WE’RE MADE OF CLAY alludes to common threads in creation myths and Native American ruins in the American Southwest. Like GONE DYKE, it is a peripatetic performance involving the creation of site-specific and geo-located poetry that unearths hidden histories and contemporary contradictions. Prior to his trip to the Canadian Rockies and later the Yukon (for GONE DYKE), Stephen was unsure how to reconcile his own privileged status with Native American histories – not wanting to trespass, nor relegate as exotic fetish, or exploit as marker of one’s “wokeness”; all of the historical and ongoing issues in narratives of Native Americans.
The expulsion of First Nations to form National Parks was brought to fore when Stephen took a boat tour of Maligne Lake in 2016. Towards the end of the tour, the operator mentioned that although the company had been operating in the area for decades, no one knew the significance of the lake until a few years ago when a few elders of the tribe that used to inhabit the area paid for the boat tour to see their ancestral home. Mountain peaks lost their native names in favor of, as Stephen puts it, “Whites of dubious accomplishment.”
Stephen saw parallels between the Native American experience and his own; having his name and history erased and displaced by the fetish of colonial progress of the Singapore government, and his later struggles in exile in North America. It also prompted Stephen to confront the problematic histories of the protected natural spaces he admired, how colonial history and discourse systematically erases and excludes Native peoples from the landscape to be offered as a playground for predominantly White and well-off under the hypocrisy of protection.
When Trump dismembered the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments, it brought to the forefront the racist legacies of National Parks – a North American invention where validation and value is only in exploitation and (white) tourism. As a result these spaces have lost their sacred significance; white experts leading tours to Native American ruins, the desecration and damage to unprotected sites, white ‘adventurers’ whooping it up and befouling pristine lakes etc.
In WE’RE MADE OF CLAY, Stephen traverses the area occupied by the former Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears Monuments that were eviscerated and opened up for mining interests by the Trump administration. Generally perceived as a barren and empty landscape, the area is abundant in sensitive habitats and Native American history and ruins. Through site-specific poetry, Stephen attempts a Foucauldian archaeology of the space. At each site, Stephen offers a flute song to re-sanctify the space – as empathetic recognition of the loss of sacredness in by the contemporary use of those spaces for predominantly-white exploration and leisure.
Finally, he closes the loop at the Grand Canyon National Park – home to Native Americans for centuries and a janus-face of protection and exploitation; underscoring the implicit ethos amongst administrators and armchair environmentalists that a place is celebrated because of its accessibility for casual tourists. It is also a personal closure for Stephen as the Grand Canyon changed his life path 20 years ago, and bittersweet one in he can no longer descend into its embrace due to leg injuries.
Conceived & Created by: STEPHEN CHEN | Duration: Mar 29 – Apr 14, 2018