Episode Two – David Ezra Wang

Additional Reading:

Chipo – Hello, I am Chipo Chipaziwa and welcome to Performing? No, Performance. This is a podcast in which I ask performance artists why and how they create the work that they create, and what does studio time mean and look like to them. I’m also joined by Live’s Brady Ciel Marks, who sometimes joins in on the conversation.

In this episode, I am joined by one of my good friends, David Ezra Wang. Hi David. Would you like to introduce yourself? 

David – My name is David Ezra Wang. I am calling in today from the traditional land of the Massachusett people, also known as Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was born on Munsee Lenape Land, also known as New Jersey, and raised on Ketagalan Land, also known as Taipei.

When I’m with myself, I feel that I am an artist or a writer. When I’m with other people, I, I find that I’m a friend, I’m a comrade, I’m a teacher, a spirit, or a stone and a river. I am so thankful to be talking with Chipo today. Chipo Chipaziwa and I are good friends so you know what, welcome to our, our. Welcome to our biweekly FaceTime call! I’m so glad to be here and share about my artistic and teaching practice.

Chipo – Something that I’ve noticed throughout the art pieces that you have created, is that your titles are so poetic and insightful. They’re able to narrate a story of their own. What inspires you to take this approach to naming your works? Some artists consider the titles of their works to provide some sort of landing mat for their audience, but for you, where do you stand regarding this? 

David – A few years ago, I started to use some of my writing as my titles. I am a poet, perhaps not so much by choice but I found that it was interesting if I took a line from my writing and I kind of imposed it onto an artwork, that it would give an entry point because it’s, it’s spoken in written language is understandable.

There’s quite a bit of context within a line of poetry, but at the same time, there will always be some disconnect between my writing and my artwork. And I think that’s where the viewer can come in and have their own space to then try to figure out, okay, so what’s the connection here? Why is this artwork named a certain way?

And for some of the artworks it, it made a lot of sense because sometimes I was more didactic with my title in relation to my and at the end of my undergrad this was during the, the start of the pandemic, I decided to make this artwork where I, this was for a drawing class as well. I decided to take a bowl of ink, this large bowl of ink, and I spilled it at this place. That meant a lot to me, and this ink kind of just flowed down the street creating this long shadow, and I knew this was a very personal work for myself and contrary to some of the other works that I made in my undergrad where I wanted my professor just to understand where I was going. I wanted my peers to understand what I was doing for this ink spill work. I knew it was for myself. And so I titled it “At the end of the road is a building”. In my head I was referring to this Chinese where you would not build a building at the end of the road because that has, you know, bad energy and it can be destructive for your, for your life basically. And for me, I was thinking about myself at the end of my undergrad. This lengthy process that, that was very meaningful and very fruitful for me. And it didn’t start out that way, but eventually it led to this very beautiful end. And I thought to, I thought to myself: am I a building at the end of the road or am I the person looking at the building at the end of the road?

And so this was obviously a very personal kind of inquiry into where I, where I stood and I, I decided to take a risk and just, just give a name that I feel compelled to do so. And I found that although that work didn’t catch a lot of attention of my peers, my professors, or when I, when I submitted to some shows where competition it also didn’t catch people’s attention.

But it was very meaningful to myself. And so this titling became return to myself in a certain way where I was doing it for myself and ensuring that I was talking to myself before I talked to other people. And I, I was searching about how I felt before I, I opened up to other people. So it first emerged, this titling with a kind of a, the poetic manner first emerged as a tool to make my works more interesting, but eventually it brought me to make my works more honest and make my process more honest.

Chipo – I was just gonna ask like, do you ever feel like, your poetry would be supplement, like supplementary material for the audience when they view your artworks? Like do you find that the two coexist with one another or are they just two separate entities that sometimes, you know, connect and then weave in and out? Yep

David – There have, there have been people asking me about my material art making and my poetry writing . Mm-hmm. . And I’ve never been very capable at answering it in a way that that captures kind of the flow. But I’ve kind of came to a realization that they stand independently. My writing is my writing, my, my, my material making my art making is my material making.

But, I think with many things they influenced each other. As much as my daily life influenced my art and my daily life influences my writing. For example, my poetry became an inspiration for titling my artworks in the same sense, my experiencing of these touching and amazing artwork also gave me this kind of a different perspective in writing and in the sense that when we look at an artwork and it’s very complex, the the meaning or the answer isn’t apparent at first, and you kind of get these pockets of thoughts.

