Artist Profile: Udita Upadhyaya

Words & Cloth, An Afternoon with Udita Upadhyaya

By Allison Shyer

Vibhajan II: Revisiting the Line

Vibhajan II: Revisiting the Line

I feel like I’m always performing everything even when nobody’s looking.

Udita Upadhyaya and I are in the living room. We are both slightly disheveled and drinking cold coffee. The first time we met was at a symposium on art and labor at Hume Gallery, Trump had recently been elected, we were all feeling exhausted and inconsolable. As I would grow to know Udita better, I would come to understand that she sees her work as both labor and play, a practice that allows her to be in touch with the unfamiliar within herself and outside.

An Inventory : Remnants from a constellation of lived performances

An Inventory : Remnants from a constellation of lived performances

The day of our interview Udita and I took a walk around gloomy Humboldt park. The air was humming with newness as well as uncertainty; I have often felt that it is the ability to thrive in this climate that has brought Udita and I together as artists and friends. 

What struck me first about Udita was her brash vulnerability, her ability to navigate her own emotion and where it fits into the climate of art and the broader world. Udita’s work exists at the intersection of the body, language and material exploration -- her recent work  An Inventory: Remnants From a Constellation of Lived Performances exists in synchronicity with its viewers, who are instructed to stand in front of the large panels of scattered text and read them out loud. The language of the piece--bodily and intimate--exists in English with scattered flecks of Hindi, words that were important to the feeling of the text but lacking in English translations that did them justice.

Instead of flattening their meaning, Udita chose to include them as they were to her and without translation in her body of text. Translation, and the mystery and pain that can lie on either side of that process, are a driving force for Udita. Language itself, a churning mystery, an inheritance, a wound, a body.

Udita: English is our language too and English is as much mine as it is anybody else’s. I have been feeling guilty about losing Hindi and I have been trying to figure out why, and I think it comes from [the feeling that]  “oh that’s the language of the colonizers.” that’s an important thing to talk about in post colonial identity -- I'm not speaking someone else's language, I am speaking my own- there’s a complicated history with it but it's mine.”

Much of Udita’s work exists as an inventory of what is hers and what is not quite hers, what is available to her as an artist who exists between two languages is a sense of mystery and mutability. This yearning leads Udita to deconstruction. The intimate textile work You Gift Me Your Spine is a process based exploration of a material through its undoing. The material, treated with utmost care, still diminishes with every time the work is shown.

You Gift Me Your Spine

You Gift Me Your Spine

Udita: I thought of it as a performative process where I was unmaking it with my hands and giving myself permission to interact with it and it started to become very much like text, and this idea of loss and language and I started thinking about how I’m losing my mother tongue--which is not my first language. When I talk about it, it sounds super nostalgic but for me, it comes from this place of feeling frustrated that I could have access to this entire literature from this language because I can’t read it anymore

In this way, the fabric, much like a language slipping from memory, remains familiar while becoming unknown, the structure, laid bare, gives hints in its undoing towards its former use and retains its own obtuse beauty. Udita’s poetic approach to material and abstract approach to language let her treat every object that she encounters like a poem. Later in the day she asked me “do you know how to make rope?” The process for her was so simple that it was revolutionary: wind thread around two pencils and twist, but the exercise must be done by two people in unison. Udita has taught me that an object can be a performance, a performance can be a poem and a poem can be an object; the alchemy of an artist is to learn how to live in discomfort and in grace in-between.

The Secret History of Unkindness

by Allie Shyer

CW: Mentions of abuse

On Friday evening in the garden of a common Pilsen art party I whispered to a dear friend, “It is starting to feel like I don’t know anyone who has not been affected by domestic violence.”

I found myself accidentally crying. Luckily the majority of the revelers had fled the plummeting evening temperatures to return to the lukewarm beers and radiator heat of the kitchen. My friend was wearing two sweaters, I was wearing only a pink silk robe, but the cold felt like it was hitting me in a different way, as if it was a manifestation of my own hopelessness and exhaustion. “I don’t know what to do anymore, I feel so angry.” My friend stood holding me in silence against the cold October evening. The feeling that the world was penetrating me persisted far into the next day.

