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Su Huis Reversible Poem: Embroidery Projection

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Su Hui’s Reversible Poem, a multi-channel video installation with film and textile components, focuses on the Chinese poet Su Hui and her 4th century poem, Xuanji tu (Picture of the Turning Sphere), one of the earliest and most complex recorded poems written by a woman. Written in a “reversible” form (sometimes translated as palindromic), the poems within the 29 x 29 character grid of this poem can be read circularly, horizontally, vertically, diagonally, and in patterns— staggered, inversed, folded—to yield nearly 8,000 possible readings.

The form of the poem, Xuanji tu (Picture of the Turning Sphere), is structured on an astronomical gauge that charts planetary movement around the North Star; the red regions of the poem refer to moveable rings of the armillary sphere. This poem was also a textile, 8 x 8 inches in size, rendered in silk in five colors in woven or embroidered brocade. The number of colors corresponds to a Chinese philosophical concept of cosmic and earthly interaction: Wuxing, or Five Element Theory. The original poem was lost; accounts and versions of the poem remain, later versions add one implied character to the empty center: 心 (hsin, translated heart/mind).

In the installation, in a darkened room, a large video projection shows Su Hui’s poem as it is rendered in a double-sided silk embroidery technique, filmed from below the embroidery frame, showing the side of the double-sided image the embroiderer does not see but makes perfectly through the translucent cloth, passing the needle from the hand above to the hand below, an exceedingly delicate operation she does without knots, securing the beginning and the end of the thread within her embroidery of the written character. The footage unfolds in real time, filmed over the course of full days in the Suzhou embroidery studio, where Yu Juan, an expert in this technique, created them over the course of seven months. Nearby, her two large finished versions of the embroidered poem are on view.

The sound of voices in Chinese and English emit from the next area of the installation, where four facing projection screens come to life, one at a time. In the middle of this room, the viewer embodies the poem’s heart/mind, empty center, and the north star. As the projections travel, the viewer’s body slowly enacts the rotation of the planets the poem references. Circumnavigating the poem with interdisciplinary commentaries from eight Chinese women—algorithmic game theorists, artists, astrophysicists, calligraphers, literary scholars, novelists, and researchers. Through their perspectives, many possible approaches to begin to understand the complexities of the poem are revealed, along with competing stories of how the poems coded meanings may have saved the poet’s relationship.

This collaboration between Jen Bervin and Charlotte Lagarde produced by Violet du Feng premieres Fall 2020 at University Galleries at ISU, in a survey show of Bervin’s solo and collaborative work curated by University Galleries' Director and Chief Curator Kendra Paitz. The exhibition and catalogue are supported by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The research for this project was supported by an Asian Cultural Council research travel grant to Suzhou, China, and Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artist Fellowship.

苏蕙Su Hui (Poet); 璇玑图Xuánjī tú (Picture of the Turning Sphere); 回文诗 Huíwén shī (Reversible poem);
心 hsin (heart, mind); 五行 Wuxing (Five element theory)  

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