“I didn’t really know about it growing up,” says ceramics artist Cathy Lu of the peach's particular significance. She’s inside Irving Street Projects, where she’s currently an artist in residence, surrounded by a dozen oversized ceramic versions of the fruit.
“Once I started looking more into Chinese art imagery and symbols, that’s when I realized it was everywhere,” she says. “It has this whole life in Chinese mythology, but then in America it’s like ‘Georgia peach’ and ‘sweet as a peach.’ So there’s these other, American and very gender-based ideas about peaches as well.”
Her sculptural peaches, each about a foot in height (taller when sitting atop coiled reddish-brown concrete stands), are not those impossibly round and clefted emoji versions of the fruit. First there’s the colors: Lu’s peaches come in soft yellows and pinks, but also sickly greens, bright blues polka-dotted with darker spots, and grayish purples. And then there’s the textures: they’re wrinkled and bumpy, pitted and interrupted with holes. “If I saw a peach that looked like this, I would not touch it,” Lu confesses. “It’s really gross.”
In the final installation, assembled for a closing reception at Irving Street Projects this Sunday, Sept. 30, 3–6pm, humidifiers hidden inside the peaches’ bulbous bodies will push steamy air through those holes.
“I grew up in Florida,” Lu says. “So when I think of outdoors, life is happening, things are growing, it’s sweating, it’s humid—things smell bad because it’s so humid. It’s intense.” The way we interact with plants in a city like San Francisco is so removed from that fetid, anything-goes climate, she says. “You go to the store and you buy this super cute succulent. It’s almost not real, it’s weird. That’s what we think of as gardens now—as soon as a plant starts to grow and get weird, people get rid of it.”
Lu’s peaches reject perfection in favor of weirdness. While the Heavenly Peach Garden of Chinese mythology and its biblical counterpart, the Garden of Eden, may be places of tranquility and escape, they’re also spaces preserved through rules, unquestioning ignorance and naiveté. And those principles, Lu says, aren’t always a good thing.
“I’m trying to play with those ideas to create my own version of a peach garden that’s mutated or fermenting,” she says. "But it’s also not necessarily bad or rotten; it’s different, it’s transformed in a way.”
Lu thinks a lot about how fruits and other produce move from the categories of “different” or “exotic” to become commonplace. “It’s been an interesting way to think about immigrants too,” she says. “When do certain immigrant groups or cultures become mainstream, and when do they remain ‘exotic’?”
“Because of the political climate, I think I’ve been reflecting more on my own upbringing,” Lu says. Her family is from Taiwan; she grew up in Miami. “I feel like immigrants have to have a certain amount of creativity in order to understand and be in the world. Even just thinking about food. I need this ingredient but it’s not here. What can I do to replace that ingredient? Maybe I’ll do a similar method that I would have done in my home country, but with all new ingredients.”
She used this tactic within her own practice during a recent residency at Recology. Without clay (or a kiln), she found new ways to use centuries-old techniques on new, found materials, making coil-built vessels out of plastic tubing and electrical cables.
When she’s not limited by materials sourced from the dump, much of her practice involves casting fruits—delicately spiky jackfruits, bunches of bananas—in ceramic and arranging them based on traditional altar displays, supermarket presentations and shelving from China's Forbidden City. The entire “garden” at Irving Street Projects sits on bricks laid atop the residency’s concrete floor, an aesthetic reference to neighborhood altars and temples found in the streets of Taiwan.
With Peach Garden, Lu’s peaches transform well beyond shelves of mainstream supermarket produce to become monstrous, almost alien forms. They don't look palatable, they look alluring and powerful, like wizened symbols of longevity and prosperity that refuse to sit demurely on your supermarket shelf.
'Peach Garden' is on view at Irving Street Projects (4331 Iriving Street, San Francisco) through Oct. 6, 2018, with a closing reception on Sept. 30, 3-6pm. Details here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.