TING TEAL: HUMOR & MEANING
Updated: Mar 1
Ting Teal is an “interdisciplinary artist trying to find some humor and meaning” while living and working in New York. I was introduced to Ting’s work through Rene Franco, an artist we featured last year; they met during their residence at Skowhegan in 2019. I was fortunate enough to speak with Ting over the phone a few months back. We talked about things like the art market’s attachment to certain media and the difficulties that places on interdisciplinary work (specifically in performance and video work.) Many of the topics covered connected back to their fascination with histories and mythologies; how they inherently define standards, create divisions, and muddy understanding.
So much of that conversation was stirred up again as I reviewed Ting’s performances, installations, and video works. Sarcasm, humor, social and cultural critique are commonly layered into Ting’s artistic practice where they employ different mediums to uncover, question, and laugh at the things that make up our contemporary “realities.”
The following three essays focus on Ting Teal's recent work, ART ATTACK!, Pepper Box (Stony Point Battlefield), and HOW to Kill in a PALACE COURTYARD. It was truly such a gift to be able to research these pieces and to have such open communication with Ting while doing so. These essays are a combination of my initial reactions to the work and the contextual conversation Ting offered about where they were coming from, what they've been thinking about, and how they made each piece.
Do you remember that show on Bravo called Work of Art: The Next Great Artist? It was a reality competition produced by Sarah Jessica Parker. The premise was to have 14 “up and coming” artists compete in challenges each week for a chance to have a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. It was judged by “elite” art world figures Jerry Saltz (art critic), Bill Powers (New York gallerist), and mentored by Simon de Pury (art auctioneer.)
Artists including KAWS, Mary Ellen Mark, and Adam McEwen were guest artists & judges. The show even had its own catchphrase: “your work of art didn’t work for us.” Well, the show didn’t work past its second season. The winner of which, Kymia Nawabi, was quoted shortly thereafter by Hyperallergic saying, “I am still waiting tables to pay my bill so… I have had folks recognize me on the streets and in the subway, but by no means am I well known for my artwork.”
It's interesting to think about how the entertainment world has picked up on the creative professions. I mean, I get it. It’s fascinating to see the creative mind at work; to watch individuals make their concept’s tangible. Shows like Project Runway and Iron Chef have been wildly successful and remained on air for more than twenty plus years. So, why did Work of Art, a show using that same competitive reality show format, completely flop? The reasons are cringey and countless. At the heart of it is, perhaps, that what moves the art world is hard to define and nothing is guaranteed for an emerging artist. That being said, a large part of our contemporary art world has become an increasingly market driven industry and the routes to success are becoming more discernible. Ting Teal’s ART ATTACK! offers insight into what it's like to participate as an artist this industry by creating a performance that contrasts Work of Art.
Ting filmed this performance in 2019 during their residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. They state, “I wanted ART ATTACK! to be a site-responsive work/love letter to Skowhegan. We were at this residency that proudly wears its own heavy mythology, with all of us as participants buying into it. The game show format seemed like the perfect way to see what we were made of as "chosen artists," and to simultaneously acknowledge the capitalist reality of us being needlessly pitted against each other within the industry.” In other words, Ting wanted the artists to utilize the skills they’ve had to learn and perfect in order to push their artistic practices to a higher professional level, but for fun and without consequence.
The game? The artists compete “for a variety of different points from a variety of different challenges:” Ceci n’est pa une Artwork, Worth of Art, and My Day Job is Killing Me. The “competitors” were Ting’s fellow artists in residence; Sedrick Chisom, Jeffrey Meris, Eli Hill, Ish Lipman, Rene Franco, Pat Blocher, Maria Tini, Bryson Rand, and Jordan Wietzman. The video opens with the host (Ting) turning to the camera saying, “hello and welcome to ART ATTACK! Where the game is to make it as an artist!”
An excerpt that captures the execution of Ting’s intention for this performance is during Ceci n’est pa une Artwork. In this challenge, an artist is selected randomly by the eccentric scorekeeper. They then have one minute to, as the host says, “generate” an artwork using the provided materials. The other competitors receive one point for subsequently “generating” a statement based on that work. When Maria is called, she quickly grabs her materials, makes her way to the surface on the ground and says, “you’re all going to be so impressed.” A minute passes and several simple marks are made. “Can I share with you?” she says while still on her knees. The work is a square with markings resembling eyelashes on the top and bottom lines. “My artwork is called Malevich Goes Drag.” Maria goes on to try to explain the piece but is cut off by the host exclaiming, “okay, okay! That's enough!”
