Western North Carolina Woman


by Arlene Winkler

There is a traditionally hung linen scroll on her wall, a six-part computer generated photograph of the artist. It is an accurate portrait, very Asian, very strong, very contemporary.

As we sit in front of her laptop, she explains that the brushstroke patterns we’re looking at are computer-manipulated images (video?) of her own hair—a concept that appeals to her because, “Hair is so soft but it can become powerful and sharp.” It’s the first hint of her fondness for paradox.

No stranger to paradox myself, no sooner do I recognize that this is indeed art, I find myself wondering: “What is it that makes it possible for something to be a work of art?” Faced with the growing variety of new media, against a historic background of traditional two and three dimensional forms, I can draw only one conclusion; the common thread in all of these is the capacity to move the viewer to a new level of consciousness. In the words of Vladimir Nabakov, “…that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amid the night of non-being.”

Fortunately, she interrupts my high flown meanderings. “In the next one,” she comments, “I’m thinking about using food coloring to dye flour different colors.” For some reason I find this pleasing. As if her use of something living and textural implies that technology is only the means, not the end.
She agrees. “I want all of my work to have a spiritual element that isn’t possible using technology alone.”

In fact, Lei comes from a traditional art background. Not only did she study painting, drawing and sculpture in China, her father was a highly successful painter. “But I was determined to be on my own path. I graduated from ShenZhen University in Fashion Design and went to work as a designer for a company that produced one of the most popular lines in China.” She closes the program we’re in, opens another to display an intriguing portfolio of her fashion drawings. But before I have a chance to ooh and ah, she has closed it, ready to move on to new things.

In late 2000, her quest for new experience brought Lei to the U.S. After a short visit with relatives in Portland Oregon to begin her adjustment to a new culture, she went on to Memphis College of Art, where she earned an MFA in computer arts. It added interactive, video and 3-D to her toolbox.
“I’m glad it worked out this way, by starting out in fashion I got to work with fabric, material, texture. If I had started out in computers I wouldn’t have the same range. It’s like speaking a universal language.”

It certainly is. Her interactive animation: Are you ready for the Party? is a lighthearted amalgam of her prior and current experience.

(mmas.unca.edu:16080/~han/mysite/portfolio_video.htm) The viewer gets to interact with the stylish main character while she gets ready for a party, by helping her shop for a new outfit. The viewer can pick clothes off the rack, have her try them on and even go to the cash register to pay for them. The surprise ending is that no matter what outfit the viewer helps her put together, when she arrives at the party everyone is wearing the identical ensemble.

The next work is far more personal. Zoë is both video and performance art, an intimate expression of Lei’s life experience. Here, the shadow image of a woman struggles in the state between sleep and wakening, unable to fully emerge. Her thoughts appear both vocally and in word form and seem to drift back into her own body. The sound in this piece is a combination of heavy electronics and beautiful spacious ambient music, with hints of ocean and wind chimes—underscoring the feeling of wakening, realizing one’s entrapment and struggling for release.

In the words of the artist: “We all have moments when we feel we are held back by life’s trappings, which confuse us and cause us to lose our way. We are immobilized by our own minds. We lose our freedom and become puppets. There are days when our lives turn into a daily loop where we get comfortable and forget to move on. Thankfully a part of ourselves is always looking for a new path. When we can’t find our way out, the Overman appears (Nietsche’s Superman) a human being who has battled modern values and overcome the flaws of humanity. She is the highest form of our soul, who rescues us from trouble and restraints.”

If the reference is Germanic, I tell her, the effect is decidedly Asian.
She smiles in agreement. “If my work has a common theme, it is the life cycle, the individual in the universe, deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy, in Yin and Yang.”

“You’ve had some powerful influences.”

She mentions the breakthrough work of artist/film maker Stan Brakhage, the kinetic art of the multi-talented Len Lye, the collaborative works of Shelly Eshkar and Paul Kaiser; artists who not only pushed the limits of their medium but laid the groundwork for a totally new kind of thinking. Brakhage, for instance was one of the first filmmakers to physically alter the filmstrip itself. As far back as 1955, in Reflections on Black he imagined the dream-vision of a blind man as he walks through a city, signaling his character’s blindness by scratching out the mans eyes on the film, and splicing in bits of film negative to convey the experience—not as something seen, but something pictured.
“But my father has been the most consistent influence. He helped me to develop as a person as well as an artist. Now we’ve become friends. We’re interested in each other, we can look at each other’s work and talk about it.” She pauses, but I have no trouble finishing her thought.

“It must be hard to have someone so good, so successful for a father."
“Yes. I want to be successful like he is, but I have to do it by following my own path. I’ve been very fortunate. Coming to this country has opened my mind. As a foreigner I have the best of both worlds, artistically. I’m not expected to have to stay within the rules—and I no longer have to worry about the rules in China. I have the freedom to create the things I dream of creating.

Lei Han has worked and exhibited in China and the U.S. Her most recent shows have been at:

The Light Factory in Charlotte, NC
The Summer Group Exhibition in Memphis TN, “Ephemera Series II” video exhibition.

The video work Zoë was screened at The UNC Center for Public Television, The 37th Humboldt International short Film Festival in Arcata, CA and at The Off The Map event “Field of Streams” Video shorts by national and local artists at the Fine Art Theatre in down town Asheville.

To see examples of her work, you many visit her Website at UNCA:
[ mmas.unca.edu/~han/mysite ]

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