Edelweiss gifInstallation view of Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky's "Edelweiss," 2024. Photo by: Blaine Campbell.

What’s in a Name? That Which We Call Home?
A response to Juan Ortiz-Apuy, Lucia Hierro, Leonard Suryajaya, Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky

I. Belongings and Belonging


Over the last decade, I have lived in four different countries and six different cities. Once, at a speaking engagement, the host introduced me as a “cosmopolitan.” Even though the intention was to evoke envy in the audience, it struck me as ironic. I have had many places of residence but nowhere to call home. Last year, my rental apartment in Calgary was flooded. The insurance company asked me to name the belongings damaged. Well, it damaged my couch. My belongings? That was a conceptual impossibility.

One encounters a genuine, if somewhat surprising, object of envy in the assorted inhabitants of Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky’s Edelweiss. On the outside, Edelweiss is the most unassuming and commonplace shed you will find in Canada, filled with junk and clutter from the 90s, creaking with bad taste against today’s minimalist fad. Stepping inside, one sees objects light up one after another in random order. A broken clock, a stained throw pillow sitting on a worn-out chair, an out-of-print surveying textbook, and long-expired cans of Heinz baked beans and Dole pineapple on the cupboard and floor. To an outsider, they are material possessions, things owned. As possessions, their value is determined by their instrumental use, which, in this case, seems to be very little. What’s there to envy, you ask? Well, in reality, these fragile and glowing objects are not mere possessions. They are part and parcel of Trevor’s childhood home. They are belongings constitutive of belonging, emotionally difficult and conceptually impossible to disown.

When a thing, a place, a person is said to belong to us, it does not mean that we own them, as though they were in our control and at our disposal. What we really mean is that they are deemed special and irreplaceable to us and by us. Philosopher Avishai Margalit rightly argues that the value of an object of belonging is not instrumental. Rather, it is non-instrumental, conferred upon the object by the stories that are told about it. In the case of a home, its value does not rest on its merits or functionalities; nor does it rest on the property value determined by the contingencies of supply and demand. Instead, its specialness and irreplaceability lie in its subjective meanings to the inhabitants who have built their life stories in and through it.

To the insider, Edelweiss is an enchanted place, a haven from the harsh contingencies and the cold indifference that is the objective reality. It invites the audience to imagine a place where the hottest night of 2000 happened, when grandma emptied all the beers in the cooler, where the five-year-old Trevor saved enough money to buy his first Mother’s Day gift at the dollar store—an “I heart Mum” mug—and where Trevor and his best friend envisioned an impending zombie apocalypse and stocked up on cans of food. Each item of belonging carries with it something of the shed’s inhabitants—some piece of gossip, a fight, a dream, a nightmare, heartbreak, hope, despair, growth, and love. The sum of these parts is the story of the dwellers, of where they came from and who they have become. And to let any of this go is to let a part of ourselves go.

II. Belonging on the Margins

If a home is intricately woven out of the stories its inhabitants tell, then belonging can be an ongoing struggle, especially for those living on the margins. Lucia Hierro’s Corotos y Ajuares, a series of soft sculptures and a mural about the everyday experience of the Dominican diaspora in Manhattan and the Bronx, illustrates how diasporic belonging is a battle over who gets to tell the story and who gets to be heard.

When you are at home, you rarely think about what a home is. Much like the air you breathe, you only begin to really notice it in its absence, realizing how it used to keep you alive. The term diaspora, by definition, refers to people who are dispersed from their ancestral homelands and cultural origins. In other words, diasporas are not homeless. They have a home but are not at home. Their idea of home is severed from its material embodiment and cultural nourishment, namely the homeland. Diasporic people’s struggle for belonging often takes the form of reattaching their historical consciousness—their stories—to foreign land. The harsh environments of racism and capitalism make this process of reattachment harder for some than others.

Silence the false narrative of the “American dream.” Collapse the walls of gentrification. One begins to appreciate the intimate stories of an ordinary Dominican family in New York. Rituals are the few means by which diasporas can enact their old roles in the stories to which they belong. In Dominican society, home cooking and cleaning rituals symbolize womanhood and readiness for reproduction, marriage, and household economics. The preparation of fresh ingredients, such as red onion and ají dulce pepper, is a symbolic act against forgetting and degenerating into American fast-food culture. The oversized aprons, yellow gloves, and Palmolive dish soap make visible both the unpaid, gendered labour and the maternal love that endures amid cultural change.

However, capitalism tells a different story about the family, threatening to distort and silence such acts of remembrance, resilience, and love. It removes the faces of someone’s mother and someone’s children. A story of belonging becomes yet another unremarkable deli grocery business in the Bronx. The audience mishears it as another tragic tale of poverty and decay. One’s home is being trammeled by tourists on the hunt for cheap ethnic food. One’s life script is trashed on the floor as an Americanized menu. As the historical consciousness of the Dominican diaspora desperately roots itself in a plastic bag, it is slowly becoming unintelligible to those inside and outside.

III. The Ambivalence of Exile

Exile is not a political or legal status of statelessness, for one can be a citizen and still be exiled. Rather, as philosopher Simon May puts it, exile is a form of “ontological homelessness.” Unlike those in the diaspora who are away from home, the exiled simply have no home. The exiled are mere spectators to their own existence, living someone else’s stories. Their life is devoid of meaning and vitality. Or so many assume.

