focus of emotion.

The Reciprocal Relationship Between Objects and Selfhood

Christine Wong Yap, Unbounded/Unfounded, 2010, fan, metallic fringe and light box: pegboard, wood, acrylic, vinyl, lights, paint, 73 x 60 x 48 inches / 1.8 x 1.5 x 1.2 m.

Christine Wong Yap, Unbounded/Unfounded, 2010, fan, metallic fringe and light box: pegboard, wood, acrylic, vinyl, lights, paint, 73 x 60 x 48 inches / 1.8 x 1.5 x 1.2 m.

I’m interested in how objects accrue meaning or sentiment. Are objects merely containers for human associations? Or do they “act” as well? This transaction may be more reciprocal than I think, as objects can also shape humans.

Verzotti describes the link between objects shape the self:

An object, inasmuch as it forms part of our daily lives … to satisfy certain needs, becomes, Steinbach says, vital to the construction of our identity.

This is essentially what the authors of Things set out to study:

how the most complex pattern of emotion and thought can become embedded in and symbolized by concrete things, that is how things themselves are part of the interpretive sign process that constitutes meaning.

They elaborate:

Things actively change the content of what we think is our self and thus perform a creative as well as reflexive function….

Objects affect what a person can do, either by expanding or restricting the scope of that person’s actions and thoughts…. Objects have a determining effect on the development of the self.

According to Burton, Steinbach’s work conjures very similar ideas:

Objects are less about their owners, … and more about the circulations they make…. Objects reflect much of their owners’ beliefs, systems of faith, and measures of value… [and] also produce [them].

The overlap in the ideas between the Things authors, Burton, and Irrational Exuberance are abundant. One of Burton’s paragraphs in particular is especially sociological and psychological:

Our drive to acquire and organize things is, in part, how we understand ourselves. Less a comment on capitalism than an investigation of the production of self, Steinbach’s work acknowledges the fragility of subjecthood—that our funny, fragile egos are bound up in the unexpectedly rich terrain of the knickknacks and bric-a-brac, to say nothing of priceless mementos, we collect and covet.

This is a sequence of ideas that are relevant even line by line. First, she writes,

Our drive to acquire and organize things is, in part, how we understand ourselves. …[Steinbach’s work is] an investigation of the production of self…

This echoes the Things authors:

the potential significance of things is realized in a process of actively cultivating a world of meanings, which both reflect and help create the ultimate goals of one’s existence.

Next, Burton specifies that Steinbach’s work is

Less a comment on capitalism

This, too, came up at the dialogue at Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors). Some viewers assumed a negative, oppositional critique on my part where there was none. I embraced the bright colors and cheap materiality as sincere expressions of enthusiasm and pleasure, so this perspective was confounding. Where was it coming from? I had theorized that works of art can operate like barometers for optimism and pessimism, and this seemed further evidence that viewer’s projections are just as integral to the reading of the work as the work itself.

Last, Burton writes

our funny, fragile egos are bound up in the unexpectedly rich terrain of the knickknacks and bric-a-brac

This could very well be a statement for Irrational Exuberance.

The Social Life of Objects

Christine Wong Yap, Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors) buttons #1–3, 2010, badges, 1–1.75 inches / 2.5 x 4.5 cm dia. each.

Christine Wong Yap, Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors) buttons #1–3, 2010, badges, 1–1.75 inches / 2.5 x 4.5 cm dia. each.

In the study of positive psychology, improving one’s subjective wellbeing seems to always begin with the self and expand towards the social. There seems to be a parallel here: beginning with the habits of mind such as recognition and perception, acknowledging the everyday, and considering the organization of the self, and moving on to relationships.

In Steinbach’s interview with Huberman, he states

my practice is directly committed to the social.

How is it that inanimate objects can be social? Steinbach suggests how can they not:

There’s always more than one object at hand. Being here means you and here.

Verzotti’s points out the relational aspect of things between people:

Each object is both an object and a sign associated with a specific social dynamic, a token of exchange with we weave our interpersonal relations…

I’d thought about art objects as props that mediate relationships. Now it appears that objects might function similarly.

Christine Wong Yap, a diagram of how artists and viewers inform works of art and thereby mediate relationships between artists and viewers.

Christine Wong Yap, a diagram of how artists and viewers inform works of art and thereby mediate relationships between artists and viewers.

Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton elaborate on the many levels of this social potential:

Objects … serve to express dynamic processes within people, among people, and between people and the total environment. These processes might lead to a more and more specific differentiation or increasing integration…

by which they mean, the individuation of the self or alignment with others. They add:

Differentiation is the result of control, whereas integration is based on participation.

