Gulangyu Ditu

Memory Maps

I think of Gulangyu often. I was found on my first night there, hopelessly lost, on one of the small, winding streets above the ocean, a fair distance from my ever-elusive hotel. There are no cars allowed on the island, nor would they fit on most of the tiny walkways. The streets are winding, taking you one direction when you began in another, the original design with the storied intent of confusing the spirits so they could not follow you home.

Maps weren’t very helpful to me, since the language was so incredibly different from my own, both written and aural. I began to treat these dark trips home along the softly lit paths as voyages during which I would pay attention to how my body felt, the way I remembered the movement, more than a serious attempt to get back. Soft voices and sounds would echo from inside the homes lining the pathways on either side of me, lights of different colors and shades creating shadows and rhythms against the softly blowing curtains, an occasional silhouette visible in the depths. Sometimes I would hear the echoes of footsteps as they moved in my direction, their soft pattern falling around me, combining with my own.

I created a series of around a hundred paintings of how my body felt in those streets, using Chinese ink and calligraphy brushes, as foreign to my body as the streets themselves. They were memory maps, Gulangyu ditu, of how my body felt as it moved softly along the curves of those hot, humid streets.