The artist Leonard Suryajaya, a citizen of Indonesia and soon of the United States, is exiled. Leonard’s father gave his son not his own name, but an Indonesian name: “Suryajaya.” Unfortunately, this experience of cultural assimilation is not uncommon for generations of ethnically Chinese Indonesians, born into a place designed to erase them. Growing up as a second-class citizen, Leonard witnessed one of the darkest episodes of persecution during the 1998 anti-Chinese riots, where Chinese-owned businesses were ransacked, women were raped, and over a thousand were killed. Plunged into a racist and xenophobic story not of their making, Chinese Indonesians were forced into the role of villains against their will, beyond their understanding.

Parting Gift for Quarantine Blues is an installation Leonard created as he reflected on his past in Indonesia and imagined his future in Chicago. Contrary to the audience’s expectations, the colourful photographs and wallpapers are not overwhelmed with the pain and loss of exile; they are joyful, vital. How does one make sense of this? The answer, as I see it, lies in Leonard’s courage to embrace the ambivalence of exile, and his choice to find meaning and love in absurdity.

The exiled are condemned to lives of disintegration and disorientation. The ironic photographs enveloped by fragmented images of Indonesia and Chicago reflect this reality. Yet, Leonard’s photos, featuring his friends and family during a reunion amidst the pandemic and a wedding, also reveal love and belonging in the strangest place. One sees a religious and protective father gives his blessing—though not his smile—to his queer son and his white partner. In one photo, a white man attempts to cut a wedding cake in a corner by himself, ignored by a group of ‘uncles’ toasting at a Chinese tea ceremony. Despite these tensions, the watchful eyes of friends and family fill every inch of the background space with care, preventing any cracks from forming. In a way, everyone is an outsider, and yet everyone strives to be present in a world they do not fully belong to.

In between one place of exile and another, Leonard finds solace and inspiration in the rogue crawfish. Designated as an “invasive pest” in Chicago’s waterways, these red crayfish harbour no malicious intent. Some may have originated from pet shops, while others may have escaped their fate in a boiling pot. “Alien” is a social construct, born from contingency, prejudice, and cruelty. These aliens may never find a true home, but they will live on and thrive.

IV. Alienation and its Gift

In the age of the Anthropocene, it is no exaggeration to say that all of humanity is alienated—from nature. Urban dwellers, in particular, are morally blind to the unprecedented levels of animal exploitation, habitat destruction, and species loss. Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s Tropicana offers a thought-provoking diagnosis of and a fun remedy to this moral blindness.

Instead of pointing fingers at the usual suspects—the major industries contributing to the environmental crisis, such as the fossil fuel industry, agribusiness, manufacturing, transportation, waste management—the exhibition exposes how the advertising industry is also culpable in capitalizing human sensory experiences for mass consumerism. Tropicana, in reality, is an artificial, lifeless space filled with cheap plastic objects: plastic brushes, gloves, sponges, and spray bottles. But visitors do not perceive it as such, due to the use of sympathetic magic. These plastic objects are displayed on shelves as trophies, dressed in colourful skins, and shaped like exotic fruits and animals. On the wall hangs an oversized monitor, giving visitors a tingling sensation with ASMR videos of tapping, crinkling, and brushing, while cumbia-inspired music plays in the background, transporting everyone to a rainforest. At the exit, large billboards saturate the visitors’ sight lines with tropes like fruits, snakes, beaches, sun, feet, penetration, and squirting, fueling raw desires.

However, if these marketing strategies have been successful in engaging mindless consumption, it is only because, in essence, humans possess an innate longing to reconnect with nature. Or at least, that is the message of hope I take away from Tropicana. From the gentle caress of a breeze on our skin to the earthy scent of soil after rainfall, from the mesmerizing dance of sunlight on the sea to the soothing sound of leaves, nature’s elements—water, sun, sand, trees, wild creatures, human flesh—hold a profound allure. Through the visual and sound installations, Tropicana lifts our moral blindness to the Anthropocene by rekindling our sense of belonging to the one and only Mother Earth.

At one level, Tropicana is a political critique of the advertising industry. At a deeper level, it is Juan’s personal tribute to his own home, Costa Rica, for the moral compass it has etched in his heart. As Juan explained in his artist talk, Tropicana was inspired by his first trip to a dollar store 20 years ago, when he first moved from Costa Rica to Canada. As an outsider to the consumerist society that is Montreal, he couldn’t help but feel ambivalent about the source of joy and wonder of urban Canadian kids. And this story uplifts me from all the pain and loss that accompanies displacement and exile. There is no guarantee that we will find our way home or build a new one. However, putting distance between ourselves and our past, our origins, might give us clarity and freshness. Displacement stimulates our nerves and sharpens our senses. And that is the best gift of alienation.


Juan Ortiz-Apuy: Tropicana

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Esker Foundation – Lucia Hierro: Corotos y Ajuares

Lucia Hierro: Corotos y Ajuares

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Esker Foundation – Leonard Suryajaya: Parting Gift for Quarantine Blues

Leonard Suryajaya: Parting Gift for Quarantine Blues

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Esker Foundation – Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky: Edelweiss

Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky: Edelweiss

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