In 1975, after driving east from Los Angeles, the Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat. The performance piece was never completed: Ader disappeared at sea. His vessel was found near Ireland nine months later.
Ader is one of Sichong Xie’s favorite artists. But the current visual arts fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center didn’t know that his final journey began on Cape Cod — he launched his boat in Chatham — until after she arrived for her residency in October. Since this discovery, Ader’s disappearance has consumed her.
“The whole project exists only as a black-and-white image from when he departed from Cape Cod,” Xie says. “I started thinking a lot about his journey. Did he really disappear? Is he still existing somewhere with a different name? It just became really mysterious to me.”
This line of reflection speaks to the sense of curiosity and speculation that permeates Xie’s work. In dialogue with Ader’s project, she says, “I’m almost exploring something that’s impossible to reach.”
Growing up in Xi’an, China — home to the world-famous terracotta army of the third century BCE emperor Qin Shi Huang — Xie discovered joy in making art at a young age and started drawing voraciously. “I found that to draw was to express my ideas outward,” she says. Though Xie now works across diverse mediums, from film and staged performance art to printmaking and embroidery, she still begins all her ideas with a sketch.
In 2012, Xie moved to the U.S. to get her B.F.A. at Columbus College of Art and Design. She later relocated to Los Angeles, where she still lives, and got her M.F.A. from CalArts in 2017. Since then, she’s had solo shows across Los Angeles, most recently an exhibit at the Wende Museum.
The FAWC fellowship “is the first time in a long time I don’t have a deadline,” she says. Xie has used this winter to push the boundaries of her experimentation, and she has three different projects currently in progress.
First, there are the vibrant blue monotype prints tracing silhouettes of boats, scaffolding, and donkeys, including a piece she printed on a map of Cape Cod she found at a yard sale. More than anything else in Xie’s studio, these prints bear the influence of her time in Provincetown. Coming from Los Angeles, Xie was struck by the intense wind and cold here and the endurance required to navigate coastal weather. On one walk along the harbor after a storm, Xie encountered dead animals and even whale bones. “I’ve seen a lot of death this winter,” she says. “And I feel everything I’m absorbing here is somehow reflecting on these prints, though it’s not a direct conversation.”
Then there’s the experimental opera Xie has been developing with musician friends and collaborators, which she says marks a new direction in her work. Alone on the East Coast, she is using this time to create etchings of potential set design tableaus and to research the opera’s context: immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the violence of Trump’s planned wall. Though in its early stages, the opera will involve interviews with borderlands community members while also following a fictional animal protagonist that’s acquired genetic anomalies from environmental damage caused by the wall’s construction.
“I’m always interested in opera because it’s such a narrative format,” she says. “But it’s also about this class struggle.” Xie and her team want to stage the opera outdoors by the ocean in Southern or Baja California.
Finally, the middle of Xie’s FAWC studio is dominated by a large piece of green industrial mesh on which she’s embroidering one of her late grandfather’s architectural drawings. He was put in a labor camp in 1950s China for a political cartoon of a donkey carrying money bags. Xie has been working on the project for the last five years.
“He was an architect his entire life, but none of his drawings were ever actualized,” she says. “That’s why I’m enlarging his drawing by embroidering it.”
Though Xie weaves an indirect dialogue between all her pieces, she is loath to repeat herself. She doesn’t want viewers to read motifs into her work — not because she fears reduction, but because each new iteration has its own artistic life. “When the work is finished, it’s finished,” she says. Though fascinated by landscape and outdoor environments, she has not studied Provincetown’s dunes because a 2020 video project that she filmed in middle of the Mojave Desert already trod that territory.
This resistance to redundancy is perhaps a natural byproduct of Xie’s seemingly endless imagination and capacity for technical follow-through. Asked whether there exist any artistic mediums she has yet to explore, Xie names wood carving — although she constructed an entire wooden boat and built-in seesaw, with help from YouTube tutorials, for a 2019 installation. She thinks there’s still room for her to grow as a wood carver. CalArts encouraged this kind of polymathic exploration, and her friends and peers who practice various forms of art have also expanded her toolbox. “I’m just really curious about trying different things,” Xie says.
In the final month of her fellowship, Xie still has one unfulfilled wish. In her previous work with her grandfather’s unrealized architectural drawings, Xie stitched one of his sketches onto two white sails, which she brought with her to Provincetown. If anyone’s willing to let her rent a boat for two days and install the sails for a video shot, she says she’d be grateful.