This calls to mind my idea that art experiences are opportunities for enacting trust or skepticism. Perhaps another way to think of art experiences is as opportunities for expressing differentiation/control or integration/participation.

Integration and Differentiation

When I read the once again the world is flat. exhibition catalog, so many points seemed to overlap with my own interests in Irrational Exuberance that I became nervous—which I self-diagnosed as the anxiety of influence.

An obvious similarity between once again the world is flat. and Irrational Exuberance is the use of common objects displayed on shelves. Though I used found objects in non-shelf displays, I collaged, sewed, and constructed most of the objects in Irrational Exuberance. My work conveys “craft” more than “brute materiality.” Further, Steinbach invests much of his constructive energy in the shelves, not the objects on display; in my work, the attention is reversed.

I like to think that I’m forging a different path on shared terrain. Or to use a different metaphor (same idea, different things), since orbits have different trajectories, coincidental moments of proximity are the result of traveling great distances.


notes on things: politically incorrect maps

This week’s Ethicist column (“Map or Menace?” by Chuck Klosterman, New York Times, July 5, 2013) offers an interesting opportunity to consider the neutrality of objects, via a vintage map of Germany in 1937 for possible display in a living room.

I would argue that the artifact itself should be neutral, yet its display is freighted with associations that are not. How much meaning is imparted by the artifact, and how much by its display?

Consider the paradox:

There’s no ethical responsibility to avoid offending people who manufacture personal meanings.

I appreciate that Klosterman acknowledges that meanings are superimposed by viewers upon objects here, echoing artist Haim Steinbach’s The Object Lesson course centered on show-and-tells of the same objects every week (The Artist’s Institute describes how students learned that “analysis hinged on their own projections and desires”).


If you deliberately present an image that is prone to misinterpretation, you have to accept the consequences.

…perhaps presenting an opportunity to map an overlap between the home’s “symbolic ecology” (as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and group social relations. The symbolic ecology reminds residents of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and what they aspire to do, yet it also conveys these identities to visitors. What we own and display tells others about who we are, even from within the safety of our own domestic museums of the self.


Happiness Is… Research Note #2

For my fellow artists:

For [lifelong flow] it is necessary to invest energy in goals that are so persuasive that they justify effort even when our resources are exhausted and when fate is merciless in refusing us a chance at having a comfortable life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)

Everyday objects: Vessels for sentiments and memories

Prized possessions: What do they mean to their owners? How do they accomplish this? Where does our subjectivity end, and the thing’s objecthood begin?

I’ve been interested in this since starting graduate school, when I tried to change my practice from making art that represented an idea, to making art that embodied it. This quote from a Fluxus artist sums up the paradox beautifully.

We are all fetishists snared by the object…. The object is the vehicle of the affections… until they reach the flea markets of the world, where these objects continually pile up stripped of their magic and cut off from the memory of their history… All that remains of these preserves is the container the artists made for the time, the “can” the preserves came in…. The container will never interest me as much as the contained, but where would I pour my wine without a glass?

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

I’ve been interested in how possessions act as vessels, and it keeps coming up in different ways. In Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), discount store goods triggered questions of value and taste. In reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Creativity, I zeroed in on the psychological benefits of a symbolic ecology of the home for Positive Signs drawings.

This idea seems to be coming up more frequently from outside sources as well. Perhaps I’m noticing it more, or possibly a zeitgeist is coalescing…. Here are my notes from the field:

The Floating Lab Collective: Re-Museum
March 20 – April 27, 2012
5×5 public art installations, various sites in Washington DC

The Re-Museum … mirror[s] the process of collecting, displaying, attributing value to, and commodifying art objects by the institution.

Recognizing that souvenirs play a familiar role in the reinforcement of national ideologies, beliefs and rituals, The Re-Museum is selecting an array of souvenirs drawn from and representing issues and aesthetics embedded in our local communities. Through a variety of workshops and conversations created in partnership with local community centers we will select significant objects, sites, narratives and images from various DC communities to be housed in the Re-Museum.

The Re-Museum wil be making weekly stops at locations ranging from the Corcoran Museum to outdoor parking lots in Colombia Heights and Recreation Centers in Deanwood.

(Via Coro/Raquel de Anda)

A life full of things – of personal relationships with the inanimate – only seems possible through the mediation of art, and so I prefer theidea of things, rather than the thing itself.

Isla Leaver-Yap, curator*

(*Yap clan in contemporary art!)

It Chooses You, Miranda July

It Chooses You 
Miranda July 
McSweeney’s, 2011

July interviewed subjects who were selling possessions in the Pennysaver in LA. She asks them to talk about their items, and notes how they decorate their houses. The characters tend to be rather marginalized, so the stories are imbued with pathos.