Mm-hmm. And I’ve kind of then brought that into my writing and it went from this very like genuine, very thoughtful thing. And when I put into writing, it became this kind of humorous thing where I was just like rambling about what was on my mind. But as you can see, they influenced each other, but not, they influenced each other, but not by my will.

They just kind of, it just kind of happens. Mm-hmm. . But I also find that my daily life influences my art making already just as much as my writing influences my art and vice versa.

Chipo – Nice. I just wanted to touch on something that you’ve mentioned previously about your titles being genuine and honest to you, and that’s something that I struggle with coming, having a work and just being like, what am I gonna title this and thinking…. what the title should be. And I just wanted to ask you like, how did you get to that place of making titles that speak to you more or less speaking externally? Or, or, or do you feel like it’s an ongoing process? 

David – I, I definitely think it’s still evolving how the, the how the written aspect of the artwork relates to the material aspect, but maybe I could speak more about when “At the end of the road is a building” was created and how that was an intense transition.

Now, when the pandemic began and all our classes went online, we were removed from our studios for safety precautions instantly we lost those precious connections we had with our professors, with our peers, with the staff that worked at the school. And I didn’t realize in the moment, but that was kind of like death in my art making.

Hmm. I, I didn’t have those connections anymore. I couldn’t rely on those safe connections anymore. I had to go and do my thing.

And my friend Margaret, who I spent a lot of time with during those few months, described she was ripped from the womb. Mm-hmm. . And so when everyone was so far away, I had to make a decision.

And the question was: so what are you gonna do about it, David?

And at the same time I made artworks that were very much, I felt like, pleased my professors. And my body forced me to also make art for myself. Mm-hmm. And I think it was kind of in this moment of this identity crisis, who am I? Am I an artist who makes work that people expect, or my artists that make work that is honest and true to myself, and it was happening at once. And to be quite frank, I don’t think even though I created an work that was honest to myself, even in that moment, I wasn’t ready to make that transition. And immediately after my graduation, I, I went into this, this more than like, like two years.I went into this two years process in which I was making things, I was submitting myself to competitions, to journals, and it was not fulfilling. It was very evident that I could not do this much longer because I was wearing myself out and my relationships were getting compromised because of that. And that my relationships with my peers, my, my family and also I was working as a teacher then my students as well.

And I kind of came to this point where I was submitting this these three artworks for a drawing competition. And I decided to make this, use the same idea and create this drawing on three different sizes of paper.  I submitted it. I felt really good about myself. You know, I finally am like stepping foot into this, this kind of a competitive space where I may win the award when I make gain connection. I, I felt quite hopeful about it.

Soon after I received a call from the, the people who were organizing and they said, oh, your first artwork is way too small. We can’t accept that. And fair enough, it was a small drawing.  And not very complex, so I can understand why they wouldn’t wanna see that. But I just got very upset. I just thought to myself, why am I doing this?

Why am I just wearing myself out working for someone else? It’s, I’m, this whole process feel, it’s like this whole process feels dishonest to myself.

And so I made this drawing titled A Gift for You with a Heart Emoji , and I made this in the span of an hour. Basically. I had an hour to get it to, to submit another artwork. And I had made that in the ar in, in the hour. So interestingly, this interesting artwork that emerges again outta a crisis

Mm-hmm. . And this is more of a poem than it is of a drawing and in this poem. I was using one of those kind of color pencils that has like seven filaments in one pen, and you can kind of pull out one color from the, the, the, the, the tip where you can draw and put it on the other side and it would push out a new color.

Mm-hmm. . And so there were seven colors and I was using all these colors to write my poem. So each word would be a different color, but I was, you know, kind of pressing it into it, into the paper quite hard. And eventually I start to run, run out of the, some of the colors and I have to fill it in with other colors.

So visually, this is a writing that goes from quite orderly to quite disorderly. You know, I, I might be in the middle of a word and I have to change to a different color. But. I thought that was kind of witty in that, like, I, you know, it’s true to myself that when I’m doing this, when I’m forcing myself to make work, I’m just like this colored pencil, this cheap colored pencil that my dad got from some for free somewhere and just wearing myself out disappearing.

