YouTube Video: https://youtu.be/E351_1MKs_g
This artist panel invites Cate Mahnke, visual artist behind the exhibit “Nostalgia”, and Dr. Nicholas Gulig, poet and professor of the UW-Whitewater Languages and Literature department, to talk about nostalgia and the ways in which it haunts us.
Hannah Agustin: Hello, everyone. Thanks again for coming to our artist panel with Cate Mahnke, our artist for September, and Professor Nicholas Gulig of the Languages and Literature department. So today we’re going to discuss Cate’s work, nostalgia, and everything in between. So, before anything else, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Hannah. I’m the exhibit lead of Roberta’s Art Gallery, and I’m a junior Film Studies and English Creative Writing major.
Nicholas Gulig: So I’m Nick, a professor in the Languages and Lit department. My focus or my area of expertise, if you would call it that, is poetry. I’m a poet. I teach poetry and literature. And I’m happy to be here.
Cate Mahnke: Okay. Um, I’m Cate and I graduated last year. And I worked at a small ad agency before all the pandemic thing happened. But I am a graphic designer, and I do painting on the side. Painting was probably like my initial gateway to digital media. Um, but yeah, so that’s me.
HA: Yeah, well, thanks again for coming here. So let’s start with Cate. Can you tell us about your exhibit and the inspiration behind it? The process behind it? Tell us everything
CM: Yeah. So, this exhibit specifically it’s named “Nostalgia”. And it’s actually a gallery dedicated to my grandma who passed away about I think six years ago. And it’s kind of like just a montage of different pieces from my childhood and translated into art, and specifically painting and posters. So this gallery actually started in high school and I had a concentration breadth of work that was dedicated to the Philippines and the environment and the places and the food and the mood and what it felt being in the Philippines. So I remember the Philippines is a very warm place that I was raised that I lived there for nine years. So, and I was surrounded by a lot of uncles and aunts and grandparents and, and that I think, in its central part of my childhood, and is a huge inspiration [for] why I want to do this work. So, it’s a montage of saying thank you to my homeland, as well as just a nod to the identity that it helped me become now as an Asian American and specifically a Filipino American in Wisconsin.
HA: Yeah, that’s great because earlier I was hanging your things in the gallery and I saw one of the artworks was made in 2010. So it took about ten years to make this exhibit. So, yeah, that’s amazing to hear that. Can I ask what medium you use most often?
CM: Yeah, so it started out with acrylic. So that was kind of the base point. But then once I tapped into oil painting, I really enjoyed the way that it was a pretty volatile media so it didn’t dry right away. I’m one of those artists where it’s like, it might look good one day, and then the next day, I’m like, let’s change it. So that oil painting just gives me that flexibility to keep adding on or keep editing. And so there’s that But then I also tap into a little bit of oil pastels, which is definitely my favorite type of medium because I can get really hands on and dirty with the work that I do. And so there’s that media and then, of course, digital art which I just use the Creative Cloud.
HA: Well that’s amazing. I was really surprised by the range of your art. You have prints in the gallery and you have acrylics and oils. So, I’m very excited for people to see this exhibit and thanks again for allowing us to showcase it. So, okay, the fun part. So, we’re gonna discuss nostalgia and how it means to us [in order] to give meaning to the art that we do. Because I feel that [although] it’s important to have art for art’s sake is, it doesn’t really have it doesn’t have weight if you don’t use it to process a lot of things in [your] life. Okay, so the first question is, define nostalgia. So let’s start with Nick.
