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A starry night of music and art at ICA North

Artist Shellie Zhang with $76.30 (means of exchange) whose title is the cost of the assembled objects.
Artist Shellie Zhang with $76.30 (means of exchange) whose title is the cost of the assembled objects.
(Maurice Hewitt)
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On a cold, clear Friday-the-13th evening—in between days of downpours—over 100 people turned out for an art-and-music happening on the six-acre campus of ICA North, the Encinitas half of the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego.

The event combined the talents of ICA Artist-in-Residence Shellie Zhang with the talents of Art of Elan, a small but mighty musical team that has been bringing contemporary classical music to diverse audiences for over 15 years.

“We’ll be collaborating with each of the artists-in-residence, trying to enhance their subject matter musically,” said Kate Hatmaker, Art of Elan’s executive director, who is also a violinist with San Diego Symphony. “We’re always striving to find new ways to spark joy.”

Because Zhang, born in Beijing and based in Toronto, explores East-West connections and how people who move to other countries manage to create a sense of home in their new culture, Art of Elan invited world-renowned composer Lei Liang to participate in the Jan. 13 program. A distinguished professor of music at UC San Diego, Liang was also born in China and explores similar connections in his compositions.

Lei Liang and Shellie Zhang before their evening conversation.
Lei Liang and Shellie Zhang before their evening conversation.
(Maurice Hewitt)

The evening included time to view Zhang’s three-part exhibition at the hilltop Artists’ Gallery followed by an outdoor gathering for conversation and music in the garden behind the street-level Education Center. Earlier in the day, my photographer/husband and I toured the exhibit with her, learning that Andrew Utt, executive director of ICA San Diego, originally contacted her online a year ago, after seeing some of her pieces at the NADA art fair in Miami.

“It was a series called ‘Offerings to Both Past and Future’—the same kind of hyper-saturated photographs you’re seeing here, but all fruit,” Zhang said. “And since ICA’s theme for this season was consumption—what it means to consume culture and the objects and things around us—he wanted to know if I was thinking along similar lines.”

She happened to have two recent bodies of work that fit right in: a series called “Means of Exchange”—five large-scale still-life photos of artificial flowers, gift-wrappings, children’s toys, and Christmas ornaments, all made in China, found in Canadian dollar stores, and sold in huge quantities to buyers from all over the world.

One of the Facades lightboxes.
One of the Facades lightboxes.
(Maurice Hewitt)

The second series, “Facades,” is a lineup of four lightboxes inspired by storefront signs Zhang had seen in Canadian Chinatowns—small shops that used to be neighborhood gathering places but are now out of business. She eliminates the Chinese words that told what they sold; only the eye-catching outlines remain, evoking nostalgia without a clear memory of what was once there.

During her month-long residency, Zhang began work on a new series: “Grass is Greener on the Other Side,” examining the differences in products sold on both sides of the San Diego/Tijuana border. She invited visitors to be part of the exhibit by filling out shopping lists and pinning them to a wall in the gallery, showing what products were important to them.

An array of products
An array of products from both sides of the border that will be part of Grass is Greener on the Other Side, a new photo series.
(Maurice Hewitt)

Zhang’s childhood was filled with border crossings. Her family immigrated to Baltimore, then returned to China, where she attended grade school in two different cities before they decided to relocate to Canada, settling in Windsor, Ontario. Thirteen years ago, she moved to Toronto, which she now calls home. But she loved her time at ICA North, hanging out with gallery visitors, even chatting about the price of eggs with friendly strangers in a local supermarket. And she loved the opportunity of having an audience-friendly conversation with Lei Liang about the idea of home before the evening’s five-piece concert, after presenting her own talk about her life and art.

Before the conversational duet, we heard “Mother Tongue,” Liang’s three-minute electronic piece full of scrambled sounds commonly heard in dim-sum restaurants. “Chinese people love to be loud—people shouting, clanging dishes,” he said. “It’s performance art!” Zhang responded with enthusiasm: the first job she ever had was in a dim sum restaurant.

Kate Hatmaker and cellist Alex Greenbaum playing Lei Liang’s Gobi Canticle.
Kate Hatmaker and cellist Alex Greenbaum playing Lei Liang’s Gobi Canticle.
(Maurice Hewitt)

Liang’s next piece, “Gobi Canticle,” was totally different, inspired by songs a Mongolian teacher sang to him many years ago. He introduced it by saying: “I remember what it felt like hearing him sing—so spiritual, so much about motherland and about missing home. Aren’t we all looking for home? I use music to connect to the place where I’m from but also to where I am now—and to preserving our home on this planet Earth.”

That feeling came magically through in the heartfelt performance by violinist Kate Hatmaker and her husband, cellist Alex Greenbaum. It was the highlight of the evening, warming up the cold night air, stirring up a combined sense of ancient spirituality and present-day hopefulness, and giving us all a true feeling of being at home.

Shellie Zhang: What We Bring and Leave

The artist is now back in Toronto, but her exhibition remains through Feb. 12, and visitors’ shopping lists are still welcomed.

ICA North:

1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas

Hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-5 p.m. Free admission.

To keep up with ICA North and ICA Central events go to icasandiego.org or @icasandiego

To find out about Art of Elan events, see artofelan.org


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