Chipo – Do you mind, do, do you wanna, oh, sorry. I was gonna ask, do you want to read a gift for you? 

David – I would love to read a gift for you,heart emoji. Mm-hmm.

The poem slash drawing goes:

please no more art, no more thinking about making, wondering about documenting the image of, submitting the works of,  loving the idea of, seeing people seeing my, producing new, selling bodies of, hearing about, witnessing, experiencing, or having art. Please, I have a life to live, I have a mother to promise and a father to love, I have a God to worship, a body to heal, a mind to rest, eyes to witness, spirit to wait please, I have a breath to breathe, I have a breath to breathe, I have a breath to breathe, a breath to breathe, a breath to breathe.

And so when I then took a photo of it, documented it, submitted it kind of in this ironic manner, I felt, wow, I did it. It was done what I had… was what I was meant to do, was done. Mm-hmm. and I felt so fulfilled. Even though I knew , they were going to reject me. I’m gonna be the first they kick out , because I am just saying, I don’t even care about this anymore. All of you are fools, . Mm-hmm. . But it was, it was truly honest. And at that moment I had, I, I was honest to myself.  Now, shortly after that, a few months after that, I was again making work thinking that it could get into a show, thinking that it could get into a certain gallery. But I’m really glad that there were this, there was this moment that I can look back on and, and realize, this is it. This is the honesty that I’m searching for.

Chipo – Hmm. When I was listening to you, I was, I think, honestly, one of the major questions that just arose in my mind is, what is art without an audience? What is art without external rec, like external like acknowledgement slash you know, recognition, validation. Yes. And, I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t even know where to even begin with that. But what, like, tell me like what, like what do you think. Is there an audience? 

David – I definitely agree. Like you know, people tell me, oh, David art can exist outside of an audience. Art can exist for you. Deep down inside, I want that connection. I want people to see me. Yeah. I want people to talk to me. I wanna talk to people as well. Yeah. Now there was this text work that never, it never really finished. But I had wanted to make this giant sign and put it on my studio window, that outlooked, this busy street in my undergrad. And it says, “I want your attention. I want it now”. 

Chipo – Yes. 

David – And for me, that was like, I so desperately needed somebody to understand and when I was making that were urgent. I needed people to understand me.

I needed people to see that I definitely needed a, a audience. But I think there’s nothing wrong if I’m on the opposite side. I’m saying something gentle. I’m saying something quiet. I’m making a small observation with my art that I desire a viewer, that I desire an audience. And some people may argue against me, but I think these materials and these words and these thoughts that we’re trying to gain a relationship with and tell their story. These materials, these words, these thoughts also have relationship with other people. And sometimes we’re not going to be the people, the the the, and sometimes you’re not going to be the sole person that unveils what this material, these words, what these thoughts are trying to tell us. Recently I started working at an art museum and we’re teaching high school students using the art museum’s materials, and I was sitting with my two coworkers discussing this artwork that I would otherwise never really think about.

Chipo – What is that work? 

David – And this artwork is titled Total Totality II by Louise Nevelson. And it’s these wood, basically trash put into this giant wooden sculpture. And everything is painted black, so you don’t know. You know exactly the color of its original shape, and you know, this is, it just looks like black wood, like a black wall even.

And as we just started to discuss it together, we started to digest it and suddenly we had a relationship with these materials that were so separated from us, and all of a sudden, this artwork that looks so emotionless, became so emotional. We started to look at these pieces of wood. We’re thinking this was someone’s bed frame, this was someone’s dinner table, this was someone’s puppy gate.

And they have emotions. They have memory. And I think that just further points to us how art shouldn’t just be seen by ourselves. It should have a relationship with us, but it should also have a relationship with people outside of us. Now, certainly other people might not have the capability to understand that material to the depth that we may as artists, but I really believe that other people can bring in more life and bring in a more living analysis and understanding of the artwork. So I, I don’t think we should be in isolation. I don’t think we should create in isolation. Mm-hmm. And think in isolation. I think we should be connected. 

Brady – David, I don’t know your work very well and thank you for sharing that that poem and image cuz I feel like I just did get to know your work. And there was something you mentioned earlier about humor and it’s starting to become clear to me or maybe clear is too strong a word. And that’s my question. I don’t know. I’m getting a sense of humor, but I’m also getting a sense of like extreme vulnerability. Maybe you can just keep going with those two ideas for me, humor and extreme vulnerability.