NG: Um, I think nostalgia is a really difficult word to think about. And it’s a really difficult word to talk about because it’s really effervescent in a way. It’s really hard to, to pin down and there are so many different ways that it’s been conceived of historically. And there’s been so many different projects towards which it’s been placed. So, I think like a really important place to start is to kind of be able to make a distinction between or to be specific about the type of nostalgia that we’re talking about and the kind of nostalgia that we’re not talking about. Obviously, I can’t speak for anyone besides myself, but, you know, Cate, when I’m looking at those paintings, there’s definitely a form of nostalgia that I see you trafficking in, and then there’s a kind that I see you not trafficking in. And so, I think maybe a good place to start would be to kind of distinguish between two broad kinds of conceptions of nostalgia because one, I think, is really dangerous and one, I think, is really, really fertile. The dangerous one that I kind of want to just point to then get as far away as from it as possible is the kind of nostalgia for example that we see [that’s] running rampant in the United States right now. So, there’s this nostalgic longing for an idealized political and cultural past. Make America Great Again, for example, is a phrase that’s a weaponization of that kind of nostalgia, right? [It’s] kind of like, let’s recreate or restore or resurrect this version of the country that used to be but that is no longer or is in danger of becoming extinct or something like that. So, I want to think of that as the term that’s closest for me that I’ve found that speaks to that is what the critic Svetlana Boym says. She’s a critic of comparative literature at Harvard. She calls this kind of nostalgia restorative nostalgia. She says things like restorative nostalgia stresses, home in attempts, a kind of transhistorical reconstruction of the last home. And then she’ll talk about this other form of nostalgia, which is the kind that I’m much more interested in. What she calls a kind of like reflective nostalgia and so she says, by quote, “Reflectiveness dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of my destiny, right wherever we’re restorative nostalgia, right protects what it sees as an absolute truth or a kind of a universal truth. reflective nostalgia, calls that universal reality, that kind of absoluteness of that truth into doubt.” So, a less complicated way to say it to say that is that restorative nostalgia is just kind of more conservative energy that posits a static identity in the past and desires to try to resurrect it as it was in the present, whereas a reflective nostalgia understands that the past is past but there are traces and shadows and I think the metaphor that works the best for me is that there are ghosts in the past that can teach us about where we are, who we are, and where it is that we might try to be headed without reaching for a direct or literal resurrection of the ghost itself. [It’s] like seeing the ghost as a touchstone or a teacher who has something to offer us that is not going to keep us locked in the past, but that will allow us access to a more profound and I think arguably more progressive—I don’t mean progressive in the political sense, but I mean, like a forward-facing future.
HA: Yeah, that was good. I feel like for me personally, I’ve never seen nostalgia as relating to history, I see it more as a way of looking back and seeing my past in the periphery. So because I’m a writer and I’m also a photographer, I feel like nostalgia for me is just like seeing my past in the periphery and also immortalizing it in a way to hold on that past. I’m also Filipino American and I immigrated a year ago so my sense of memory is still vivid and [nostalgia]is the way that I hold on to the pieces of my past that I still have in my brain and in my art.
NG: So yeah, like that idea of the periphery is really interesting there, or at least the way that you used it. Because I’m not a photographer, but like that which is on the margins or at the edges of a photograph or a painting is not perhaps, the central subject itself, but it’s kind of like that which frames and informs and kind of gives meaning to right that which is at the center of the before.
CM: Yeah, I love how you kind of talked about nostalgia in two different parts, which is sort of reflective, which I think as always writing my kind of thesis I don’t want my exhibit to be about. It became very apparent that the first part, which is the paintings and all of that, it’s you said it would be restorative. And which would be, for me, a line for my childhood and the past and the people that surrounded me and specifically my grandmother, where she became my role model and then her passing away. I think that clicked on to the reflective part of nostalgia where the past is gone. Right. And then, I think, my other side of work, the poster part, is more of a reflective part instead.I am letting go of that past and letting go of the feeling that I’ve kind of just almost romanticized living here in America and always wanting to have that same sort of freedom, I guess of just going out to the backyard and picking some bananas off of a tree or something like that. In reflective nostalgia, [I’m] molding myself into a different identity and looking at the past more as a fundamental part of my identity rather than a separate part, which I think I’ve definitely tried to hone into with my posters. And specifically now as I grow into an artist that I want, I want it to be more of a voice to speak out the past to create a new future, sort of, if that makes any sense.
