Artist Statement

My point of reference is the hyphen in Chinese-American. My father came to the United States as a "paper son," not accepted but excluded in the land that he chose to live. To the world around me I became neither Chinese nor American but "jook sing," a term I was called growing up in California. This phrase translates as someone who is like a hollow piece of bamboo, an object that looks Chinese but is not and only empty inside.

So, my work takes form in the ritual and meditation of this background, to understand this hollow piece of emptiness in the same qualities of Taoist thought and to see this hyphen in Chinese-American not as a neither nor experience but to see the hyphen as a bridge between time, culture, and identity.

I begin my work by overlapping Chinese characters traced from magazines and newspapers from Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and digital Chinese typefaces online. I have no idea what these characters mean but by adding and deconstructing these characters, I create a pattern that I use as a template to shape a wood substrate for what I call artifacts. They neither paintings nor sculpture but relics of my story.

I use a combination of materials such as rice, tea, and ashes or blood, clay, and cut queues or spent firecrackers, crushed bones, and gunpowder that serve as visual metaphors of my ancestorís journey coming to America. Paper replicas are then produced of each piece and ceremoniously burned as altar offerings at various historical Chinese temples. The process of mixing these materials as an alchemy of immortal elixirs and performing altar offerings are the basis of my work.

The altar offerings also serve to say that we all have emigrated from somewhere and universally we all are in search of place. Whether in a world of globalization or multiculturalism, we all struggle to find a connection between where we have come and where we are heading. But no matter who or where you are, the people of your indigenous roots have sought this connection through the burning of altar offerings. Perhaps this was their artistic statement. Nevertheless, I hope to transfer some of these blessings to you. Thank you for participating.

The following excerpt from a 2008 article explains further:

Sacramental Artist Creates Art for the Dead

SAN FRANCISCO - For Steve Yee, his hometown city's name, Sacramento, evokes a very personal meaning for him and his art. He has been burning artifacts of his work as a sacramental offering to the Chinese pioneers of Yee Fow that contributed to so much to California's history. The originals pieces that inspire the altar offerings are represented by the Triangle Gallery that is featuring a "100 Years of Chinese Art" exhibit. The exhibit will run from June 3 - July 26, 2008 in San Francisco.

Yee, a Sacramento artist and historian, seeks to preserve the memory of China Slough, a part of Sacramento which is buried and still hidden since long ago, "The work I do in my art and for my community is directly connected to an ancient Chinese tradition that is expressed in the ritual of altar offerings as a form ancestral veneration."

In 2006, Steve became involved in the sensitive cultural issues that surround Sacramento's Railyard redevelopment and the Chinatown that was burned and buried beneath the site in 1855. The Chinese called the area Yee Fow. Currently, plans between the city and Thomas Enterprises are well underway to forever change this culturally sensitive historical site.

Burning art may seem strange to some westerners, but in China the burning of representational images is commonplace and goes as far back as the Late Neolithic Period. Buddhist temples usually include a furnace where prayers written upon paper may be burned. The traditional Chinese ritual of "dzidzat" means the burning of paper. The social or nonreligious function of ancestral veneration is to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage.

In Steve Yee's altar offerings, the artist pulls characters from the headlines of Chinese news in print and online. These characters are deconstructed onto wood putty boards. Yee uses a unique combination of materials as pigments. To this artist, these materials are potent with meaning; rice, teas, and ashes or gunpowder, rust, bone and ashes or seashells, minerals of Taoist immortal elixirs, gold and ashes. Chinese poetry is written on the surface of his paintings, sometimes in an abstract gestural form. A complex critical engagement with California Chinese history and culture runs through his work. "Steve's work is very sensitive and subtle. I don't know of anyone else doing anything like this. Of course, burning them is so unfortunate." says Jack Van Hiele, Director of the Triangle Gallery for over 40 years.

Robert Hartman, artist and professor of painting at UC Berkeley for 30 years, recently convinced the artist that his original wood paintings needed to be preserved and prints of the artwork would be more fitting to burn as an offering.

The artist is still doing what he can to protect his ancestral land buried underneath the Sacramento Railyards. He is currently working with Thomas Enterprise, the Asian community, and Sacramento civic leaders. "Sometimes burning incense or making offerings is not enough. Sometimes our ancestors, though they have passed this world, still need our protection. How hollow would we be if we did nothing to care for our elders that suffered so much persecution at Sacramento's Yee Fow? I see this experience as sacramental, my path has intersected between the sacred and the artistic, of devotion and expression. I am attempting to preserve a moment in a world so temporal. Then again, this is the way of the Tao." says Yee.