Ish Lipman is the first to offer a statement: “The left side is where the power of the work lies - and I think that the mark making here is very important because the marks are made with the use of another square. It makes me think of structures within structures and how those structures function.”
Rene Franco follows up: “I think the structures point to a place that goes beyond our compositions of realities. So, for example, the way we construct reality we think of things from the surface and then what's below the surface and what's below the surface? The sea. And what's below the sea? Places...Places below the sea are places where specific people live in, for instance, pineapples. So, when I think of a square that has the ability to move, I think of a certain square that has cultural resonance for us Millennials and for Generation Z who interact with it through a different square, through a meme. They are interacting with the figure we all know as SpongeBob SquarePants…and Plankton.”
Ish piggybacks: “Since you brought up media, this brings to mind one of my favorite artworks, the show The Teletubbies - which Josh Kline actually made a piece about. And I think that this resonates on that same level of deep thought and perfect articulations where you are able to reference a great work like SpongeBob and put it in a fine art setting. I cried when I saw those Teletubbies with those TV's in their stomachs because it just resonated so much with my personal beliefs in art.”
It’s clear at this point that Rene and Ish are having a bit of fun with this exercise and the whole group of artists seem entertained by their comedic, yet valid connections.
Then, Pat Blocher, with a monotone voice, offers their statement: “I think we need to go back to the beginning. To Maria’s childhood. Because, as we all heard, Maria's concerns were if we were pleased with it or not. This goes back to some deep seeded childhood trauma and identity turning from a solid structured square to a more fluid structure, using drag performance. So, I think people need to put aside their, you know, memes and PBS television, nickelodeon, cartoon network and they need to focus on the childhood, and the child that is Maria.”
For a moment, the audience might think shots were fired by Pat toward those who weren’t taking the work, Maria, or their roles as competitors seriously. Pat’s statement and delivery are genuine and point to the deeper significance of the minute made piece. The group is solemnly quiet for a fraction of a second before Pat’s smile breaks through and they all start laughing again. “I don’t think we’re going to top that one,” says the host to the camera.
The following challenges similarly play with what Ting refers to as the “dominating myths of the field: the totally mundane yet necessary arbitrariness of speculating artworks' value, and the sobering aspect that most punctures the imagined ‘artist life’: our day jobs.” The artist's participation allows the audience to experience the different personalities, interests, and, perhaps, ego of each artist. From the assortment of exaggerated numerical figures offered in the second challenge, Worth of Art, to the familiar and realistic responses given in My Day Job is Killing Me, the artists tell us a little bit about their experiences with this industry. “I think what's special to see on ART ATTACK!,” Ting states, “are these artists who are at the top of their game by necessity, getting to freely use their learned systemic behaviors for fun just this once. The stakes of a misstep don’t mean losing out on a residency, a show opportunity or paying rent. For me, it's both funny and poignant to watch, especially with the ending I chose.”
For the full ART ATTACK! video head to Ting's Vimeo page.
PEPPER BOX (STONY POINT BATTLEFIELD)
In 1862 John Henry Pepper popularized an illusionary technique that cast the reflection of a hidden space onto a set. The effect, now known as Pepper’s Ghost, brought spirits to life on stage and triggered a craze for uncanny, ghost-themed work in the theatrical world.
Ting Teal’s Pepper Box (Stony Point Battlefield) directly references Pepper’s Ghost in title and in medium. The sculptural video piece is made of cold steel formed in a rectangular shape, mounted on a wall, with an opening on its front side. Inside the structure is a looping video (which uses the illusionary technique) that can be viewed by looking through the mouth of the sculpture. My interaction with this piece was through Ting’s website, so I wasn't able to fully participate in looking through the mouth of the sculpture. However, on the website, Ting accompanies the sculptural video with documentation, a material list, and a link to the video portion with a short text that reads:
“inserting oneself into the lineage of American art, as the ghost of America's own identity formation washes over again, and again.”
As the video fades from black into view, the scene becomes familiar. The composition of the shot is an allusion to an American staple; Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. Ting inserts themself as the subject, laying on grounds of the historical Stony Point Battlefield, looking towards the light house in the distance. While Ting remains still on the grass, ghostly figures clad in old military uniforms march through the frame. The video loops three times.
I started thinking about the text as the video looped, and then about the form of the piece. The action of “inserting oneself” is bluntly represented in the video, but it is also connected to the sculptural element that resembles the design of a mail receptacle or a trash can. When you insert an object into the trash or post, you're sending it out into a larger invisible system. You don’t know how or even if it will get to its destination, but you do it everyday without question. By placing the video inside the sculpture, Ting sends their work through an ambiguous system towards a destination that, like a piece of trash or mail, is not guaranteed.