David – I think my extreme vulnerability did not come with choice. It just happened. I, I can’t live my life any, any other way. I have to be honest. , I have to be vulnerable and true and, and tell people how I think and how I feel.  And thankfully that has guided me to places where I could never imagine myself to be.

But I think humor is something that came alongside with that. At first, I was very extreme. I was  really vulnerable, putting myself out there. For example, in my first year in university, I did a performance work in which I introduced myself, not as David, my first name, but as Ezra for the whole semester. I told everyone that I met my name’s Ezra, and revealed at the end of the term that my name’s David and I. And like my reflections of myself doing this, and I’m thinking to myself, I’m putting my identity , I’m putting my relationship on the line , because I needed to communicate this, this certain part of myself, David, this common name and Ezra, this special name and desiring to be special and desiring to be treated differently.

I, to communicate that , I really put myself out there.  Now I think humor is really something that came a a along the way. Chipo and I are good friends and there’s this iconic quote from Chipo’s mother: in this life you either cry or you laugh. You either cry or you laugh. And so if I’m not crying, I’m going to be laughing, laughing, even though when things are not looking great, but I really believe. But I really believe that this humor and this laugh, laughter, laughter brings me to a place unimaginable. And I think I’m comfortable getting myself into a place where I’m crying or you know, this, like this, this, this moment of vulnerability or just like being, you know, messy and laugh, laughter, laughing, giggling at my life.

And I think this is exterior of my, my artistic practice. This didn’t come from myself. I truly believe this came from God. This came from my spiritual life, my prayer, my, my prayer with myself to God, my prayer with my family to God. There’s a certain kind of piece that I cannot reach through making art as evident with submitting to so many competitions and even winning some of them awards even. Those couldn’t fulfill me. This code couldn’t make me laugh, but I think my relationship with God, my prayer has made me laugh, has made me joke about things and not take them lightly, but take them seriously by laughing at it.

Brady – Thank you. Yeah, just just being with you here, I, I feel like I’ve, I always , I’m almost like three seconds away from crying, but I don’t know what, and then I’m laughing like he pulled me out of it. 

David – Exactly. 

Brady – Chipo? 

David – Exactly. 

Chipo – That’s like, yeah, that’s just a gift of David and his words. But going back to your relationship with God, it’s a pretty evident theme that is so present in all of your works. And I wanna especially talk about, I considered this to be an artwork, but it’s also like a full-on, like library. It’s a thing, the lasso. I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m pronouncing that right? Lasso? 

David – Lasalu. 

Chipo – La, Lasalu Art Library. So Lasalu Art Library is born from your interests in fine arts and teaching. And once again, the name of your library, you know, comes from the biblical figure Lazarus. So am I correct? Well, do you wanna even just kind of more or less, give us a background on that biblical figure before I ask you my question?

David – Sure. Maybe I can introduce this project a little bit more as well. Okay. But in at the end of 2020, in the middle of 2020, I sort of think to myself, okay, this this believer part of myself, this faith person, part of myself, this Christian part of myself. If it was something that truly and unexpectedly out of my expectations brought me to a certain level of peace, my relation with God, I should be sharing it because this is something that really brought me a lot of peace and joy amidst such troubles.

So I thought to myself, okay, I, I want to, you know, somehow incorporate or integrate my faith into my work, but it, it’s, it’s a little awkward because, you know, the past a hundred years of art history, is a deviation from art in the church. And so by all means, we were learning about moving away from God, moving away from the church and for reasons that we understand and we can empathize with.

But I was thinking about this, this figure, Lazarus, who was a good friend of Jesus and Lazarus has two siblings, Martha and Mary that are older siblings, and basically there was a story in which Lazarus was really ill and eventually died and Mary and Martha had been with Jesus for such a long time that they knew that Jesus could help and had, when Jesus eventually showed up days after last, Lazarus has been dead and is probably deteriorating in his grave already.

And the story goes that Jesus made this miracle of calling out Lazarus from his grave on the fourth day of his death. So this, this guy’s gone like, this guy’s probably rotting inside and outcomes Lazarus alive. . Now, this is completely supernatural, but I’m thinking to myself, my relationship with God is just like this.

