By Julie Chen
Berkeley, California: Flying Fish Press, 2006. Edition of 100.
Rotating wheel in a 15" x 15" x 3" silk-covered box.
Full Circle — like so many of Julie Chen's bookworks — offers the sensation of being caught up in something at once momentous and personal. Another elegantly clothed, unmistakable Chenbox opens to reveal a marvel of execution and effect. Once again, Julie Chen takes physicality, an essential part of all books, and makes it a vital element of expression.
A spinning wheel — that the reader controls and rotates — suggests a clock, or progressive stations along some journey. The contents of the book are viewed by turning a wheel and pausing whenever text and image are centered in 4 windows. At 3 intervals a drawer lines up with the opening in the front of the box. Pulling a tab reveals a tongue-like 3-dimensional diagram of the mind and heart in relation to each other.
The subject? The clue is on the face of the top of the box: an array of intersecting circles hold phrases like "Things I was told to believe in," "Things I would like to believe in," "Things I used to believe in." Full Circle is about belief, or more pointedly, about cycles of belief.
As the wheel moves from stage 1 to stage 12 (12 stations?), the windows offer four different ways we can chart belief: a single word, objects, the image of a body part, a sentence. At station 1 are the single word INQUIRY, some tear-shaped egg-like objects, the image of a closed mouth, and the sentence "I look for you but you will not speak to me." At each stage the windows have new content. At each stop connections between the windows are left up to the reader. And, as the stages progress, so is the developing story. Full Circle demonstrates that the cycle of belief is the same for all, but different in the particulars.
Over and over, Chen's works have a foundation of social connection. Early in her career, the connection was in collaboration with others; lately, her works have insisted on reader/viewer participation, directly as in Personal Paradigms or now indirectly as in Full Circle.
Is it about how belief intersects with human relationships? Is it looking at religious belief? When queried, Julie Chen wrote, "the text if purposefully ambiguous about whether the main reference is religion or relationship. It's not exactly about either, but more about the daily cycles of belief that we go through all the time without even realizing it, but that make life bearable. Things such as believing that we will never get seriously ill or lose our jobs—can't happen to me, right? We don't actually have any control of these things, and have to rely on faith to not be swallowed up by anxiety all the time. The objects in the window aren't meant to have deep meaning in relationship to the text. Rather, they are like talismen, reminders or lucky charms — place markers for belief. I chose them because I liked the intuitive connections which are not easily explainable. I like the idea that viewers are searching for their own ideas of what the objects might mean."
The experience of Full Circle is the practical gloss on the bleak view — I can't go on, I go on — Beckett presented to the world 50 years ago in Waiting for Godot. Full Circle acknowledges the presence of ambiguity in our lives, but, most wonderfully, demonstrates that ambiguity and delight can co-exist.
Julie Chen's bookworks have always been lucid without being transparent, accessible without being simplistic. Her recent works, most pointedly True to Life and now Full Circle, offer evidence that memory is fluid and that getting though the day (and the night) calls for belief and the suspension of belief in an ongoing cycle.