various dimensions

silk, wood, thread, metal earring components, tape, live model, embroidery floss

in collaboration with: Dahn Bi Lee-Hong Tarik Bartel Princess Moon Lucky Li Crystal Bi
filed in: 2020 Fiber Garments

Pith (Dahn Bi): 65" × 25" × 14.75";
Pith (Lucky): 65" × 31" × 19.25";
Pith (Crystal): 67" × 48" × 43";
Guest Hat: 23" × 31";
along the insides: 24" × 41"

Garments modeled by Dahn Bi Lee-Hong, Lucky Li, and Crystal Bi Wegner. Photographed by Katytarika Bartel. Poem written by Princess Moon. Images edited by Katytarika Bartel and the artist. Printed images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collections, digitally composited by the artist. Printing was commercially outsourced.

Pith is a collection of garments inspired by the form of the tetrapanax papyrifer (通草; pinyin: tōng cǎo), a plant endemic to Taiwan (fig 1). It grows to be 3–7 meters tall.

fig 1. a tetrapanax papyrifer leaf

The pith from the stem of the plant is valued for medicinal purposes as well as for being the material used to create "rice paper." The term rice paper is inaccurate in that it is not made of rice and that paper is often defined as a flattened sheet of interwoven fibers, but the cellular structure of the tetrapanax papyrifer pith is neatly organized. It may be more accurate to call this material a veneer.

To create this pith veneer, the inside of the tetrapanax papyrifer was knocked out and unrolled with a knife (fig 2). The sheets of pith veneer were then used for various crafts such as the creation of artificial flowers and most notably, a surface for painting in the late 19th century. These paintings depicted everyday life, flowers, and animals (fig 3).

Visit https://www.pithflowershop.com/ to learn more about the use of tetrapanax papyrifer to create artificial flowers and purchase pith flowers. Irene Wei is one of the few craftspeople in the world trained in this craft.

fig 2. unrolling the tetrapanax papyrifer pith
fig 3. a 19th century pith painting
Three individuals wearing large green tetrapanax papyrifer leaf-inspired dresses
Dahn Bi stands wearing a leaf inspired green dress. They are framed with hanging blue tape
Lucky stands wearing a leaf inspired green and white dress. They are framed with hanging blue tape
Crystal stands wearing a leaf inspired green and white dress. She is framed with hanging blue tape

The models are each organizers, artists, and activists from the local asian queer community in Boston. Their images are framed using a blue tape to echo the preservation techniques of tetrapanax papyrifer pith paintings.

fig 4. a pith painting of a figure preserved with blue fabric tape
Lucky's back faces the camera. Their hands pull the sides of the dress pleats outwards
Dahn Bi wears a green dress with a large green leaf radiating out of the center
Crystal stands facing to the left wearing a Hakka-style hat and a large leaf-inspired dress
Closer image of Lucky's leaf-inspired dress. Long earring scrolls with butterflies are worn

Sometimes called a “liang mao” or “cool hat”, the hat worn by the model Crystal is fashioned after a traditional hat worn by some members of the Hakka diaspora (fig 5). The Hakka are a migrant ethnic group who, unlike other Chinese ethnic groups, were not named after the city or province from which they hailed, but after a word which literally means “guest family.” This hat, paired with the Pith collection—a representation of a native plant—investigates notions of community born from national origin.

fig 5. Hakka hats
A circular hakka style hat hung on a wall. A pheasant is printed on the the veil of the hat.
The back of Crystal's green leaf-inspired dress. There is gold fabric sewn as veins of the leaf
An image of Crystal from the thigh up wearing a large white and green gown and a veiled headpiece

The collection was commemorated with an ekphrastic poem written by Cambodian-American poet Princess Moon in response to the images taken by Katytarika Bartel. The poem was transferred directly onto Bartel’s image through embroidery.

The poem reads as follows:

wash me
spin cycle fast, and
watch me
body loosens
by the threads
as I spill
all out. love,
looks a lot like
here one moment
as I picture
the next.
the hands of
my village, both
tender and callous.
the history, a soft yolk
broken and leaking
at the surface. cut
my pith with a
knife, unroll me
holy, write the
book of my
city. illustrate
the town. sculpt
the memory.
capture the
growth, sleepy
and slow, but with
all the movement,
still, if even for a
our laughter,
bellowing out
of our faces,
so loud you can
see its head.

fabric embroidered with a poem and printed with the images of three people wearing green dresses
a close-up of the embroidery detail of the piece "along the insides" written by Princess Moon