            To tell you (reader) the truth. Every day,

     every day I find myself more capable

            of telling the truth.

 

                                    A man called me a witch on the street last month.

                                      Well, first he told me to smile,

                              because he was rich, and he could own me,

                                   if he wanted to.  

            This is to say there is a secret history of unkindnesses that sweetens me like a bruised fruit. This is to say that my friend’s boyfriends are scared of me because I am frank and articulate, I am only five foot four and I have a very high pitched voice, that I like to exaggerate the feminine cadence of when I become angry. But here’s the big secret;

             Well I’m a dyke, so I thought I could hold all that stuff in the third person, I thought when I got older I could choose a life that did not include violence against women in my most intimate circles but so far, that has not been the case.

             Queer women are victims of domestic violence and intimate partner violence every day.

 I have had five friends come to me this year alone after being physically or emotionally abused by someone close to them.

I don’t know what to do about this.

I provided each one with as much support and compassion as I could. I tried to make sure that they had the resources and confidence necessary to get themselves out of toxic situations. I let them know that I would try to help them find safety in any way I could.

When I was seven, the son of my father’s business partner chased me around the house until I tripped on an electrical cord and fell. “He is acting that way because he likes you,” my mother said.

“What patterns are we repeating and re-enforcing in our communities, why are we re-enacting patterns that we have worked so hard to escape?” I asked another friend the day after the party in a text message.

            A few months ago I was at a queer dance party and I stepped outside to get some air. People were gathered in clusters chatting and smoking cigarettes, a few steps from the entrance I saw a couple who had been inside dancing. They appeared to be arguing, I saw one push the other against the glass window of the photo shop next door. Nobody turned their head.

            “He is acting that way because he likes you,” my mother said.

In college I walked every day past men I knew to be rapists and abusers. I would see them on the pathways coming to and from class. I would see them in the common rooms of dormitories. I would see them, and hear in my head the voices of friends who told me that the rape crisis hotline told them not to press charges, or that they were too scared to come forward because they feared upturning their lives.

            I thought after college I would find a safe haven in the queer culture of a big city where we worked together to break patterns that foster silence and abusive behavior. So far I still have not found a place that is safe. 

Diners are my Home

By Allie Shyer

All kinds of people stop by diners.

Diners have laminated menus with greasy finger marks on them. Diners will serve you a Greek omelet at 2 AM. Diners will have a waitress with long red fingernails that go “clack clack” on the antiquated cash register. The smell of diners is fake maple syrup and must. This smell is not appetizing but it is trustworthy. Nothing bad can happen to you at a diner; or if something bad has already happened, a diner is a good place to go to recover from that event. This is a proven fact (within the context of my narrow experience.)

Diners will have vinyl booths, vinyl booths are a very good thing to be a teenager inside. If you are a teenager in an overstuffed vinyl booth at a diner, then chances are you are on a family road trip staring longingly out the window with one elbow crooked on the table next to a half eaten club sandwich. Diners will serve club sandwiches skewered by toothpicks that are garnished with festive tinsel. Diners will all use the same unappealingly watery coleslaw recipe but also deliver a pickle with a satisfying heft and crunch. It is important that a diner is dirty and clean simultaneously. A sticky immaculately washed kind of grime that comes from daily use. It covers the smooth oatmeal colored speckled mugs and the white paper placemats with scalloped edges. It covers the people in a diner too; chances are if you are sitting in a diner currently, it is covering you.

Every food at a diner will remind you of the first time you ever ate that food. This deep-rooted memory will fill you with hope upon taking your first bite, but will soon be replaced by a growing amorphous sense of dread as your meal continues. There is a particular kind of ennui that can only exist within diners, dare I say it is American ennui. It feels specifically mundane, almost charged in its ordinariness. My memories of diners are all amalgamated into one memory of one diner. It exists outside time because whenever I go to a diner I seem to be in that same memory again.

