Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Barefoot Artist: Public Art, Family Guilt
is the story of one father, two families, and Two Chinas. Learning of the family
her late Nationalist general father abandoned to the abuse and oppression of
Maoist China, artist Lily Yeh would return in his stead, hoping to make peace
with the spirit of his first wife. Her emotional journey is documented in Glenn
Holstein & son Daniel Traub’s The Barefoot
opens this Friday in New York.
in Taiwan, Yeh came to America as an art student, married a man named Traub,
and became an American citizen. Eventually, her entire family naturalized, at
least those that she knew of. As her father’s health started to fail, he became
wracked with remorse over the fate of the wife he divorced to marry her
socially connected mother.
does indeed learn being the ex-wife, daughter, and sons of an absconded KMT
officer was agonizingly difficult during the Cultural Revolution. Yet, somehow
his first wife bore her fate with dignity. Yeh will experience some heavy
personal drama, but it is not clear whether she picks up on the wider lesson
regarding the danger of rampant ideology coupled with unchecked state power.
the most potent sequences in Barefoot follow
Yeh’s humbling trip to China, but the film also spends considerable time
watching her work. Essentially, her program is bringing public art to distressed
places. Where we might think the downtrodden of the world are most in need of
food or constitutional guarantees of the freedoms of expression and worship,
Yeh would suggest what they could really use is a little color.
on the film’s footage, her prescription seems to be most effective in place
like the Rwandan survivors’ community, where her projects become part of a
wider effort to bear witness and memorialize lost ones. Wisely, Holstein &
Traub only mention the so-called “Palestinian” so-called “refugee camp” she
spruced up in passing, thereby avoiding inconvenient questions like just what
would happen if an openly gay or non-Muslim resident tried to participate in
Ultimately, the two sides of Barefoot are so fundamentally unequal,
it is impossible to balance them. In China, we see up-close-and-personal how
micro choices and macro events in tandem can lead to profound suffering. Yet,
in a way, her public art literally white-washes over the resulting legacies of pain.
Essentially, Barefoot Artist is half
of a good documentary that never really becomes fully self-aware. For Yeh’s
admirers and those fascinated by her family’s story, The Barefoot Artist opens this Friday (12/5) in New York, at the
Labels: Documentary, Lily Yeh