NG: That’s weird. I think I don’t see this like most cultures, identities are. So interestingly linked, especially I think in the kinds of situations and I realized that all our situations are different. So, I wasn’t born in Thailand, I was born in the United States. My mom immigrated when she was nineteen and then I was born here in Wisconsin. And our situations are slightly different than that. But yet, it’s like, I think we all have had the experience of being Southeast Asians in Wisconsin. And so, I think, which has an effect on identity in a certain way. So for example, nine times out of 10, when I walk into a room, it’s like there’s like a spotlight. But obviously not a literal spotlight, but there’s this spotlight that comes down. It’s like “a brown person has now entered the room.” Because I’m usually the only person of color in a room, unless I’m in my house. So, when I think about my nostalgia for Thailand, part of it is the absence of that, where the focus isn’t ever on me. I just kind of blend into the background. [It’s an] identity with a bunch of identities with a bunch of arrows pointing to it with a spotlight on it that kind of disappears and is no longer. I no longer have to be cognizant of the fact that I am walking around with this identity, right? So in some weird, interesting way, my nostalgia for Thailand is a longing for the loss of my Southeast Asian identity because it’s not an issue. It’s not. It’s so rarely something that I have to be cognizant of right there. And there’s something really liberating about that. Whereas here, every face that you encounter is a reminder that, Yes, I have a Southeast Asian identity. Oh, it’s just weird how that works.
CM: Yeah, I would definitely agree with that, especially living in the suburbs, where I felt like moving here when I was nine, I’ve kind of learned to just assimilate, and especially going to school in the suburbs has helped disappear all of those. It just kind of makes you forget of the identity that you had as an Asian period, being an immigrant as well. So, you learn to assimilate and you forget the past very quickly, especially living here for more than 10 years. And the longing and that nostalgia and that is. I guess, like trying to find who you are. And your own sense of home and place doesn’t look exactly like you.
NG: I don’t like to agree. Do you think you can ever truly assimilate? I don’t. I mean, I don’t know. My mom moved here when she was 19 and she’s 70 now. It’s really funny when I go back to Thailand with her, because she doesn’t go back very often, especially now since her parents are gone and her sisters are gone. She doesn’t have any immediate family there and all her friends here, right? Her family’s here. She’s more out of place there than she is in the United States. And yet, you know, she’s lived here for, you know, 50 something years, and yet her accent still sets her radically apart, she still has a lot of trouble speaking with strangers on the telephone, and things like that. So I, and, you know, she, too, is almost always the only person of color in the room, at least in Wisconsin and so, she’s never ever fully assimilated.
CM: That’s true. Yeah.
NG: I was born here and I don’t even feel that I’ve ever truly assimilated. Um, and then I, you know, obviously I went to go back to Thailand. My Thai is very terrible. And so, I can’t really assimilate there either. I mean, I can pass visually. But as soon as I try to interact with someone, you know, it becomes very clear that I’m not Thai. So I think back to a question that Hannah had posted in her email to us. Why might nostalgia be important now? I think it has to do with that because I think part of the immigrant experience is part of being a person of color. The United States part of that experience is an experience of never fully belonging. So, I don’t ever fully feel at home here or there like I’m always caught in this in-between. This in-between space. And that I think that it’s the space that, especially reflective nostalgia, more so than restorative nostalgia, but I think it’s that in-between, shadowy space of contradictions that nostalgia kind of works in nostalgic mediums kind of tapping into nostalgic energies, I think that’s what, as an artist, I think it places you, right? It doesn’t place you in America or doesn’t place you in Thailand, right. It places you. places you somewhere. Somewhere in between, right? Yeah.
HA: Yeah, that’s very interesting because I feel like the three of us have, different senses of nostalgia because Cate came here 10 years ago, and the Nick was here ever since and then I was here since last year, so that when you mentioned the thing about language, um, because I speak fluently in Filipino and Cate also does speak fluently in Filipino, but it’s weird because when you don’t speak in Filipinos as often, that part of you and that language slips away, and then, you know, it has to be practiced, or something.
NG: Do you ever have a mom would sometimes speak about this and other immigrants that I’ve talked to have also talked about that to varying degrees, about returning back home after living in the United States and how just by virtue of living in the United States, by virtue of what the United States is, within—I’m speaking from my experience now—my mom’s experience like the kind of position of power, privilege, affluence, and modernity that the United States occupies within the colonial Thai imagination, right? Because, you know, because Thailand is a developing nation, right? Especially compared to the United States. And so, to most ties, right, and especially if they aren’t wealthy, the United States is a symbol of all these things that they don’t have, but maybe in some kind of extra abstract sense, wish they had. So, when my mom would return home or something, she would oftentimes speak about feeling as though people looked at her differently. I think we’ve maybe more specific, typically, like my grandparents, as far as, you know, as far as the Thai social hierarchy when we’re pretty well off. My grandfather was an architect. They had bright high standards of a nice home. They were wealthy enough way back in the 60s before this was before going off to school in Western countries was a thing. They’re able to afford to send one of their daughters to a Western university, which was a really, really big deal right back in the 60s, but they weren’t able to afford to send both of their daughters to Western universities. And so that difference between my mom and her sister created this wall between them because she had access to all these privileges that her sister didn’t. I was wondering if when you go back do you feel anything? I mean, I don’t know what you would call it, the guilt of the privileges right that you have where so many people like from the Philippines don’t have the opportunity to attend?