Diners are my home.

Diners are menacingly safe, they will stay put and follow you around. Diners orbit slowly around the human life cycle, their patrons age and die away while others have babies that then teethe on the one high chair at that same diner. Diners are a safe slow spot in my heart that is also very sad. It is the part that is perhaps the most muted, under the brighter and more articulated parts of my personality.

Drawing by Edie Fake

Drawing by Edie Fake

Hide Weird Brain

By Allie Shyer

I do not know what makes my brain work differently from other people’s brains. They took me to a lot of doctors as a kid to try to figure it out. They determined that I was slower at arranging blocks by size or pattern than other people, and this was somehow an indication of something about me.

Nobody ever told me what, really. I was put in special classrooms for kids who weren’t like the other kids. I just wanted to be good and normal, but the tests said I was not that. Having a learning disability means that people will tell you what you can and cannot do, what you do and do not know, do not listen to them. It is true that lines curve downwards when I try to draw them straight, and columns of numbers jumble themselves in front of my eyes, this does not make me unintelligent. It means that my outlook will always be unique. I spent my entire time within the education system trying to prove to people that I was smart. Because there were tests that said I was different, I had to prove to them that I was worth keeping around. I knew what happened to the kids who were sent to schools for people with LD. They never ended up getting the opportunities or the education that I strived for.

I learned to pass at an early age. This meant acquiring skills and coping mechanisms that I used to hide my learning disability. One if these mechanisms is being able to read and anticipate the desires of others because I am often unable to perform tasks effectively. Instead I read social cues that will allow me to understand to root of motivation behind the task. If I can mimic the attitude that a teacher or boss desires, sometimes it is unimportant if I cannot actually perform the duty that is assigned to me.

The problem with accommodation in a society that has limited models of success is that although we claim not to discriminate, within the current educational model things that set you apart will set you behind. I am lucky that I had the ability to hide my difference to get through a system that was angled against me. Today I embrace the mystery of my own brain. I like to draw and see the wavy lines and collapsed distances. It helps me to think creatively and poetically, to see the middle distance and associative quality of mundane things, to embrace incorrectness and disorder both inside and outside of myself.

To be a Jew On Christmas

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By Allie Shyer

Chicagoans are obsessed with Christmas.

As a Jew from New York, Christmas was never really a thing for me until I moved here. Last winter my boss would continuously refer to himself as a “gay Christmas elf” throughout the month of December, and all the customers at the second hand store where I worked seemed to share this opinion that Christmas was a significant holiday that needed to be celebrated (we sold out of novelty Christmas sweaters the last week of November). Having taken paid time off for Thanksgiving I had none left to spare for a holiday my family did not even celebrate. I played it off like being alone on Christmas was not a big deal to me, but in reality being a Jew in the Midwest during the holiday season is a pretty strange experience. One by one my friends and co-workers scurried away for sentimental reunions with great aunts, grandmas and second cousins. All of my art school friends went out of town to visit their families and I felt very alone in a big cold city. The week before Christmas was a strange time for me, with almost everyone I knew in the city gone. Admittedly, I am a very social person and don’t do well on my own for extended periods of time. I countered the unease that this caused me by spending a lot of time planning outfits to wear that would make me feel less lonely. I attended my weekly therapists appointment with cheeks covered in silver glitter and a navy blue jumpsuit, “I feel so strange” I told her.


