Power Plant—The Butterfly Dream 核电厂一梦蝶

Bovey Lee 李宝怡, Power Plant – The Butterfly Dream 核电厂一梦蝶. 2008. Cut paper. Chinese xuan paper; 128.9 x 90.8 cm.

Everything required from beginning to end, she grasps within her hands. With an image alive in her mind, she picks up the thin polished knife. Holding the delicate material in one hand and the knife in the other, she slides the blade through the velvety paper. Images emerge from within as unbroken spheres flutter to the ground like soft petals while crescents and triangular disks materialize with each attentive cut. Each elegant marking creates curvatures of recognizable shapes and empty spaces. She lowers the carving tool and elevates her creation, allowing the sunlight to trickle through it. The doily-like embroidery hangs from her hand: a “window flower” (chuanghua 窗花). She raises her hand to steady the quivering sheet while inspecting the permanent impressions she has made in the paper.

This solitary moment threads a lineage of unnamed female artisans from China: journeying from a lonely concubine passing time within the walls of the Forbidden City, to a joyful mother-in-law carving out auspicious wishes for her son’s wedding, to a young farm girl practicing this newly learnt skill with her mother. Today, one of their successors sits inside her sunlit studio in Los Angeles, engraving new meanings into these past legacies; presenting juxtapositions of the fantastic and familiar, strength and fragility, delicate human-made power and the silent endurance of nature.

Bovey Lee presents nature as a modern fantasy. A single sheet of translucent white paper lies on the surface of a silk grey backdrop. The subtle elevation of the paper is suggested by the soft shadow slightly right of the patterns. The upper fraction of the piece is made up of various manufactured objects complemented with elements traditionally tied to nature. Butterflies, parachutes, lightning bolts, birds, tattered nets, and missiles embroider the dream-like piece much like a cloud brewing in a silent storm.

Spellbound by confusion, one is drawn to the unified, decorative appeal of Lee’s work. Slender, florid clouds seem to hold up the entire ensemble; the eye is drawn into the complex designs and the mind tries to identify what it can. A symmetrical bridge is perched at the top of the power plant alongside the silhouette of a human figure. Splotches across the body suggest the presence of an infectious wound. An exotic bird, the residue of a prehistoric paradise, hovers over the body like a vulture awaiting the death of its prey.

The human story is a never-ending, relentless quest for more. Fading butterflies and clouds demonstrate humanity’s view of nature’s fragility. A power plant towers over the various buildings below in a demonstration of human strength: a frail pride built upon the fantasies of our stone fortresses. Lee’s power plant is erected upon such ambitions, the recreation of another Tower of Babel. A well-known tale is echoed here, one where humankind’s arrogance to reach the heavens ultimately results in our own downfall. Our generation is one disenchanted by the thought of Edenic times, yet such an idea still captivates our imaginations while conflicting with our desires for taller towers of dominance.

Yoyo Siu

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