Read excerpts on

Listen to Miranda July and actors read excerpts on WNYC’s Selected Shorts. Recommended. The idea of July’s work strikes me as self-consciously quirky, uncomfortably over-sharing, twee indie like Michael Cera, but when I actually give it a chance, it is always sincere and affecting. This reading is quite long, but very moving towards the end.

Animism: exhibition and conference
16 March–6 May 2012
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

In the habituated scheme of modernity, objects are conceived as the passive stuff on which human action leaves its imprint or trace. Whenever this passive/active nexus between objects and subject, humans and the non-human is disturbed or even reversed—as in the coming-to-life of seemingly dead matter, or the becoming autonomous of inert things—we inevitably step into the territory of animism: that non-modern worldview that conceives of things as animated and possessing agency. Is it possible to de-colonize the imaginary manifest in the modern conception of the animist “other”, by bringing into view the practices that both make and transgress the distinctions and boundaries in question?

(Via e-flux)

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett

Vibrant Matter
Jane Bennett
Duke University Press, 2010

Lecture: Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter

How do objects sometimes act as vibrant things, with an effectivity of their own, a degree of independence from the words, images, and feelings they provoke in humans? Political theorist Jane Bennett delivers the inaugural lecture as the Vera List Center for Art and Politics embarks on a two-year exploration of the material world. In the face of virtual realities, social media and disembodied existences, the center will focus on the material conditions of our lives and examine “thingness,” the nature of matter.

Renowned for her work on nature and ethics, Bennett investigates the power of things, which sometimes manifests as the strange allure that even useless, ugly, or meaningless items can have for us. Her latest book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke, 2010) asks how our political world would approach public problems were we to seriously consider not just our human experience of things, but the capacity of things themselves. How is it that things can elide their status as possessions, tools, or aesthetic objects to manifest traces of independence and vitality? Following the tangled threads linking vibrant materialities, human selves, and the agentic assemblages they form, Bennett examines what hoarders – people preternaturally attuned to things – might have to teach us about the workings of agency, causality, and artistry in a world overflowing with stuff.

Finally, a call for prized possessions for exhibition:

Fawn's collection of fawns. Source: Greene County Art Council.

Fawn's collection of fawns. Source: Greene County Art Council.

The People’s Collection
Greene County
Arts Council, Masters on Main Street project
in collaboration with  Occupy with Art
Friday, April 13 – May 31, 2012

Wall Street to Main Street is pleased to announce an open call to all residents of Catskill and the Hudson Valley to share things you love in your home with your community in a beautiful common space. We ask that you bring one object that has inspired you and gives meaning to your life to be shown with your neighbor’s loved-things in a surprise exhibition located on Main Street.

Not to mention The People’s Biennial, curated by Jenns Hoffman and Harrell Fletcher.

Also, did you know that there are institutions named “The People’s Gallery” in San Francisco, California as well as Riverside, California;  Derry, North Ireland; Cork, Ireland; and Cheshire, UK. It was also the name of a 19th-century African American photographer’s studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as the name of this year’s civic exhibition in Austin, Texas.


Tom Friedman @ Luhring Augustine, Jeffrey Gibson @ Participant, more

Given my underwhelming art show attendance record in NYC, I took a quick jaunt through galleries in Chelsea today, followed by a pilgrimage to the East side for an LES space. I’ve linked to gallery photos when available, to spare you and the artists from my low-res snapshots.

Doug Wheeler at David Zwirner 

This light-and-space artists’ major installation is this month’s must-see show, but I couldn’t see it.

Last weekend, I tried to get in line one hour before closing time, but was told to come back another day.

Today, the wait time was estimated to be about 90 minutes, with a growing line outside, and a longer line inside. Unlike Disneyland, there weren’t signs estimating the wait time; I came by this information covertly, and I promptly gave up.

The gallery ought consider extending the show as well as opening hours.

Photos on
Read Randy Kennedy’s review on NYTimes.

Terry Winters (borrowing from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) at Matthew Marks

Big abstract paintings in the big space, small transparency-and-Xerox collages in the smaller storefront. The collages were fun and psychedelic with rainbow-colored data visualizations.

What made me stop was recognizing a chart borrowed from  psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose research on flow and creativity has inspired many of my Positive Signs drawings. Winters appropriated a X-Y graph on how challenges and skill can lead to apathy or flow. He overlaid it on a paint chip page. Worked for me.

