Dana Weiser: The Accidental Tourist
“I never let myself forget that every single person that I meet is a member of this human race.” ~ Han Kang, Human Acts
“The history of mankind is the instant between two strides taken by a traveler.” ~ Franz Kafka
By Gary Brewer
To explore ‘self’ with humor and wit, to add a chapter or an entire book to one’s identity by inserting themselves into a narrative from another world, a world you happen to be from, but of which you are not a part and know very little about. Dana Weiser was born in Korea and adopted as an infant by her Jewish American family. She is both fully American and Jewish as well, creating a distance from her biological history. In her work she uses symbols and iconography from Korean culture and inserts herself, her pets and other bits and pieces from her life into traditional Korean art. She works with ‘craft’ as a way to give it more charm and to align it with practices that might have been roles performed mostly by woman: embroidery, the use of patterns and fabrics, and other mediums that are more human in scale as opposed to the ‘high art’ practices of painting and sculpture.
It is not a desire to mend something or to make herself whole – she is happy with her identity and beliefs — but there is a question mark that entices and draws her to explore this other self and the world that she comes out of. With intelligence and a deft touch, she creates work in a variety of mediums: photography, text, neon, mirrors, embroidery etc. With these materials, she explores an alternate reality; they are not a heavy handed existential quest, but a form of serious play. She is an explorer on a journey to a distant land, learning their ways and customs, the narrative and visual language of a place that she is both from, and is separate from.
She said of her work: “ I am not trying to find myself or search for my roots, but it is an interest I have in imagining myself within this world that is both foreign and also where I come from. As a child, and as an adult, there has always been a question mark from others about our family. My sister is also adopted from Korea, so when we are out as a family, or traveling, people would ask about us. Sometimes people would do more than ask about us, but outright stare and make lewd comments. This was mostly in racially demeaning undertones about perceived notions of what a nuclear family looks like. There is also a schism of being a practicing Jew and not fitting into what people normally associate as Jewish looks. These non-alignments of my looks, with my religion, and my American-ness have always been a part of my identity. These works in some ways reflect this dislocation but are also simply a rich language of beauty, color, pattern, design and story that give me a deep source to explore and play within.”
In some works, she inhabits comedic personae- photographic self-portraits in playful make up. “The paint that I use on my face reproduces traditional Korean masks, which have turned into kitschy tourist products. But I am also commenting on and questioning Korea’s adoption history of exporting children during their growing economy in the late 70s-80s.”
Dana also creates works where she adds elements from her life and history, an image of her dog embroidered into a traditional Korean landscape painting or other images of things from her life. Sometimes there is a convergence of the harsh political realities that align themselves with her history. On one of her trips to Korea — Dana has been six times — while purchasing fabric and traveling, she learned about a horrific incident that happened in 1976. Two American service men were cutting down a tree blocking their view in the Demilitarized Zone; they were killed with their own axes by North Korean troops. The American military, not wanting to start a war but needing to make a statement, came back with tanks, artillery and dozens of troops armed with weapons to finish cutting down the tree. They called it “Operation Paul Bunyan”. Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox loom large in Minnesota where Dana is from, so she added a Blue Ox and a tree partially cut down to an embroidered image of a symbolic landscape from Korea. There is another piece about the DMZ and of the strangely ironic phenomena of areas on earth, political no-man’s land, where humans and their impact have been removed; they become ecological zones where native plants and animals return and flourish. Due to the tragic political circumstances, it creates a safe haven for them to thrive within. She has created a piece that includes many of the species of flora and fauna that have returned to the landscape of the DMZ.
On a recent trip to Korea she learned about the symbolic significance of an image that she had used for one of her pieces. “On my last trip I learned that a traditional landscape design that I had chosen, simply because I was drawn to the design, has deep significance to Korean culture. It is a landscape from the Joseon Dynasty. In the image the sun and moon represent the King and Queen, the five peaks of the mountains symbolize a mythical land, and the pattern of the waves below the mountains, represents the people of Korea. I was both fascinated and a little embarrassed when I came to learn this and have recently started to research Korean symbols to add more content to my image use, and to learn and engage more deeply with this world.”
We are all travelers in this world – accidental tourists who migrated from foreign lands – even ancient cultures at some point in the distant past came from elsewhere. Most of us are émigrés, traveling away from our home, in some remote time, from our origins in Africa. It is a fascinating journey of cultural adaptation, ethnic individuation, language creation, and the blending of stories, to create our mythic histories.
Language is a profound carrier of cultural histories; words contain a seed trail of etymological roots whose thread weaves us back to the deep past. Imagistic symbols and words convey stories and histories that are altered through time, to infuse these images with fresh content is a way to keep them present, to render them through a contemporary lens that reanimates and alters their original meaning.
Dana Weiser is on a journey; she brings her contemporary American sensibility and her personal experience and reinterprets the history of a place from which she came, but that is foreign to her. It is a conversation through time and space to use this personal fact as a pan-personal vehicle to address the human condition – of our shared journey to create a home, a society and a culture. Story telling is our means to embed ourselves in a time and place; it is the fertile soil of the imagination where images blossom forth that represent our collective identities in this vast shape shifting phenomena of life.
Dana Weiser has a solo show at Walter Maciel Gallery scheduled for 2019