The reference to Wyeth’s Christina’s World also seems to have a dual purpose. It places Ting within the vernacular of American art while also proposing what it might feel like to do so. Christina’s World is a great example of Wyeth making the bleak or mundane fantastical. The posture of the figure (who, in real life, was Wyeth’s paraplegic neighbor) simultaneously evokes tension and wonder without disclosing the narrative. This mood also exists in Pepper Box (Stony Point Battlefield). As the video begins, the scene shares Christina’s World’s romanticism as the artist looks hopefully up toward the lighthouse. The pleasant unknown gradually becomes more mysterious as revolutionary war figures surge in and out of the landscape. The loop of the video creates a repetitious feeling of wonder turning sinister as violent reminders of the land wash over the idyllic frame.
“I still cannot figure out how I’d fit within the landscape of American art,” Ting comments. Like Pepper casting a ghostlike figure onto a set, Ting creates an illusion to envision themself within the American art system. The act of sending their work out to the unknown is a hopeful and necessary endeavor for the artist “but it doesn’t stop the legacies of the ground we exist on from washing over me again and again, like an ocean current I can’t swim out of.”
HOW to KILL in a PALACE COURTYARD
Ting Teal, currently living and working in New York, had not seen their Hong Kong based family in several years. “I limited visiting my family because of Trumpian politics and my tenuous Green Card; this was at extreme odds with my feeling of failing my parents as a Chinese child, not being there for them in life and possibly (their future) death.” HOW to KILL in a PALACE COURTYARD was forged out of this guilt-based anxiety; being so deeply connected but separated through various obstacles. Ting Teal conceptually traverses, and perhaps even finds remedy to, this tension through multiple mediums.
HOW to Kill in a PALACE COURTYARD begins with an inkjet print of Healing Brush hung on the exterior wall of the installation space. Healing Brush is a portrait of the artist that directly references Chinese cigarette girl posters from the 1920s. To the left of Healing Brush is a doorway constructed of sheet rock that extends down so low that the audience must duck to enter the interior of the installation. This obstacle creates an obvious divide between the exterior and interior, between what can and cannot be seen. However, it still functions as a portal between the two.
Perhaps the most poignant component of HOW to KILL in a PALACE COURTYARD is the video portion which is cast through a four channel projector in the interior space of the installation. The video is made of four videos and two shorter vignettes. I accessed these video’s through Ting’s website where the installation playlist is accompanied with a poetic text that reads:
A testament to surrogacy- an unreachable location
for mother and daughter to reunite, a proxy in bearing a
loved ones pain, a metaphor for hybridity at an atomic
The first video, Motherland (Song of the Exile) Part I opens with a shot of a woman with a distressed expression and a voice over saying “OK, then I tell for you to listen.” There is text framing the video that reads: “informed by some footage and synopsis mother and daughter connect in fiction. She barely remembers watching it back in 1990 but three decades later, it set the stage for this reconciliation to happen between us and was unavailable for streaming.” It becomes clear that the conversation playing over this footage is a phone call between mother and daughter. It begins with the mother explaining the idea of returning to one's hometown. She comments that the daughter's grandfather (her father) was of Shanghainese lineage. The mother even says that she’s been to the grandfather’s hometown once, and, if the daughter is interested, they can visit together someday.
Stills from Motherland (Song of the Exile) Part I
The conversation transitions into talking briefly about a movie called Song of the Exile and then turns into a narrative about the grandmother. The mother talks about how the grandmother resiliently survived a life of trauma and uncertainties. The video cuts to the mother in the kitchen preparing dumplings as she talks about how the grandmother's entire family died from illness and heartbreak; the details of these tragedies, though, were a mystery. Footage from another film is placed in between different shots. The last few minutes transitions into a scene where the daughter returns to their home, sits at the kitchen table, and begins to eat dumplings while mother and daughter continue to talk about the sadness of the unknown ancestry, specifically the sadness of the mother who will never completely know her own mother. The interaction with the food is as if the mother is offering a part of herself to the daughter who consolingly receives and acknowledges it.
Stills from Motherland (Song of the Exile) Part I
Motherland (Song of the Exile) Part II & III, use the same format and go deeper into the relationship between the mother and daughter. The text surrounding each part is different and can be read as an introduction to the video's context. Part II’s frame reads “Only to realize my exile was the sweetest gift that she could not give herself beginning with an obliterated and ancestral origin. She clawed her way out into a life where her lesson signified my gain. A different kind of dream, always wondering how she could send me away.” This part explores the mother’s and the act of her sending her children away to study. The mother talks openly and honestly about her childhood. She had always wanted to study and to have more experiences, but was unable to do so. As a mother, her dream became to offer what she could not have herself to her children.