Photo at

Klaus Weber at Andrew Kreps

Sun Press looked cool, and would have been really cool if the sculptural contraption was working. Sunlight streamed in the windows and hit a mirror attached to hydraulic pistons on a wooden base. Several yards down a hall, another mirror (actually silver mylar pulled taut on a frame) was meant to catch the reflected light and re-direct it onto glass-plate-mounted transparencies, which would have acted as masks for incredibly slow, one-at-a-time, sun-bleached reproductions. Architecture and astronomy conspired against Weber, however, throwing the solar rays inertly on a wall.

The rest of the show was very good, however. A wall of death masks had two subtle surprises—humorously, a cartoonish character, and unnervingly, an empty spot with lone, expectant nail. I also liked some large, black-on-black screenprints made with honey, more for the food materials, á la Ed Ruscha. In an anatomical model, real produce filled in for organs, updating Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s veggie portraits, plus real-time decay. The brain, so inscrutable, is a cauliflower. As in my fridge, the cucumber, which stands in for the esophagus, mutinies first, shrinking as if in anaphylactic shock.

The gallery site hasn’t got any photos yet, so enjoy my grainy mobile phone photo.

A sculpture from Klaus Weber's show, "if you leave me I'm not following" at Andrew Kreps Gallery.

A sculpture from Klaus Weber's show, "if you leave me I'm not following" at Andrew Kreps Gallery.

John Miller at Metro Pictures

Puzzling theatrical sets made with b/w vinyl murals, fake trees and rocks, and sparkly automotive-painted file cabinets.

Photos at

The carpet that spells “NO” reminded my of Amanda Curreri’s Leveller. Similar materials, very different intentions and effects.

Tom Friedman at Luhring Augustine

Really superb show by the master conceptualist-craftsman. Friedman’s sculptures and wall-works seem epitomize idiosyncrasy. There is hyper-realism, psychedelia, minimal text works, and miniatures; all result from a persistent attraction to labor. Friedman is a artistic daredevil, unafraid of the impossible.

Thankfully, full photo documentation is at

Over and over, I thought of other artists who might appreciate this show, whose works resonates with specific projects. For example, I thought Steven Barich, who has made tiny pixel graphite drawings, might appreciate this pixellated acrylic painting. Anthony Ryan, who was painstakingly inlaying and weaving paper the last time I visited his studio, might enjoy this interpolated paper collage. This wrinkled photo of itself was not unlike Zachary Royer Schultz’ Crumple projects. And for yours truly, who has been dreaming about a kite project, there was this tiny figure, and his far, faraway kite (not pictured, and actually, it’s so tiny it’s barely visible in person).

AIGA’s 50 Books/50 Covers 2010 Competition 

[Full disclosure: my husband contributed to the interactive components of this exhibition.]

Graphic design aficionados who find themselves ogling covers rather than shopping for books in bookstores, this is the exhibition for you. Come and ogle away.

Graphic designers, beware: visiting this exhibition will only whet your appetite for expensive and unusual printing and bindery—gloss varnishes, rich textiles, and extraordinary boxes. Come anyway; this is the best way to see them, better than the mind-numbing sameness of printed catalogs.

Too many covers were stunners, but I especially loved the covers for Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion and the book series, Themes of Psychoanalysis, elegantly illustrated with only one or two letters, symbols, or ornaments. The affect and emotion book, for example, bears a mirrored ampersand, which looks like two figures in intimate exchange.

Also: good spurs for home town pride: Rebecca Solnit’s The Infinite City, Mark Dion’s OMCA monograph, McSweeney’s, Tartine, etc.

Info and installation photos at

Selected book covers can be seen at’s design archives.

Jeffrey Gibson at Participant, Inc.

[At one time, Jeffrey was a studio neighbor in Oakland, CA.]

Jeffrey, who is Native American, populates Participant’s not-insubstantial space with sculptures using rugs, beadwork, masks, leatherwork, and drums. As soon as I saw these tchotchkes, painted to look like art, I thought of another LES installation/performance wherein white artists appropriated Native American culture to articulate nature-inspired mysticism. Americans in general are guilty of participating in this ongoing cultural imperialism; it’s just that the conscious acts seem so overt, privileged, and repellant. I wondered what Jeffrey would have made of them.

A series of circular drums are painted with hard-edged geometric shapes and stripes, with some whisks of aerosol. These seem to most clearly convey the show’s inspiration, a 1940s exhibit of Native American art situated in modern art history. Other works, like the pink fluorescent tube shooting out of a hide satchel adorned with two beaded balls, queer up the theme. A b/w video displays time-lapse photos of the drum-paintings in progress. Moving blankets, heavy with paint and Native ornamentation, ground floor works and, as a flag, worry a hardwood dowel.

More info at