ebb is to flow as wax is to wane is an in-situ beeswax installation created by liang-jung chen during her two months residency in xenia creative retreat. the installation is an exploration on labour-intensity and its futility inspired by chen’s personal experience working in cleaning and her obsession over candles.
about half a year ago, i was helping a friend with her air bnb business. every day, i would come into the flat to return the rooms to what they looked like yesterday. it takes about 2 hours daily. day after day, my time is gone yet everything stays the same. the effort evaporates into the dustless air in this well-maintained domestic space.
i came to realise - modern life is a smooth and spotless surface. we spend a chunk of time throughout our lives wiping this surface of modernity. ‘maintenance’ as an intangible service is in great demand nowadays.
trained as an industrial designer, i have spent the past decade of my life making new and physical works. it is a primitive instinct possibly. that i would like to leave some marks behind me to prove that i have existed. the experience of working as a cleaner is humbling as i started to appreciate the value in the invisible and the ephemeral .
while i was untangling all these random thoughts laying around in my flat one night, i was, as usual, toying with the pillar candle on the side table. i have this compulsory tendency to play with candles. it is not exactly pyromaniac, as what fascinates me is not the fire but the wax. i love bringing those wax pieces that solidified while trickling down onto the tabletop back to the top of the candle so it could be burnt and disappear. i find it satisfying.
that moment, i discovered this subtle quality shared by the labour in maintenance and wax in candles. both of them evaporate into the air over time in an irreversible manner. the labour we put into maintenance offers us a sense of comfort while burning the candle renders a cosy atmosphere. both pleasures are time-sensitive.
as a material nerd, i started to experiment with wax. i was intrigued by how malleable wax is. it’s as fluid as water when it’s hot. it’s as soft as clay when it’s warm. it’s as hard as a rock when it’s chunky. it's as brittle as glass when it’s thin. and then, when you make it into a candle, it disappears into the air, leaving no traces.
to further investigate the correlation between wax and the state of modern labour. i came across a book called liquid modernity written by zygmunt bauman, a polish sociologist and philosopher. liquid modernity is based on the idea that a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. here are some excerpts from the book:
‘fluids neither fix space nor bind time. in a sense, solids cancel time; for liquids, on the contrary, it is mostly time that matters. when describing solids, one may ignore time altogether; in describing fluids, to leave time out of account would be a grievous mistake. the melting of solids is the permanent feature of modernity.’
even though the concepts we are exploring are different, the way bauman associated liquidity with modernity mesmerised me deeply. it prompted me to use wax in a flowy, fluid and spontaneous way. when i first arrived in xenia, i ordered some beeswax pellets and started to trickle the wax down to a long cotton string hanging from the ceiling.
every day, i would drip some candle strips in the morning and let them slowly solidify in the afternoon. when the sun goes down in the evening, i would light the candle and observe how they behave and how long they last. i go to bed when the candles are completely burnt and nothing is left. when the sun rises again the next day, i will make new candles with a slightly refined method, then i see them burn down again in the evening. this routine is almost identical to when i was cleaning the air bnb room, my labour evaporated into the air. nothing is left. day after day.
the naming, ebb is to flow as wax is to wane, takes the advantage of the several meanings ‘wax’ has. when the moon ‘waxes’, it gradually appears rounder each day. while the idiom ‘wax and wane’ means to grow stronger and then weaker again. the idiom happens to capture the versatile nature of wax as a material so well. it also responds to the state of labour in a poignant manner, the fact that our energy level decreases as we age.
to conclude, this is a performance piece based on an installation that would only exist in the next two hours. it embodies my time and energy spent on refining the technique of making candle strips over the past two months here in xenia. it is the first time I am making work that i won’t be able to keep. it feels immensely liberating. together we will celebrate the effort we put into our everyday life and embrace the transience of our existence.