Ellen Jong, Artist
“A lot of times I forget that I’ve done what I’ve done. I put photographs from the pee book on my bathroom wall because it reminds me who I was when I made it. I had to learn to let go because I got really depressed after the first book got published. By the time I published my second book, I realized that I didn’t own it anymore and that it had become a fictionalized version of the experience. In the end, there has to be a product but by the time the product is made I feel like the art has already happened.”
Interview by Oskar Peacock / @downwardddog666
Photos by Guzman / @lesguzman
Ellen Jong / @peenessenvy
OP: Where is home?
EJ: I live on the Lower East Side but we also have a house upstate. I think it’s been our sixth year now? Originally, it was going to be a summer weekend home but then I got rid of my studio in Gowanus and moved everything upstate two years ago. After we moved in, we thought, “this is great we don’t have to do much to it.” Now that I’ve started taking up more space I’ve kind of converted it into a studio but, when my husband comes up and we have friends over, it transforms back into a house. It’s modular… it’s a convertible house / studio.
OP: Has your process changed since you’ve relocated your studio upstate?
EJ: Absolutely. Being upstate has really changed my work in that I am more willing to get dirty and experiment. I spend days at a time not speaking to or seeing anyone.
The cannons, for instance, that happened upstate. And it’s great to be able to channel this “Americana.” There is a certain freedom to being in the middle of the woods and being able to build cannons out of PVC pipe and blow things up and experiment while nobody knows.
OP: You’re referencing one of two new pieces involving experimentation's with Chinese ink. The first, Ink Matter, preformed at your place upstate, where you are firing ink out of a homemade cannon at a photograph of your chest, and the other, Water Prison, which was preformed in China. What is the connection between the two in regards to the medium?
EJ: I didn’t really understand the connection until recently. I’ve always worked in the realm of rebellion and towards breaking the rules of identity, form and process. And when I started working with ink, it spoke to me as something that has a lot to do with my cultural identity and the relationship that I have with my father. I basically grew up with his passion for Chinese ink and my first art lessons were Chinese painting and calligraphy. My process is very much about the breaking of rules or seeking new ways of seeing the material, and seeing myself, that I was imagining injecting ink into myself and injecting ink into my work — so that I could become ink.
OP: In regards to your book, Pees on Earth, does your use of the body and bodily functions stem from a reaction to a society that polices the body and the way it is represented?
EJ: I think a lot of this comes from the teenage angst of finding myself… who I was and who I wanted to be. I was a tomboy: I just wasn’t what my parents expected me to be. I had a really difficult childhood and was trying to understand myself and photography was my way to do that, especially when I started taking these photographs of myself peeing all over the place.
For me it was not only a rebellious deed but also a proof of existence. “I don’t yet know who I am, but I am”. Much of the project was about the process of identifying myself and that has to do with body, with race, with biology, genitals, society, culture, it’s being a New Yorker — it’s all these things wrapped up.
OP: I wanted to ask you about the Water Prison piece you’ve developed in China. It features you moving through a concrete structure and marking the walls with ink. What was the inspiration for that?
EJ: There are these beautiful villages all over China and there’s one village that features these massive limestone formations that stick out of the river like camel humps, and which have caves within them. During the Cultural Revolution a lot of artists would go there to escape the political upheaval. So I visited one of these caves and the tour guide pointed down into this hole, this huge trench, and she called it a “water prison”.
The ebb and flow of the river’s tide created these caves naturally. And they would place prisoners in the trench and they would sit there not knowing when the tide would come in and they would drown — and it could take days.
So the thought of this, this horrible torture, made me want to talk about the body as a “water prison.” Because we are trapped in these vessels that are predominately made of water. And I wanted to express this fear of mortality.
OP: I’m very curious about the connection between this piece and the other in which Chinese ink was used.
EJ: Well, a lot of the work with ink is about “mark making.” This piece is actually what inspired me to start working with ink again. I was in a store looking for chalk and I came across an ink stick. And I thought it would be great to use it because I am in China… and I’ve worked with this material before… But what I wanted to do with it is use it directly on the wall. Traditionally, you grind the ink with water on a stone to create a paste. Instead, I took the ink stick and ground it on a stone and then applied it directly on the wall, which is kind of sacrilegious for this medium.
I used it to mark my height, which is both the, “I exist here” mark and also my drowning mark. It’s the point of where I am alive and the point where I would drown when the water rises.
OP: I am very taken by what you just said in relation to your previous work, particularly regarding the aspects surrounding body impermanence and the ability to record it, which is the responsibility of being an artist.
EJ: I think it’s about the present moment and capturing that present moment. When the Pee’s on Earth book came out, I talked a lot about the “existential pee puddle” …a mark that I left behind, which would eventually disappear.