I get to a point where I’m, you know, artistically, you know, mentally, emotionally dead, beyond dead, like in, you know, rotting in my own flesh, , and God brings me out from that death into life where I can keep going and I can keep contributing to my, my family and my community and those I care about. I think about that.

I’m like, wow, that’s Lazarus. I am Lazarus. Oh, my art is Lazarus. So I thought to myself, maybe I want to name something Lazarus. And this was all happening at the same time, but concurrently I was, I had just won this award from the BMO 1st Art Award. It was quite a bit of money. And when I had took it, I felt a little bit off knowing this was in the middle of 2020, thinking about pipelines and BMO and the Indigenous community, and especially my artwork that won was my meditation as an uninvited guest in the Pacific Northwest on Unceded Coast Salish lands. So I thought, okay, I can’t spend this money on myself, like. I can’t book myself a nice trip to somewhere, you know, I can’t treat my family to a nice meal like this money needs to be spent in a, in a wiser way, in a more appropriate manner. So I started to collect artworks from artists that were from marginalized communities predominantly from artists of color. And in my head I was thinking, well, there’s so much talk about, oh, we need to pay artists of color. We need to give artists of color money.

And obviously I didn’t have enough to give everyone, but I could do, what I could do was I could buy these artworks and utilize them in my teaching, and I kind of build this connection between these emerging artists of color and the classroom where we create knowledge and we create information. So I thought to myself, okay, this money is also seems dead to me, but maybe through this process it will gain life. And similarly artists that are marginalized, our experience is death, but our story is life . So I, I just saw so many connections. I, I said to myself, okay, I’m gonna call this self this, this project Lasalu Art Library. And as time went on, it was really just, it just became my teaching, I’m still a young teacher, so my teaching isn’t that advanced or you know, so amazing. But I have a name for it. My, my, my educational practice, and it kind of stems from this, okay, we’re in a state of death. How do we go to life? Maybe it’s social justice work. Maybe it’s using resources, but maybe it’s also… Maybe it’s also a spiritual practice. It’s a connection to God that can bring us from death to life. So this is kind of the premise of Lasalu Art Library. 

Chipo – So, My my first question for you is, are you essentially trying to communicate that art can be a means of rebirth? And if that is the case, and please do feel like comfortable sharing what you feel comfortable with sharing with us, what was the, the death that you experienced that led you to the arts? 

David – I definitely think art has been a rebirth for many, many people have come to this practice either intentionally or unintentionally, and found so much life in it, found so much comfort and understanding from the material and understanding from other people who look at their art.

So I definitely see this rebirth, but I will argue that this rebirth when it’s just with art, it’s not eternal.

I’ve, I’ve made works that were so true and so beautiful and so honest and appreciated by other people. I’ve, I’ve won awards, I’ve, I’ve used these accomplishments to get into grad school, yet I still feel death every day, but I’ll come back to this and perhaps talk about maybe what was the initial death, that kind of propel me into this, this, this thinking space.

Brady – Well, David, you said that your experiences of death were not yours. You, you were speaking about marginalized artists like our, 

Chipo – I I actually wrote that down cuz that was such a beautiful quote: Our, our experience is death, but our story is life. Yeah. 

David – Correct. So I’m kind of struggling pinpointing one death because there were multiple hardships that came along the way that included complications of personal, physical, and mental illnesses, in addition to cultural assimilation.

But I think when I grew conscious that this was not just me going through a hard time, but me going through a death, and I can’t pinpoint this, but overall it’s when I was making art for other people, to please other people when I was making art. To please the part of myself that wanted to please other people for this internal conversation.I found that to be the worst death ever because it was so empty and, I’m such a fool. And that , I keep on doing that. Those these things, you know, trying to impress other people. Trying to have these values of, you know, oh, maybe I can sell my work, or I can put my work in a certain exhibition. And I find that if that, that wasn’t meant for me, that path wasn’t meant for me. I felt so empty inside. I felt like a, a living void.Through patience, through prayer, through relationship. As I wait in the void, I suddenly reach the end of the void, and it is a new opportunity to try again.

And so I think maybe not everybody arrives the story the same way through my experience, through through my faith practice. But a lot of marginalized people. We, we are born into death, but we find ways to go towards life.

Chipo – And I believe that is that for this episode, I would just like to say a big thank you to my guests and I would also like to say thank you to both LIVE Biennale and the city of Vancouver for funding this project. Thank you.