Finding The Way Home: An Artist's Journey

August 21, 2013

The ancestral home

By Nuttaphol Ma

Years ago, my father visited me when I was working in Hong Kong as a marketing manager for a US multinational.  We took a road trip heading north to Shantou, an area where natives speak the same dialect as my grandfather.  “Do we have relatives here?” I asked my father.  He responded, “I do not know, I was born in Thailand just like you.”  My father called his aunt in Bangkok from our hotel room and posed the same question I’d asked him.  His aunt replied yes and gave a phone number of his cousin who lives in Shantou.  My father excitedly contacted his cousin.  We arranged to meet.  She arrived at our hotel the following day and drove us to my great grandfather’s house.

I’ve since left my corporate job to complete a graduate degree in Architectural Conservation at the University of Hong Kong where, during the course of two years, I meticulously documented every centimeter of my great grandfather’s home and recorded oral histories on the arrivals and departures of family members coming in contact with the house.  This research blueprints my current works of cultivating my cultural identity through various stages of reconstructing my ancestral dwelling.

 Like a nomadic Mongol, I move between installations and performances, puzzling out how I’m going to construct the roof, the foundation, and the walls.  Past projects have all been motioned towards discovering the form this house will take.  For my MFA thesis exhibition at Claremont Graduate University, I handcrafted pallets with a Japanese handsaw and arranged them to create the house’s foundation.  In 2010, I confronted a long narrow armory vault at the Armory Center for the Arts and transformed it into a piano room with a loom-like structure sheltering over the space.  The installation resolved my inquiry on how I will address the roof of the house. 

Canoe Journey

On May Day 2011, I embarked on an unrelenting walk, entitled Born by the River, from Badwater Basin to Whitney Portal with an upended boat over my head.  I built the boat’s frame from bamboo and weaved it with repurposed plastic threads as an investigation on how to construct the frames and walls of the house.  In the end, I realized that I needed to transform large amounts of plastic bags into threads if they were to be used as materials for the wall component.

The China Outpost

The timing of my fellowship could not have been better.  The generous award has funded the rental space for The China Outpost, a project I undertook which is a sum of nomadic self-imposed sweatshops purposefully set up to fabricate these plastic threads.  Past manifestation of the sweatshop occupied a basement of a defunct Chinatown art gallery on Chung King Road.  It currently resides at the back of a shopfront gallery within a derelict shopping plaza – also in Chinatown. I have recently created a mobile unit of The China Outpost in conjunction with the Armory Center for the Arts’ current exhibition entitled The Armory Show and Tell.  It will continue to journey on the bed of my truck to vacant parking spaces of big-box stores throughout Los Angeles as a platform of not only to demonstrate the labor of fabricating the plastic threads but also to engage in conversations with curious passerby about my journey.I’m a rock climber.  That’s how I approach this project.  My eyes access my surroundings.  My hands and feet search for the next hold on the rock face.  It’s a long narrow road ahead.  I am moving with greater confidence knowing that I have the support from a foundation that fosters a sense of community amongst my mentors and peers.  Thank you.Nuttaphol Ma is a California Community Foundation Visual Artist Fellow from 2011.  Please follow @thechinaoutpost for details about The China Outpost.



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