Courtesy of Cecilia Lu

March 31, 2021

Cecilia Lu ’22’s Ghost Stories Explores Identity, Inheritances and Generational Migration

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Ghost Stories by Cecilia Lu ’22, a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, will be on display at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art from March 30 through April 2. While the museum is temporarily closed to the general public, Cornell classes who have made appointments will have a chance to see her work in person.

True to its title, Ghost Stories left me with a haunted feeling. As I approached the exhibit, the first work visible was a rendition of John Gast’s famous allegory for Manifest Destiny, American Progress. Painted with soy milk on muslin dyed with tea, Lu’s Westward depicts only the figure of Columbia herself.

Rather than outright reproducing Gast, this figure is a collection of hazy outlines bounded by a single square in the midst of a darker background interspersed with irregular horizontal lines. Her face is obscured. This ambiguity calls into question the premises of the American Dream, evoking a promise that is as tenuous as it is tempting. 

Observing this piece, the narrow vista transported me to the mind of someone considering migration, with great hopes but unclear expectations of what will await them. At the same time, I felt a wistfulness, as though it came in retrospect — the perspective of one looking back on their past aspirations with a newfound awareness of their nebulousness.

In sequence, the next painting is an acrylic on canvas. Titled Portrait of Landscape as Vehicle of Desire, it is in some ways a continuation of the former, moving from the central subject of American Progress to what appears to be the left half of the painting. Notably absent, however, are the displaced indigenous people, white settlers and bison herd who would have otherwise occupied the vista. 

Instead, the land lies empty: the greens brighter and the blues more vivid than in Gast’s. Even the clouds casting shadows on the land only serve to accentuate its color, evoking a sense of promise and fertility. I thought again of the dreams of new immigrants, yet also the histories and horrors that these dreams may gloss over.

Next is an acrylic titled American Progress, presenting a very different vision of progress than the one portrayed by Gast. At the center is a printed photo of the Filipino-American poet and novelist Carlos Bulasan on a green background, ringed by six dots connected by lines in a lighter green, some of them overlapping. 

An editor for the 1952 Yearbook of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 37, Bulasan was active in the labor movement on America’s West Coast, and this circle appears to symbolize the connections he made — and fostered — among his fellow workers after immigrating. Simultaneously, it may represent the way his own identity was shaped by this migration. Bulasan had also been a farmworker, and the use of green reminded me once more of the relationship between land and labor.

The following acrylic appeared to depict a phone, the screen of which showed a white cup with something brown flowing out of it, containing the faint impression of a pig’s snout and surrounded by white plates. Behind the phone is another green background, but in a more subdued shade that was almost tea-like. While it is titled “But can you see the pig head?!, I could not, in fact, see the eponymous head until Cecilia turned it upside-down. 

This deliberate ambiguity hints at a tension between the expected and the gained. My thoughts turn to parents or grandparents migrating in hopes that their children might be able to enjoy luxuries such as pork, without knowing that one day they would be drawn to ones of a more technological nature: a range of information and experiences that they could not have anticipated, for reasons of time and geography. The empty plates further imply that, even in the “new country,” suffering and privation remain ever possible.

After this is Gathering in the Half Life, Half Light, another acrylic that zooms out on the previous, showing — from the back — two women looking at a phone displaying the image from “But can you see the pig head?!” They could be sisters, or mother and daughter; one of them holds the phone up for the other.

In this painting, the pig head shape is barely visible. Moving between the two paintings, I wondered if they were meant to represent a photograph sent by relatives in the “old country,” whose importance seems diminished amidst the brightness and amenities of the new.

The final piece, To Till the Land, parallels the first, also dyed with tea and painted with soymilk. In the middle, however, are two panels painted in green and brown. The top is a flat rectangle, reminiscent of unbroken grass, while the bottom is in brown and a darker green, divided into field-like boxes by homespun roving. In the abstract patterns above these, there are impressions of Chinese characters, while below are phrases in English.

This piece, more than any of the preceding, feels deeply personal. The jumble of numerous shapes and words suggests the full scope of a history that spans many generations, movements upon movements: change, loss, memory and transformation. But the centerpiece — the fields tilled and untilled — grounds it in the inseverable relationship between land and identity.

The opposite wall is empty. On the back wall — the only one seen directly from where I entered — is a single piece. A poem by Lu, titled “Where in this wide country.” Candid and moving, it tells of how her grandparents’ land in China — tea-growing land — was irreversibly changed when the government tore down their houses and forced them to relocate. The tea that they once grew has now become a luxury.

Intended as an introduction to the exhibit, if one looks at the nearest painting first, they will be going in the opposite direction from what I described — zooming out, from the personal to the cultural. I was informed by Lu that there was no intended direction, and that each provides different perspectives. I’m inclined to agree.

Lastly, in a separate area past the back wall is a room with a projector. Set behind a display of four white vases surrounded by cups, it throws their shadows onto the opposite wall, looming before overlapping projections of patterns from traditional Chinese blue-and-white pottery. Some are abstract, some depict leaves and flowers. Others depict figures — some aristocratic, most peasants. The vases sit atop an array of what look like leaflets, arranged haphazardly, in red and white: a family missing a father, a sitting figure, an advertisement for a spa.

Standing in the dimness of that room, there is a feeling of distance. Like watching movement from afar while standing still. But that is an illusion. We are all of us moving, always moving, carrying the ghosts of movement within ourselves. 

Amy Wang is a Freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]

All exhibition photographs courtesy of Cecilia Lu.