My big plans for Christmas were to clean my apartment thoroughly and avoid going outside.  I skyped with my family around 5pm in my now very clean apartment. Hearing my mom’s voice made me want to cry. We tried to watch a movie together over Skype, our favorite Christmas movie called Bell Book and Candle. Bell Book and Candle is a movie from the early sixties in which Kim Novak plays a sexy independent witch who has to choose if she wants to succeed her powers for the love of a hapless Jimmy Stuart, coincidentally all of this is happening around Christmas time in a snowy New York. I promise you it is the best Christmas and witch themed movie you will see, although Kim Novak’s choice to give up for her powers for the love of the ferret-like Stuart is perpetually disappointing to me. Ultimately my mom and I couldn’t get Skype to work for an extended period of time and my dad, who never understood the cult appeal of Bell Book and Candle, decided to go finish the newspaper. My mom and I watched Bell Book and Candle separately on little screens 791 miles away from each other. It was sad but also comforting to know that we had this intangible connection. It is one of the moments that stands out to me as conveying the weight of adulthood; being able to handle long periods of separation and finding new ways to make connections. I survived that holiday season, and eventually my friends returned from their far-flung homes. My life returned to an order I was used to and my apartment got less clean (a sure-fire sign that things were returning to normal.)

Being alone taught me that I am strong, that I can weather the storms of my own emotions, and that I can develop coping mechanisms to help me beat depression when I get lonely, so in many ways, my first ever Midwestern Christmas was a time of growth.



Firsts

By Allison Shyer

 

I quit my comfy straight-laced retail job in Wicker Park to work at an upscale sex shop; new beginnings here I come. What does one wear upon their first day working at a sex shop? Black, I decided, all black with a sheer button-up over-top and eyebrows fluffed and darkened so that I would appear serious and knowledgeable about sex (obviously!) I set my alarm a half hour early, listened to Devon by grimes on repeat and made my way to the brown line, trying to talk down my nerves in my head. When I got to my new workplace, my manager was sweeping the front, “everyone’s gathering in back” they told me. The Pleasure Chest is well lit, neatly organized and approachable. The front window hosts a display of bachelorette party favors including the classic penis shaped pasta, as you go further into the store the wares become more serious, organized by function and technique. The toys are enticing, many of them have shimmering plastic exteriors that you could easily mistake for apple products; some of them are even app operated. I turned a corner to find the employees only backroom. There my boss Sarah and my new co-workers awaited me. After reviewing some HR details, we went out on to the floor for an extensive round of introductions. I was starting to feel less nervous. My co-workers seemed like clever, competent twenty-somethings like me. “ I decided to work here because I am a feminist and I want to learn.” Said my co-worker Izzy. I started to think about my reasons for wanting to work at the Pleasure Chest.

Growing up, sex was a subject that was shrouded in mystery and fear. At my fairly liberal Quaker high school we were taught sex education through slides that showed genitals ravaged by disease, and there was no information about how queer people had sex. The messages I got about sex were pretty much that no matter what happened it was going to be wrong and embarrassing the first few times I tried it, but I was given little information on what “it” was, besides highly dangerous if done incorrectly or without protection. I tried my best at being heterosexual for a while, masturbating to a floating picture in my head of Brad Pitt’s face isolated from a body; (looking back this was a pretty funny attempt to achieve normative desire) there was something that just wasn’t clicking for me. My friends would moan and complain about their relationship problems or their one night stands, while I was much more interested in making collages alone and listening to Joanna Newsom. When I was 14, my mom sat me down in her bedroom and asked me if I was gay. Flustered and caught off guard I just muttered “no, I mean I don’t think so” and got out of there as quickly as I could. How I wish I could stand in for my fourteen year old self as the self I am today and say to my mother “as it stands, there is no model of sexuality that has presented itself that is relatable to me.” because that was my reality at the time. I discovered my sexuality in my early twenties after having a wild sex dream about another co-worker at a creative writing summer camp where I was a councilor. It was definitely an aha! moment, experiencing very raw and authentic sexual desire for the first time, but the fact that it was for another woman made me feel confused and unsure. “What is my life going to be?” I had to ask myself, because being queer was not part of my original plan. That question has lead me along the path that I am following today, one that is guided by my inner passions and curiosities and desire to achieve an authentic feeling of community and acceptance, as apposed to skewed perceptions of what is “right” or “expected” of me. This is what has lead me to the Pleasure Chest. I am so excited to talk to sex with people in an environment that is safe and de-stigmatized. I am excited to make people feel like their desires are valid and normal, probably because I needed that when I was young and I had to figure it out on my own. To some extent we all do.