The text around Part III reads, “how can one measure its worth to only breathe freely, hoping it wasn’t for nothing a pathetic tragedy that we cannot make contact but even worlds apart at this location two realities can temporarily align as one acknowledging this life as a product of her own.” The majority of this video shows the mother sitting on a bench outside in a snowy park. The telephone conversation between mother and daughter continues and opens with the mother saying “real talk if now we’re revisiting the past.” Motherland (Song of the Exile) Part III goes deeper into the mother’s life before she was married and the sacrifices she’s had to make in her life thereafter. The mother emphasizes the fact that, although she did give up things, in the end she was driven to make her children happy, and to have “strong characters, and worldly perspectives.” By the end of this film, mother and daughter are sitting together on the same bench in the park.
Still from Motherland (Song of the Exile) Part I
Motherland (Song of the Exile) was made while Ting was in isolation in upstate New York. The three parts, again, use the same formatting; text around the frame, the sequence of the two characters, telephone conversation, and montaged with clips from a separate film called Song of the Exile. Song of the Exile (also referenced in Ting’s title) is a film made in 1990 by Hong Kong director, Ann Hui. Ting’s mother recalled to them that she had seen this movie over thirty years ago. “It's about a mother and daughter perpetually in dissonance with each other. Some events happen that force them to be in each other's positions... and they start to finally understand and reconcile,” Ting explained. Song of the Exile takes place in three different countries which emphasizes an “undeniable subjectivity of observation or experience.” As it turns out, this film is not available for streaming in the U.S. so Ting combed the internet for any footage or information they could find, which was only about ten minutes of clipped material from Youtube and Wikipedia.
The conversation about this movie came at a time when Ting and their mother, who had been separated for several years, were realizing how the mysteries of their ancestral past formed relationships; they both “agreed to not repeat the same intragenerational mistake.” Motherland (Song of the Exile) is a manifestation of an urgent practice to actively engage with this promise to develop their relationship. The telephone conversation in Motherland (Song of the Exile) is a real conversation between Ting and their mother. Using the Song of the Exile as a proxy, they came together from different emotional perspectives and physical locations, with what they knew about the movie and themselves, to realign themselves in a “parafictional site” where reconciliation, understanding, and development could exist.
Clips from Song of the Exile with recreated scenes used in HOW to KILL.
It's important to recall that Motherland (Song of Exile) is only a part of the video portion of the whole installation that is HOW to KILL in a PALACE COURTYARD. The two vignettes, Electron Cat (Wave Particle Duality) and Wigner’s Friend, and the final film A week later she came to me in a dream, and I held her one last time, Part II are implemented by Ting and suggest some of the overall themes of the installation. The transfixed and dumbfounded cat in Electron Cat (Wave Particle Duality) is an example of Ting’s sense of humor as they parallel the cat’s astonishment towards water vapor to “humans trying to make sense of the universe as time continues to unfold.” A week later she came to me in a dream, and I held her one last time, Part II is a story of how Ting’s mother took the pain from the suffering cat, Marcel, which allowed it to die peacefully, but left a physical mark of Marcel's penance on the mother’s shoulder. This beautiful story of the mother’s character, is to Ting, “ a full stop to the whole sentence, a true story about my incredible mother's sacrifice, surrogacy, and mysticism.”
Still from A week later she came to me in a dream, and I held her one last time, Part II.
HOW TO KILL in a PALACE COURTYARD is a multi-layered piece about getting to a deeper sense of self; cutting oneself from the tensions of outside pressures of purpose and perspective. The inkjet print, Healing Brush, is the artist representing themself as part of the mass exploitative imagery turned “archetype of the contemporary Asian femme.” Placing it on the outside is perhaps a rejection of seeing oneself through commercial and social expectation. The altered doorway is simultaneously an obstacle and an invitation to leave that outer perspective and to move into the interior space where the humbling, emotional, and relationship based work plays. HOW to KILL in a PALACE COURTYARD reconciles the angst of Ting being in exile from their family through an exploration “of impermanence, of sacrifice encompassing many forms of relationships or living beings, of living with the humility that we are such insignificant yet emotional parts of a massive living universe.”
See below for the video playlist for HOW to KILL in a PALACE COURTYARD.
Be sure to stay updated on Ting's happenings: