“A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.”
– Paul Valéry, French symbolist poet –
When is an artwork ‘finished’?
Since the medieval Renaissance, artists have struggled with the dichotomous tension between their desires to continue revisiting and engaging with the ideas that consummate the artwork and the pressure to actually finish the work, to formulate its material birthing into the physical world. Michelangelo left behind countless unfinished works and sketches that never came into complete existence. He is also famous for applying the non-finito technique in sculpture (‘not finished’ in Italian): his figures remained encased in marble blocks, never fully escaping their monolithic shackles. They displayed to the world the artist’s creative torment in the process of breaking free from physical materials and bringing his art into conception.
Certain artistic movements such as Impressionism in the 20th century, with artists such as Paul Cézanne, have also responded to this internal stress by choosing to focus on their personal artistic maturation instead of their artwork’s completion. Cézanne expressed this belief unabashedly in a letter to his mother: “I have to work constantly, (but) not in order to arrive at the finish, […] I must strive to complete only for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser.” Thus, Cézanne chose to leave many of his paintings with unfinished patches, believing them to be better representations of his artistic concepts, his mental ‘inner-cyclone’.
In a similar way, the artists of San Art Laboratory’s Session 8 contest the credibility of ‘completion’ in contemporary art. For them, art making itself is at the center of their practice, instead of the final art object. The notion of the unfinished in their work is manifested in their process of choosing materials, subjects, and techniques. Their experimental process itself becomes not just a means to an end product, but the actual subject of art: a continuous cycle of molding and remolding, assembling and dismembering, revisiting and evolving.
For Questal Tay, her materials of fabrics and threads exemplify the notion of unfinished. Sheets of neutral-colored sheer fabrics hang against the wall and float in space like a translucent shroud of early morning mist. It is difficult to determine whether the fabric’s physical existence is solidly formed, or simply euphemistic, waiting in transition like Questal’s artistic conception. The only signs of their presence are holes that have been intentionally cut into the textiles. By disrupting the fabric’s seamlessness, Questal examines her inner struggle with half-formed thoughts, abandoned conversations, and overlooked prejudices in her relationships. The gaps, hemmed on the edges and draped loosely over by threads, are her attempts to remedy these chains of unfinished communication. But none of the holes are completely covered: like the process of mending a relationship that is interminable, Questal’s fabrics remain in a transitional stage, weaving themselves together and fixing their cuts in a seemingly unending struggle.
Nguyen Quoc Dung turns his oil canvas into a mirror that reflects portraits of communities who have been marginalized in Vietnamese society. For his residency, Dung has focused his creative energy on the transgender community, who struggles with body modification and sexuality transition. In one of his oil paintings, a transgender woman is standing nude in the center of the canvas with her eyes peering straight, exposing her in-transition body and challenging the gaze of the audience. Her room, in which Dung portrayed her, serves as a backdrop that contains mementoes from her past relationships. Thus, Dung’ artistic subject embodies the concept of ‘unfinished’ through her yearning for physical completeness and mental contentment. As Dung continues laboring over minute details of the portrait to best portray her narrative of returning to the true gender, her search for her identity also extends. The artist and the subject grow together, each in their personal quest.
Dara Kong’s inner struggle with the unfinished is depicted through his technique of mapping territories. His journey is a way to question how one’s sense of belonging is influenced and negated by our movement in and out of different communities. The Cambodian artist creates cartographic records of human movement, including his own, in various neighborhoods by transforming their paths into interlocking vines that stretch out incessantly: the beginning and the end of the map undetermined. His series of urban labyrinths, where fruit-shaped humans rendezvous then separate, underlies Dara’s attempt to understand the currents of the foreign culture as well as to harbor a sense of belonging in his new found ‘home’. As Dara continues to reach new terrains, his ceaseless exploration and new relationships fuel his maps to expand, perhaps as anchors for his floating mind that always seeks acceptance and kindness. To search for ‘home’ in a foreign land, isn’t that in itself a journey that is never quite finished?
Like artists that have gone before them, the artists of Lab Session 8 each grapple with the notion of completion in art, choosing instead to focus on their artistic experimental progress through their choice of materials, subject, and technique. Displaying the inner struggle of an artist in the face of social and cultural expectations, these artists invite the audience to peer through the wounds of a piece of fabric; gaze into the eyes of a discriminated painted subject; or follow the maps of an alienated stranger.
 Paul Cézanne, Nhựng bức thư, John Rewald hiệu đính vào thời điểm 1984
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