The word “melt” suggests potential, a process triggered by a reaction. What triggers is numerous, but how do traditions, roles, definitions, entire notions of being and selfhood begin to melt away through our work? What gets left behind? The artists featured in the exhibition Melt, as stated by curator Camile E. Messerly, “are in-transition,” but where are they going? And are we as viewers on this same journey? This work required to proceed from one place to another–whether physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional–occupied me as I analyzed William Plummer’s installation Passages to my Ā pó: Transplanted Joss. Reconsidering our relationships to objects, their work questions the historical and affective pull of the things we hold closest to us and how they can shape us, both historically and presently. Harnessing specific imagery, prints, and sculpture they establish a new system of value and space to honor one’s labor and love.
The installation features two distinct components, the first being a series of printed works and the second, a wooden table placed directly in front. Both components reimagine the same visual motif of a rectangular shape and graphic, but through different means. On the wall is a display of almost two hundred small, identical rectangular red and gold relief prints of a lotus flower. The prints reference traditional Chinese joss papers used in funerary burnings as offerings to the spirits, dating back to 1000 BC. Today, joss papers are in their own state of transition, being reimagined for contemporary audiences. Plummer’s printed matter is assembled together on the wall in an evenly gridded formation, each row and column linked together by red thread. The interconnectivity of a generation, or a “bloodline,” suggestive of this thread indicates this work’s purpose: to stand tall and together, to be here and present.
The ritual of burning joss paper as a form of worship is still practiced to this day. Contemporary joss papers range from ones similar to Plummer’s own prints to being more representational of advanced capitalism and globalization. Paper versions of iPhones, luxury handbags, buildings, clothes, or vehicles indicate the type of imaginative entrepreneurialism influencing the market. Perhaps it is thought today’s spirits might have wanted the new iPhone or Gucci purse. Plummer’s joss papers, however, reject these familiar objects in order to remind us of was past. Their new object is a return to the old, recalling specificity and intention to. While joss papers represents objects of impermanence and transmission, the artist asks us to stop. As images, their prints make us want to investigate and to consider them historically. Reading this work, one can locate the symbology of the lotus flower as an object of beauty. Furthermore, they bring to mind the original temporality of joss paper and the ritual transporting the physical into the spiritual. Plummer wishes for beauty to remain.
I also learned from the artist an alternate name for these small, printed ephemera: “ghost money.” Our own connection to money today has become similarly immaterial. The emphasis of this ritual currency is placed on intention, with ghost money being selected for a particular spirit to then be burned. The flames and smoke act as a vehicle sending this form of specific capital to the spirits not here with us (payment received). Likewise, we send our own ghost money today through apps such as Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, or Go Fund Me to our own loved ones as an act of generosity. Both performances indicate the intention of love or kinship, though the latter’s gestures are fast, easy, and convenient. There is little thought or ritual required to perform this action on our phones.
And yet, Plummer also chooses to not burn their materials. At the center of their grid of prints is a column of three different types of mechanical reproduction, blending in yet standing apart from the others. Plummer’s own glass-beaded versions, originally appearing as a triptych titled Glass Joss, make a different declaration. Whereas the mass of prints indicates labor in a large, all-encompassing way, these are more quiet and painstaking in their conception. Here, the artist carefully and laboriously beaded their image line-by-line to create small unique works deviating from the prints around them.
Beading carries it own set of rules and parameters, giving the artist room to play with how they construct their image. This whimsical spirit to recontextualize the whole through small gestures seemingly acts as an intentional point of origin to the entire installation. Centralizing the glass beaded works provides its own romantic declaration as the core focus on this component. Glass indicates permanence in the face of the flames to deny the history of these objects. Unlike the joss it references, this glass will not burn–it is intended to stay.
When a flame is finished burning, what remains are the ashes of the material we gave it. In the second component of Passages to my Ā pó, ash is seemingly conjured in the form of a fine crumbs from crushed egg roll cookies and sugar piled on a rectangular wooden table. “Food,” Plummer told me, “is often left as an offering for the recently deceased and other spiritual entities, as it is believed they still inhabit the natural plane.” The rectangular form of the tabletop and pile of cookie powder mirrors the shape and graphics of the prints on the wall, down to the lotus flower design gracefully drawn with white sugar on top. If the history of the papers remind us of what is chosen to be given up, the table in this installation signifies what is chosen to remain. The sweetness Plummer leaves here is their own gesture of kindness to us. The treat, a favorite of the artists’ grandmother, becomes an abstracted form of the prints. The table acts as a totem to the maternal figure as well as to how we remember what we have chosen to materially give up.
While the prints show themselves in a well-designed evenly gridded manner, Plummer’s interests are more personal and focused around us as viewers. The table interrupts our viewing of a traditional wall-based work such as the prints and thus more considerate of space and our experience. In Edmund Husserl’s theory of phenomenology, despite the abstract psychological worlds we may travel in deep thought, the table we sit at was always grounding us with some kind of objective truth to its qualities. Despite the swirling mass of our affective worlds, you are here at the table. It stands as the model for the subject-object relationship, illustrating how we can understand a world we feel seemingly lost in.
Returning to the context of the exhibition, what is left after everything melts away? The second part to Plummer’s title is Transplanted Joss, referring back to the transition Messerly refers to in her exhibition statement. “Trans” becomes the key prefix, referring to something being “on the other side.” Someone could declare, “I am undergoing a transition,” or, “I am a recent transplant to the area,” to indicate they are not entirely here right now, but rather over there in some way. Both Plummer’s prints and table make it clear the original joss they refer to are not entirely here. Plummer’s table, similarly to Husserl’s, is the mediator in this installation between an emotional, psychological, spiritual world (or some combination of all three) and the physical one. The installation transforms materials into aesthetic vehicles, certainly, but retains the original ritual act of generosity.
We too, like the materials being referenced, shall also pass on. William Plummer’s work (and specifically their labor) contains rich narratives about the importance of healing spaces and affective gestures to remember and honor the memory of the temporal. Prioritizing the readability of objects in their installations, their practice’s careful and sensitive use of material and language creates opportunity for us to reflect the role objects play in mediating our relationship to others. While the materials offer a variety of interpretations, Plummer is working sentimentally here. Ā pó, in the title, is Mandarin for granny. While these materials can affectively shape a variety of viewers with the interpretations of materials meaning this thing and that thing, Plummer is quite simply honoring to their own family bloodline.
By keeping materials known for their temporality situated firmly in place, Plummer’s installation allows us to appreciate what we choose to hold on to and what we let go. With this installation, the artist has created a space of quiet reciprocity and appreciation. Through their materials and their work, they reflect on the labor involved in generous acts. Plummer gives and the work gives back. Like the joss papers being referenced, this installation will also eventually pass. And so will we. However, Passages to my Ā pó: Transplanted Joss honors the labors of love, visible or not.