ChunLok Mah stood at a Winona State University loading dock on a recent weekday, his arms crossed, his long, thin fingers tapping thoughtfully. He stared at three cardboard bins sitting in front of the Dumpster.
Each was labeled simply: fabric, copper wire, spoons. Only a few handfuls of each material lay in cluttered heaps in the bins. Mah knew he would need much more to complete his latest project: a
17-foot-tall interactive sculpture.
Mah, a WSU professor, has been planning the sculpture in collaboration with students and professors for two years. The idea is to create a sculptural piece that complements the university’s sustainable energy theme, and to that end it won’t just be a sculpture: It will double as a charging station for phones and laptops.
At first Mah was discouraged by the idea, trying to picture students stopping in the middle of a campus already equipped with ample indoor charging stations.
“Who would do that?” he asked. “Would you?”
However, as he and professors from the science department pooled their resources, the project became exciting. Professors Jeanne Franz and Frederick Otto helped develop LED screens to measure and display ozone data, and they found a way for the sculpture to be powered by solar panels.
And Mah decided to create the body out of recycled material, donations from the Winona community.
“There’s a lack of attachment to the community if the material is purchased,” he said. “If they donate, it encourages those people to follow the project.”
One look at the bins, though, suggested participation was low. Gathering material would take a while.
But Mah is no stranger to gathering.
A search for identity
When Mah went from being a full-time computer programmer to freelance artist in 2001, he felt pressure to find his identity. At first, he mostly painted large landscapes. But they didn’t make a statement about who he was, just replicated objects in the real world.
“I had to find a soul,” he said.
So he set out to gather pieces of himself and see what he could make of them.
Mah grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He always had been interested in art, but his conservative family encouraged him to put his math skills to use, so he came to America in 1996 to study computer science.
Since, he’s wanted to explore his heritage.
“I’ve never thoroughly felt like I’m American,” he said. “Everyone can tell when I speak that I’m not from here, so they always sneak in the question in the conversation.”
That doesn’t bother him, he said, but it’s always made him feel slightly apart from others.
“I’m always ‘the other’ here,” he said.
“And I’m always ‘The American’ in Malaysia.”
Mah’s ancestry goes back to Nan’an, a town in China’s Fujian province. Though his parents lived in Malaysia, they shared “pure Chinese” roots in Nan’an, he said, sharing the same foods, religions and Hokkin dialect on both sides of the family.
When Mah traveled to Nan’an, he first explained his mission to find his roots to a local motorcyclist who gave him a ride into town. His escort insisted emphatically that he visit a family who shared his name.
Mah was hesitant. He knew there was only a remote chance that he and the family were related. But motorcyclist eventually talked him into going.
Mah, as he expected, found no evidence that he and the family were related. But the visit allowed him to discover something about himself.
The Mahs of Nan’an are descendants from a refugee by a different name who fled execution in ancient times. The refugee changed his name to Mah to remain hidden, essentially creating his own identity.
Mah realized he would have to do the same.
He had always wondered why he didn’t have a strong identity. Now he knew.
“You’re not born with it,” Mah said. “Instead, it’s absorbed.”
For Mah, his identity was an assembly of his experiences: computer science, his past in Malaysia, his art and his students at WSU.
His discovery inspired his first exhibit, as part of Winona State’s faculty art show “Eye-Dentities,” and his entry into the art world.
“Never before had it felt so empowering,” he said.
Back on campus that recent weekday, Mah walked briskly to Stark Hall where the body of his sculpture rested in a workshop after receiving an adhesive coating the day before.
He came to a halt when he reached the foot of the sculpture, towering above him. Three twisted metal legs stretched up to the frame where the LED monitor would display its information. For the moment, it was blank.
Mah needs enough donated materials to cover each leg, one in each material. The sculpture frame is scheduled to be installed outside in three weeks, but there’s no telling when the project will be complete.
“That’s the thing with collaborations,” he said. “There’s less control.”
But he’s patient, he said, because acquiring the materials from Winona residents is the most crucial part of the project, the whole point, really.
Mah isn’t just building a sculpture.
“It’s the opportunity to build a community,” he said.
The sculpture will only be complete when the Winona community gives it a collective body, an identity: pieces of the community added to pieces of Mah.
So Mah, in search of that identity, keeps his bins open and continues to gather.