A continuation of “Photographing the Closet,” “Silence Makes Us All Liars” is my ongoing exploration of my identity and sexuality performed using gestures between my partner, family and I.
In the beginning, not even our closest friends knew, and in the very beginning, I don’t even think we knew. Although we’d made significant progress since it had all began, we still lived beneath layers of deception, beneath all the lies we told on a daily basis. It wasn’t so much about intentionally wrong information as it was about strategic omissions. We worried they would decipher our encrypted signals—that they would uncover the truth and painfully reject us. We both still held onto the ideal of being the “perfect daughter,” the obedient child respectful and devoted to filial piety. We read into every question they asked, every eyebrow they raised, as if it were a disapproving gesture, an accusation.
In language, there is the spoken, the unspoken, and the unspeakable. And in the spectrum of the unspeakable, within the undepicted, misnamed, and unnamed, the consequence of that silence turns us all into liars. In the end, our words were incomprehensible as the layers of silence and lies became more complicated as we continued to spend more time together in closetedness. This was not only about coming out and my desire as an Asian American lesbian to disclose to my traditional Korean family that I was in love with a woman, but also about practicing what everyone covers, consciously or not, in an artful frame. I began making photographs and videos that merged the women in my family and my girlfriend: to be together, to feel one another, to confront ourselves with the unsaid. Even though my family believed her to be only my friend, we were all active participants in these performances, sharing space and unspoken messages. I created a space through photography in which I could safely reveal my sexuality to my family through gestures that were ultimately shared, yet lost in translation along the way.
The video stills pictured the unrecognizable bodies of miniscule female silhouettes breaking the orange and blue hues in the sky. I shot from afar, with the faint skyline of downtown Los Angeles in the background. The only motion was the extension of our arms as we drew. There was no sound other than ambient noise and that of the brisk air rushing past the camera. I shook as my hand traced, “I am gay” along my mother’s back, more from fear than from the cold.
As occurs in the children’s game telephone, we expected the message to be lost—the end result only a jumbled echo of what came before it. Alternating placements between my mother, sister, girlfriend, and me, the four of us stood in a straight line facing the same direction. The first person in the line, the messenger, would transcribe a message with a finger onto the person’s back in front of them. Using our fingers as pen and our backs as canvas, we attempted to translate the physical touch on our back by retracing the movement we felt onto the next person’s back in front of us. The last person held a transparent sheet of glass and a marker. Our language failed, purposefully, through the medium in which it was passed. It allowed me to reveal what I was not ready to share, yet obscure it in restatement. The message no longer mattered—only the space we shared in which it was created.
Interpretation was impossible, the result only an unreadable abstraction of lines. My work reassured me that we were all attempting to broaden the possibilities of veracity, investigating where the unspeakable exists between us. Our reiteration of symbols and mistranslations never reached a conclusion, but I saw truth beginning to emerge for the first time.