Margaret Liang (Davaa, b.1998) is a Chinese artist based in London. Having completed her BFA in Chicago, she is currently studying a Masters in Photography at Royal College of Art. Liang uses the photographic medium to visualize vulnerability, love and dissonance in the psychological and physiological realms. She derives her artistic voice from an auto-theoretical lens, her striving to navigate herself in the world. Recurring themes include power dynamics between genders, intersectional feminism, the asian diaspora, the ephemerality and pain of the body.
In her project ‘My Grave’, she uses the imaginary grave as a metalinguistic extension of the corporeal to explore matters of memory, ontological presence and self-preservation. Both through intimacy and detachment does Liang materialize the visceral and existential angst that radiates from her subject matter.
In an interview with Liang, we ask her about the story behind this dubiously titled project.
First of all, could you tell us about your background in photography and your reasons for wanting to study abroad?
My interest in photography derives from the lack of a family archive in my family. As I didn’t grow up around photographs, I was able to maintain a curiosity in the physicality of a printed photograph, and a skepticism about the truthfulness of them. As to why I’m studying in London, I think it offers more perspectives and diversity where my work is likely to be appreciated.
Your project ‘My Grave’ is accompanied by a short piece of text about your grandmother and how she used to dream about her grave. What was it about her sleep-formed visions that interested you, and ultimately prompted the making of these images?
Since my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s, it was hard to tell if it was a dream or her recalling of a landscape from the distant past. But either way, it intrigued me because it offered a visual of where her body would reside after death, a glimpse into her own intersection of memory, existentialism and self-preservation.
What was your relationship like with your grandmother? Do you feel like you have gotten to know her better as a result of working on this project?
I knew my grandmother as a small kid before I moved away from Northern China, and my only memories of her used to be her cooking – she cooked the best chicken mushroom stews. The mushroom she cooked with was one native to the northern forests, it has an almost pungent smell and stains the soup dark-brown, but tastes heavenly when cooked in the right hands. It was my initial understanding of the land from which I come. When I last visited her, she was sick from cancer and Alzheimer’s. She told me fragmented memories from her younger age, her upbringing, work, marriage, birth-givings, abortions and incarceration. They were the kind of memory that can turn your hair grey in one night, consisting of traumas of war, gender-based violence, persecution from the state, having no choice but to leave one’s native land.
It was hard for me to process this part of my heritage, especially during a time where it had become increasingly unsafe for women and women of color in the United States – my then country of residence. I had taken photographs during my visit, I will come back to them when I’m ready.
Your story emits a strong sense of identity linked to the idea of location; of finding one’s place in the world, both in the here and now, as well as the afterlife. Could you elaborate on how this concept of “belonging” is presented in pictorial form?
I think the way I address this idea of” belonging” in my practice is to highlight the sentimentality of “not belonging”. Most of my photos in the series are lacking a specific location and a persona within and outside of the frame. This is done to show a sense of longing: for both a physical location and the stability of identity.
There is one image that I found especially striking in how it manages to portray great tension; a balloon and a hand that hovers near it, with a needle attached to each fingertip. My reading of it, is that it is a depiction of a decisive moment — the interlude, the time between birth and death… before deflation. The soft, rounded edges of the balloon embody the innocence of a newborn, and the sharp pointy needles the grudge and hardened spirit of a grownup. I wonder, are you willing to share with us the real meaning behind this particular image?
What a profound reading into the image! I love it. The original idea to this image is violence suffered by the maternal body: the balloon signifies the round belly of a pregnant woman (my mother and grandmother), the sharp pricks being gender-based violence and the traumatic memories of birth-giving which both my mother and grandmother share. One of the most visceral images in the series haha.
We also see several elements that hint at the notion of “death”; a dying plant and mouse. Traditionally, death is quite a taboo subject in Chinese culture. How do you view death and what role does it play within this project?
With my mother’s side of the family being ethnic Mongolian, we see death not necessarily as a taboo – more like a natural segment of life. I have my own fears of death, but at this point I don’t have an established view of death which I can share. I took the project as a therapeutic process to organize thoughts around my grandmother’s death and inherited traumas.
We see a combination of both constructed images taken within the domestic sphere, as well as carefully composed shots on location. Why did you opt to mix the staged and the natural?
I used images of nature elements such as the dying plant as a starting point, printed them out in the darkroom and thought that the silver-gelatin prints added another layer of meaning to the work – as it situated itself just between the ephemeral corporeal bodies and the eternal land. So I played around with them, created a garden-like scene with floral-shaped cutouts from these prints.
Is there a deeper meaning to why some images are in black and white and others in color? Say, a division between states of existence?
Other than being a choice of aesthetics, I think that I photographed some images in color to more vividly depict the thin line between death and living. For example, if the pigeon was shot in black and white, it would lose its ephemerality and become more statue-like and speak in a different way.
Is this project still ongoing or do you feel like it has come full-circle? Have you given any thought to how else you would like to present it in the future, i.e. in book form or exhibition?
I believe that all my projects are ongoing – but I have decided to take a break and maybe come back to it in the future. I have also created a small hand-made book as well as a more commercialized version of it.