Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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The Past Is Another Country

I look for raw art materials everywhere: in art stores and galleries, and even markets.

Since moving to Beijing, I've been experimenting with a local specialty: tofu skin from wet markets. It's a cream-colored blank canvas for ideas.

fresh backwards america

I'm an artist who lives where I don't belong. For the past few years, I've been lost more often than found. As a way to trace where I came from, and places I've wanted to forget, I've been carving maps from tofu skin. Backwards. 

So I carved some words into the paper used for festive Chinese paper-cuts:

I was born here

I was born here

I was destined to die here

but took fate into my hands

as much as anyone can

as my ancestors did


Then laid them on top of the skin to print a cyanotype…

backwards america with cut paper

They looked nice but didn't print well. Water and thin Chinese papers don't mix.

However it turned out ok once I gave up on the words. Mostly.

The tofu skin sculptures curl up as they dry, shaped by atmosphere just as much as by human hands.

backwards america with chinese watermark on blue


Then I was asked to join an exhibition in Beijing's 798 arts district.

The timeframe was only a few days.

There was no time to experiment with new ideas or materials, or to wait for sunshine to burst through the smog of a Beijing spring.

So I made what I knew. Backwards.

And big, just like the countries they represent:

backwards america fresh

In progress: Backwards America, The Past is Another Country, 70 x 130cm


Backwards America installed at 3C Creative Space

backwards america on blue

Detail of sculpture curling as it dries

northeast US curling

Chinese characters trace the transcontinental railroad across the map:

railroad curling

China & the US have more in common than most countries.

I stretched their proportions to fit the borders of the handmade Beijing paper used as templates, to emphasize their similarities. 

Backwards China in progress:

backwards china fresh

China carved with "peace" in its minority languages & scripts:

backwards china on blue

The Past is Another Country: Reverse China, 70 x 100cm, tofu skin sculpture

Detail: "peace" in Tibetan
peace tibetan

Detail: "peace" in Uighur
peace uighur

More images of The Past is Another Country on Flickr

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