Iris Wu: In the calm of your arms
Iris Wu’s zine in the calm of your arms is a love song. And like all love songs, there is a wide spectrum of emotions exposed within; passion and joy, revelation and restraint, uncertainty, and of course, pain. In form and content, in the calm of your arms, purposefully revels in duality.
Wu’s zine is hand crafted, just 4 x 5 inches, 20 pages in length, and made in an edition of 50. She uses two paper stocks, transparent vellum for the cover and matte cardstock for the interior. A single red pamphlet-stich binds the zine together. Yet for all this seeming economy, Wu’s material choices succeed in setting the tone for the intimate moments enclosed in the subsequent pages. For example, the single visible red knot of pamphlet stich on the exterior spine suggests a tenuous embrace, or perhaps the iconography of love knots, with its close proximity to the title. The vellum also implies conceptual depth serving as a kind of veil or cloud. The translucent cover both obscures and illuminates a woman who stares directly into Wu’s lens, self-possessed and unflinching; the beloved.
The cover image is one of just fifteen stunning grayscale portraits that make up in the calm of your arms. By the third image a second woman appears in the frame and throughout the succeeding chain of images the lovers are depicted both entwined and apart, sometimes within a single frame. This is true of the key seventh image. The two lovers pose together, backs facing the camera amid thigh high grass, one grasps the others’ index finger. Such an intimate gesture conveys familiarity, devotion. But with both lovers turned away, and one head bowed down, a reluctance is signaled as well. Multitudes are revealed and concealed in this image solely through body language, as well as Wu’s skillful compositional choices.
Bound together as a collection, Wu’s photographs relay one of the most quintessential and singular experiences available to humanity; the complex universe constructed between lovers. This is a notable achievement in visual storytelling, compounded by the fact that Wu is not only the photographer, but she is also one of the lovers. The observant reader will note that the key seventh image divulges her identify. The stark black line of the camera’s cable release drifts out from Wu’s body, in the opposite direction of the bent grass stalks, and out of the frame.
Wu then is the lover that is never fully depicted, at least in body. Her perspective is omnipresent, but when she is visible in the frame Wu appears in shadow, or turned away from the camera, or with her head buried in her beloved’s arms. This act of consistent concealment indicates yet another layer of meaning. Wu’s depictions of herself aren’t solely about the dynamics of this specific relationship or even a general self-consciousness in front of the camera. We see what Wu wants us to see, and she wants us to see the ecstasies and anxieties that exist in her life.
If it wasn’t already apparent through the images alone, in the final spread of the zine Wu generously discusses her reluctance to be seen, as well as the personal risk involved in undertaking this project. To quote Wu, “Growing up in mainland China, I’ve been unable to broach the subject of sexuality to my conservative family. The narrative depicted in my photographs is the hidden side of my life that is unknown to them.” Wu’s fears of punitive attitudes toward her sexuality are, woefully, still warranted. But her willingness to present in the calm of your arms publicly demonstrates Wu’s belief in herself, in her heart, and in her choices. Another recent love song speaks to Wu’s precarious position. In “Valentina in the Moonlight” Angelica Garcia sings, “But the heart doesn’t always lead us to safety, oh but now more than ever, it knows what’s best for me.”
To invoke another kind of song, Wu’s zine also serves as a kind of “Song of Myself.” She constructs a first-person narrative utilizing her own perspective and through word choices such as the “I” in her statement and the “your” of the title. But like the poet Walt Whitman, Wu has created a version of herself and her relationship that is both specific and symbolic. The lovers are unique; the lovers are universal. And they embody what Whitman scholar M. Jimmie Killingsworth describes as “the merge.” To quote Killingsworth, “the ‘merge,’ as Whitman conceived it, is the tendency of the individual self to overcome moral, psychological, and political boundaries.” Wu shows us these moments of everyday transgression in all their beauty and banality. Tenderly holding your beloved’s index finger can be perilous, spectacular, and commonplace all at once.
The strength of in the calm of your arms is its ability to hold this complexity, and at times, contradict itself. And, to call on Whitman again, Iris Wu’s first palm-sized zine contains multitudes.
In the calm of your arms
In the calm of your arms is an ongoing journey of self-exploration through a personal, intimate relationship. Often including myself in these photographs, I intend to explore dualities of our relationship: togetherness and tension in our private space and in public, individuality and similarity, and what is concealed and revealed. In these sentimental, and sometimes playful images, fears and worries are subtly present.
Growing up in mainland China, I’ve been unable to broach the subject of sexuality to my conservative family. The narrative depicted in my photographs is the hidden side of my life that is unknown to them. In many of the photographs, my face is hidden in shadow or I am turning away from the camera. I am not only telling the story from my perspective but also, in a way, expressing the fear of being seen or found out.
Limited copies of in the calm of your arms are available for purchase. If interested, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Iris Wu is a photo-based artist living between Virginia and Guangzhou, China. At the moment, she is finishing her B.A. in Studio Art at the College of William & Mary. Her current projects are focused on notions of time, intimacy, and self-exploration. Most recently, she received the 2020 SPE LGBTQ Student Scholarship Award and her work was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for their permanent collection.
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