Jayne Yu Wang MFA EDA ‘21: “The Unfinished Utopia”

This is part of a series showcasing the work of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Class of 2021. Learn more about the program and its graduating cohort here. For this installment, Cici Cheng MFA EDA ‘20 interviews Jayne Yu Wang MFA EDA ‘21.

What influenced you to create this project that deals with the linkage of transnationalism and borders?

I was born and grew up in a border city in China. Russians founded the city and it was a colony of Japan for around forty years. I didn’t realize what a border meant until I moved to San Diego, which shares a border with Mexico. There are stereotypes about the seriousness of crossing a border—the border began to convey danger and separation. However, my experience has taught me that the border area is not dangerous, and having a lively transnational community is possible.

Globalization is a trend that compels people from different backgrounds to live in the same neighborhood, and the border in my project, The Unfinished Utopia, illustrates this dynamic that can be found in many places around the world today.

All photos by Jayne Yu Wang MFA EDA ‘21.

I would love to know more about your process and experience of creating the digital model of the Utopia. Did you have an idea of what you wanted it to look like before starting it?

Before I started designing the model, I asked myself, “What do the three border cities share in common?” The answer is water, the Tumen River. Rivers are typical natural borders, but I believe this type of border is not something that separates the nations. Instead, it can be the connection between them.

There are currently two bridges on the river. One connects Russia to North Korea, and another one connects China to North Korea. The piles that support the bridges are too short to allow cargo ships to pass through the bridges, so the Tumen River has been suffering from a lack of maintenance, and it is much narrower today. However, since all three countries share ownership of the bridges, it would be a worthy endeavor to widen the river, rebuild the bridges, and develop the river to be the best estuary in East Asia. In my design, the river is the center of the Utopia, and the three nations expand as a circle.

Can you describe how this project will be exhibited in the Power Plant Gallery?

The exhibit is composed of three large 4’ x 4’ prints of elements from the Utopia, specifically signage and roads. The image of the store sign is meaningful because when I traveled in the border city of Hunchun in 2019, I noticed that the local Industrial and Commercial Bureau required all the store signs to have Chinese, Russian, and Korean languages.

I will also have audio accompanying the photos on the wall, and viewers can scan QR codes to listen to the audio on a mobile phone. You can see some objects from the fictional diary at the exhibition, such as a Russian business card given to the diary’s flaneur, and cookies with a label featuring three languages. People who have an Instagram account can search #livinginfc to view photos of the Utopia, interact with characters from the project’s diary, and even post pictures and become the residents.

I have only created a structure of the city; the project’s viewers and participants will actually develop the city. The Utopia is not mine; it’s ours.

How do you think the disappearance of borders will affect or change the function of boundaries?

I used to worry that the disappearance of borders would harm identity and culture. When in fact, it is actually helping to overcome cultural rifts. In the real world, Fangchuan, where the exhibit’s Utopia is set, belongs to a Chinese city called Hunchun, and around 40% of its residents are ethnic Koreans.

“Political and natural borders are just lines on a map that that two countries share. The most dangerous border is the cultural border, but we can remove it by accepting foreign cultures and developing the transnational community together.”

This city has a long history of international trade. When I traveled there, I was surprised that the government had many policies to help the ethnic Koreans keep their culture, such as making Korean the official second language and holding traditional Korean festivals every year. The city’s Russian culture has been kept by the Russian immigrants as well, including traditional clothes, food, and language. It would not be unusual to see a Han Chinese family have dumplings, Korean Kimchi, and Russian borscht for their Spring Festival dinner.

Political and natural borders are just lines on a map that that two countries share. The most dangerous border is the cultural border, but we can remove it by accepting foreign cultures and developing the transnational community together.

You examine the concept of community in your project, which also connects with identity. How do you see the sense of place as an important element in this Utopia, especially from the view of a foreign traveler?

The project’s protagonist is a flaneur, someone who walks and wanders their city. In The Unfinished Utopia, we do not know the flaneur’s gender. In my original plan, the flaneur was male, but then I came to imagine the Utopia from a female perspective. Many thoughts in the flaneur’s diary are just about the author’s personal view, and this person’s understanding of the many things that might be considered wrong or different from other people.

Additionally, other characters have been created for the project, and their accounts, photos, and viewpoints can be found on Instagram as well. I believe that a flaneur can see the margin of the city uniquely, in a way that locals have not considered. My hope is that what viewers take away from the exhibit’s Utopia can help them understand different perspectives and develop their own.

The Unfinished Utopia

On View: May 7–June 5, 2021 at the Power Plant Gallery
In-person viewing is available to Duke students, faculty, and staff. Email: powerplantgallery@duke.edu

explore the unfinished utopia on instagram