Ed Pien: Memento at Birch Contemporary

Ed Pien’s major walk-through installation, Memento completely fills the main space of Birch Contemporary. The hand-knotted net spanning the width and height of the space is populated by small figurative silhouettes. In the center of the net is a video of a man washing up on the shore or being dragged out to sea at the mercy of the crashing waves, which is accessible by climbing in among the ropes into the holes made for viewing.  Hanging above the work are oval mirrors reflecting video footage of migrating crowds onto the walls. As we mingle among the small silhouette cutouts, the ropes take on enveloping metaphors for the trials of illegal immigrants such as fishing nets, and security traps. Paired with the video footage of a man at his most vulnerable, stripped of agency by nature, the net also acts as a more intimate metaphor for the human nervous or circulatory system. 

Ed Pien is a Canadian artist based in Toronto who immigrated here with his family from Taiwan at the age of eleven. Memento is a work that reflects Pien’s research into the increasingly urgent struggles of illegal immigrants for countries in crisis such as Syria and North Africa who take great risks in the hope of finding a safe home. With an awareness of this theme, the ropes also seem to be a metaphor mapping the movements of these immigrants. 

Memento contains processes and imagery that reoccurs throughout Pien’s practice. In his two dimensional works, cutout silhouettes of figures dangle from branches and ropes. A similar knotted net and video projection composed the large installation titled “Corridor,” (2010-12) and the method of hanging reflective material to display video projections was established in his work “From Thin Air” (2010). Pien’s installation “Deep Waters” (2001) demonstrated not a common process or material, but a common thematic interest that reoccurs in Memento. “Deep Waters” was developed from a Taiwanese mythology in which the souls of the drowned could be set free in exchange for new victims. It is ultimately an interest in lost souls that emerges through Pien’s research of illegal immigration, an attempt to empathize with the state of the displaced, the forgotten, unseen or disappeared. 

In relation to real events, “Deep Waters” might recall the cockle pickers tragedy in which illegal workers drowned due to dangerous conditions, however Memento refers not to a specific event as much as to a dangerous experience. Pien’s engaging installation is not a devastating, vulnerability-inducing ride, but it is an effective metaphor, and an experience with a resonating narrative drawing attention to political crisis.

Text and photo: Alice Pelot

*Exhibition information: March 17 – April 23, 2016, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed–Fri 10 am – 6 pm, Sat 11 am – 5 pm.

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