Grass Drama, 2020

Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver
Curated by Kimberly Phillips, Photo Credit: Scott Massey

Link to Grass Drama album

The term hypnagogia refers to the threshold state between wakefulness and sleep, when the rigidity of conscious thought begins to dissolve into a rich and often hallucinatory haze of sound, image and feeling unconstrained by our usual mental filters. “Hypnagogic” is an apt descriptor for Julian Yi-Zhong Hou’s work: it epitomizes both the creative strategies the artist employs to bring it into being, as well as its multi-sensory encounter by viewers.

Incorporating textiles, sound, performance, spoken word, drawing and sculpture—and often all of these simultaneously—Hou’s practice is expansive and roving. He draws from a rich field of influences, including contemporary psychedelia, diverse spiritual traditions, magic and sacred geometry, various musical and architectural vernaculars, smartphone ergonomics, Orientalist motifs, as well as deep memories (and misrememberings) from his own diasporic childhood. These seemingly disparate points of reference are wound together to create visual, sonic and spatial environments and experiences, such that a hand-dyed, quilted performance garment is also understood as a sound baffle, a digital wallpaper pattern an expansive mindscape and a line of prose an architectural space.

Grass Drama, Hou’s first solo exhibition in a major public gallery, manifests as a vinyl record, a one-night performance and an accompanying suite of printed patterns hung in the street-level windows that wrap the Contemporary Art Gallery’s façade. Hou developed this project over a two-year period, guided by a process of sensitivity training involving divination, hypnagogic practices and expanded states of consciousness, which took place alongside (and within) the slow construction of the artist’s backyard studio-shed and garden. The length of time is significant, Hou suggests, because it echoes the time required for many rhizomatic plants, such as hops or ginger, to mature and bear fruit.

The record’s narrative structure—and the accompanying suite of digitally rendered patterns in CAG’s windows—was informed by a seven-day Thoth Tarot card reading that prophesied for Hou the experience of the artwork’s own making. The Thoth deck has particular significance for the artist: its imagery, which was guided by Aleister Crowley, a notorious early 20th-century occultist and founder of the spiritual philosophy Thelema, is largely drawn from Jewish mysticism and Egyptian mythology. One of many pagan traditions suppressed in the Christian west, Thelemism was cast as sinful because it failed to subscribe to the patriarchal logic of Christianity; its teachings were more akin to those of Buddhism or Shintoism. The origin of Tarot cards is in fact linked to Chinese playing cards. For Hou, whose own family history has roots in Zen Buddhism, this is a compelling point, and with Grass Drama, he sought to draw a connection between the different spiritual histories and trajectories of Buddhism and Hermetic Thelemism. In keeping with Hou’s practice in its entirety, this new work proposes a means, in the artist’s own words, of “holding together discontinuities, discovering the relationships between them and bridging them, while thinking through considerations such as site, context, politics, history and personal references.”

Grass Drama also experiments with the recorded album as an art form, with the possibility of pattern as metaphor for narrative mode, and with the evocation of affective states through the experience of performance. Hou describes the work as a path around a formation of seven pillars, each with its own subject and history, and together forming both a cycle and an edifice. The printed patterns hanging in CAG’s window act as metaphors for patterns of thinking, internal structures that diagram distorted forms of continuity and repetition. The externalization of these forms into paper scrolls suggests the projection of interior states into decorative exteriors. The album’s sound is ambient, floating and hypnotic, evoking west coast rain showers, lapping waves and wind rustling through bamboo groves. Suggestions of Chinese soap opera and bedroom recordings entwine with references to polyphonic madrigals—themselves understood as threshold musical forms—characteristic of the late Elizabethan era. Hou’s lyrics are delivered in whispered vocalizations:

With every rush of wind
every cell returns to
& from the ground
we pick up a piece
every piece we pick up
is put back
every piece we pick up we mark as we put it back
every piece we pick up we mark with our name
every piece we pick up is put back with our name and the time
what is the time again?
remind me of the time again?

At once speculative and cyclical, evocative of something known but forgotten long ago, Hou’s thought-forms and sounds create a beguilingly vivid terrain, like the suspended space of an exploded-view diagram. They ask those who experience them to discard conventional, waking logic and to allow affinities between unlikely things to find one another.