Jennifer Ling Datchuk has always felt torn between two worlds. Growing up with a Chinese immigrant mother and a half-Russian, half-Irish father in Ohio after the family moved from Brooklyn, the 2016 Black Cube artist fellow says she’s always felt sort of like an impostor. “I had a really interesting childhood because I felt that I was too Chinese for my American family and too American for my Chinese family,” Ling Datchuk says. “This has become the basis for how I navigate my work, though. I’m always striving for authenticity while figuring out what ‘box’ I fit into.”
As a multi-disciplinary artist currently based in San Antonio, Ling Datchuk works primarily with porcelain and clay; common themes in her work include identity, race and gender. “My interest in porcelain comes from how it was discovered in China more than 2,000 years ago,” she explains, adding that there is a direct connection between the material and her heritage. “Particularly, I’m interested in how it was worth more than gold 2,000 years ago.”
When Black Cube curator-in-residence Laurie Britton Newell visited Ling Datchuk at her San Antonio studio, the two instantly bonded over their shared connections. The experienced curator explained her idea for the Gold Hill Art Project, which involved the history of gold mining and Chinese involvement in the area. Ling Datchuk says that after learning about the “structure and narrative” that Britton Newell wanted her to work with in Gold Hill, she felt personally committed to creating an installation around the coin laundry and bath houses that Chinese immigrants had run in the gold town.
“It was really hard to find documentation of the Chinese involvement in Gold Hill in researching for my project,” Ling Datchuk says. “I grew up with this fascination and visions of the Wild West, maybe because I grew up in Ohio and grew up hearing all of these stories that ended up being historical fiction.”
But many of them were factual: The Chinese weren’t allowed to mine, so they washed the clothes of the miners. As "legend" had it, they would collect the residual gold dust from the clothes, save it and then sell it. However, Ling Datchuk says, her research proved that this method would not provide much actual gold.
She worked with historians in Colorado whose research proved that the Chinese experience during the gold rush demonstrated they were just looking for a better way of life but “quickly seen as competition” for mining jobs. The Chinese Exclusion, the first U.S. federal law placing restrictions on Chinese laborers, was created soon after, Ling Datchuck says.
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“I really feel deeply connected to this project, and feel that it is a beautiful extension of my work and my practice,” she says of her Black Cube installation. “My Black Cube project is one that responds to Asian laborers who were forbidden to mine gold but were allowed to wash the miners’ clothes. It honors the history.”
For the project, Ling Datcuk is creating a large concrete wash tub, similar to ones the Chinese used during the Gold Rush; it is large enough to wash a bed sheet or even fit a person inside. On the bottom are porcelain drains that have Asian human hair.
“I want this to be very monolithic with very minimal structure,” Ling Datchuk says, adding that the only other material for her project includes gold mica. “This project will feel very inserted in such a lush environment. It’s meant to speak to the otherness and displacement that the Chinese must have felt during this time.”
Ling Datchuk’s work can be seen on display at the Gold Hill Art Project at 491 College Street in Gold Hill from Saturday, August 6, through Monday, September 5, with public hours on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and guided tours beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. There will be a launch party starting at 5 p.m. Friday, August 5. Visit blackcubeart.org for more information.