Arts at Oakland 2021: An Interview with Artist Winnie Duong
Arts at Oakland 2021, happening May 21 through 31, showcases the work of six regional artists across Oakland Cemetery via a self-guided map. The artistic installations will highlight the hidden stories that can be found within the gardens and architecture of Oakland Cemetery. Purchase tour tickets.
We interviewed Arts at Oakland artist Winnie Duong to find out more about her, her work, and her influences.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your background as an artist.
I was born at Beth Israel Hospital in downtown Manhattan during dinnertime, right after Jeopardy with Alex Trebek (which I remember vividly because I had asked my parents one time during dinnertime right before The Simpsons came on.) I was raised in Corona, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. My parents are immigrants from Vietnam and China. My dad’s side of the family are Chinese Boat Refugees, most born in Vietnam. My mother is from Guangdong Province in Southern China. I am a first-generation Chinese-American along with my siblings and many cousins and family friends I call f’ousins (fake cousins). I received a Bachelor’s Degree of Fine Arts in Photography from Parsons School of Design in New York. I furthered studied and escaped reality for a semester at Studio Arts International Center Florence in Italy with the chance to try my hand at many various studio mediums such as jewelry making, ceramics, and painting. I visited Hong Kong, Macau, and China once as an adult while struggling with being an outsider in my own mother’s motherland, stuck in an existential crisis amongst the most beautiful old architecture in the world. I am perpetually at odds with lifelong blues and anxieties, and have dabbled with death-related matters that cross over in my work. Like others, I have always used art as an extension of my state of mind.
My husband (a Georgia Peach and Georgia State University Alum) and I married at Brooklyn Municipal Building. The building is a mix of Neo-Classical, and Greek Revival meets a gold & marble laced DMV waiting room with high-security metal detectors. We live in a very old house in Oakland City, a Southwest Atlanta neighborhood, where preservation of historic architecture, residential facades, and diversity of housing are of great importance to our neighbors. Since my family is many miles away from me during this strange time, being a part of a community and community-based arts has shaped my work.
Do you have a preferred medium? If so, why?
I have obsessive and compulsive qualities that tie into my strong dislike of tying myself down to one thing, which leads me to having polar work experiences and ethics. I still find that this leads back to my own life and a consistently chaotic style. Photography is a way of memorializing something, which I have done in my earlier work, but it is also a way of creating your own narrative. Constructing a mixed medium piece has a more tangible element that allows me to create outside the lines in any universe. I call my medium multidisciplinary with a concentration in concentrating really hard.
What influences your artwork?
My artwork often deals with themes of identity, existentialism, and an exploration of cultural motifs and psychological rituals while finding humor in everyday things and using saccharine color palettes. My past works have dealt with tribute, remembrance, and state of mind.
My family had a penchant for collecting things or making things work with whatever we had, a quality which I adopted. It’s an innate generational survival instinct, expecting that you might need it later, or lose everything by the act of someone else’s god. My dad built us toy chests, children’s chairs, and storage benches from leftover wood painted with iconic New York City colors that were borrowed. My mom would sew us dresses and pajamas from excess fabric acquired from being a long-time seamstress at a local factory. Our entire family never had to buy paper products thanks to my Uncle with a hookup downstairs. It was a rude awakening when I did not live with my family and had to spend actual real dollars on paper goods, an unspoken luxury I had always taken for granted. Everyone in my family was creative in their own way and incredibly resourceful. Christmas ornaments were old miniature toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals, with paper clips folded into hooks and melted into the plastic with a lighter. Immigrant parents are aspirational like that, and I never minded since “old” was new to me. My father still builds things and my mother still fixes things.
One day I took my mom’s jade bracelet off her wrist to try on, and she let me keep it. Jade is a very lucky gemstone in Chinese culture–it’s one solid piece and it’s terribly difficult to take on and off. It belonged to my late grandma who I love and remember adoringly. I had worn it for nearly a decade without ever taking it off until it had a small fracture deemed to be “bad luck” by a jade salesman whilst window-shopping. Shortly after, it took the strength of a small mom and tiny aunt, a produce bag, and a lot of dish soap in the middle of a holiday party to repel off the bad luck off my wrist and squeeze another jade bracelet onto my large unladylike hand and tiny wrist with another piece that belonged to my mom. Memories like these often influence my work.
How was your piece for Arts at Oakland 2021 inspired by Oakland Cemetery?
My piece 四/死 (pronounced seì/seǐ) for Arts at Oakland is an installation that is both sculptural and conceptual. For the installation, I used found materials and handmade materials to deconstruct and recreate the four unrealistic forms of monumental mausolea as surreal structures that are viewable from multiple perspectives. It is an exploration of death, existence, and the unknown–through the symbolism of memorializing rituals & traditions, classical style elements, and decomposition.
Growing up we spoke Cantonese at our multi-family apartment occupied by parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and first cousins, but it was often broken in Chin-glish only a parent would understand. My older relatives who visited would stare at me confused and turn to ask my mom, “Why does she sound like that?” The wrong intonation could lead you to say “I want [an illicit drug]” instead of “I want noodles,” which made my whole family roar with laughter. There were many words that sounded the same but did not mean the same thing whatsoever. The number 4 (四) is considered an unlucky number in Chinese because it is nearly homophonous to the word “death” (死). My parents have told me not to buy a house with the number 4 in it, but guess what I did.