lifework

In my reading on Korean art and aesthetics, I learn about the existence of euigwe, documented protocols for court ritual life of the Joseon dynasty. The proceedings of significant events – royal births, weddings, funerals, among others – were documented meticulously and lavishly with full-color illustrations – to provide record and instruction for future generations.

(Koreans, one might surmise, are obsessive documentarians, keeping detailed family records, as well.)

Among the many losses adoptees may experience is an erasure from the official record – of a family, of a community, and in the case of international adoption – of a nation. Beyond my own impulse to acknowledge and formalize ritual of grieving, I am thinking too about the desire to write adoptees back into these narratives. There is the resistance to erasure that I find compelling – a public act of asserting one’s own birthright. But on a more personal level is the sincere attempt to re-create for myself what has been lost.

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I have spent considerable time in my career on the margins of the museum world, and as such I have been part of frequent conversations about “material culture” – the physical evidence of a culture’s existence: its architecture and objects. The acts of interpretation and engagement with these objects form the basis for our understanding of that culture and is related to that culture’s perceived value. What does this mean for immigrants and refugees who find themselves here with little evidence of their cultures of origin? What interpretation and meaning can be accommodated when the only available evidence is the individual? What people themselves can remember, articulate, and express?

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These days in the desert have not, in the end, afforded me great expanses of time. I have been here with family, and its attendant complexities. But I have had some opportunities to be more attentive to my own interests, my own inner voice. And certainly, to the extent that I can claim any solidarity with or witness to anyone struggling against the threat of constant erasure, the events of these past weeks (months, years, decades) have given much to consider about whose lives – whose stories, whose voices – matter.

As I think about why I write, why I value what I do, why I have chosen practices that are not as widely valued as they might be, why I left a career path with undeniable benefits and predictable comforts for something much less clearly-defined and for which rewards are as of yet unknowable, I think the reasons are related to this resistance against erasure. My practice is a way to document the proceedings of own life and the landscape of my own reality. To re-create a narrative that has been denied. To relentlessly assert presence in the face of attempted erasure.