CM: Yeah, definitely, I would say. My initial major was actually nursing, which is a very familiar career path for a lot of Filipino Americans, one because it pays the bills, and two because it pays the bills. So, I was in nursing school for three years. And until I finally found the guts to tell my parents I couldn’t. And so all of those three years was the guilt of trying to figure out how to tell them that, “Yes, you’ve sacrificed all this much, but I’m still not going to pursue what you want me to pursue,” which, taps into what you were saying. When we went back to the Philippines. I think it was 2012. And you definitely feel the sense of that, that you know that you’ve had a lot more opportunities then. My cousins who lived in the Philippines had an imminent to not have guilt, because then you’re up on this podium. And there’s definitely that American Dream podium in the Philippines where if you’re American, you’re wealthy and you’re rich, right? And you can afford all these things and they look highly towards, you know, the Western civilization and as a person who has lived in the United States, I definitely don’t see that as an immigrant living here. And it’s a juxtaposition between what they think and then what I think now where it’s like, No, you really got to work and you really have to earn to get up there. But even so, it’s hard to claim all their idealizations about being a Filipino American to their highest standard, I guess. And I guess even as an artist, I feel that guilt because I could be earning so much more money and I could be sending money to my family members in the Philippines and help them, you know, and I’m really in no position to do that. I’m just trying to survive, you know, but I definitely feel that responsibility and ownership to be able to uplift voices that are the same as mine, and to celebrate the culture that I grew up in, even though that might be different to what Filipinos in the Philippines think that is. But it’s definitely hard to find that niche here in America to find that celebration as a Filipino American. It’s hard to fit both bubbles. The Filipinos and the Filipino Americans because of that ideation, I think.
HA: Yeah. And I think that also relates back to identity and how we navigate different identities when we’re in different social spheres. And which, again, relates back to nostalgia because I feel like as people of color, we live in a liminal space. And there’s the in-between where we exist in between our homeland and here. And, I think that’s ultimately what nostalgia is about. It documents that in-between space. Whatever our struggles are as people of color, as immigrants, and even as Asian Americans, even though we have non-Black privilege, we also experience a lot of discrimination, especially in the Midwest, because we’re versus surrounded by predominantly white social spheres. So yeah, and the reason why it’s important to talk about this right now because it’s about time. It’s about time to talk about the Asian American experience and how it is valid, and it just isn’t monolithic. As I said, yeah, it exists. It. Yeah, it’s different in every way. But there are also a lot of commonalities that we share and that gives us an opportunity to uplift one another as people of color in the Midwest. So, yeah, you have any other insights that you want to add?
NG: We’ve been talking about nostalgia as a form of celebration, right? But I don’t think it’s just that, I think nostalgia is also really sad. I think it also has an elegiac undercurrent to it. It’s a longing for something that isn’t there and that thing that isn’t there, whether it be a home or personz Whatever that person or that home to various degrees is a source of joy. But what’s implicit in the act of longing for it is that it’s gone, that you don’t have access to it right. So the nostalgic space is always one in which the thing that you are longing for isn’t accessible to you. So it’s limbo, right? It’s purgatory. It’s not heaven. It’s not hell. It’s something in between. And the moment that you return home, it’s longer nostalgia like that. And so, in that way, it also kind of operates like desire. You can only desire, by definition, so long as you do not have. You can only desire that which you don’t possess, right. So like, for me, the kinds of like two parallel forces or two parallel energies or two parallel modes of expression are the elegy on the one hand, and then like desire or arrows, on the other hand. So I think those are just two other ways that I think that I think about nostalgia is that it has this kind of elegiac quality and in this kind of like desiring quality, both of which are defined by disconnection, right by being removed, but always being kind of in pursuit of a goal that you can’t ever really achieve right so like what the elegy does, right? But of course it’s a failed attempt to bring the deceased person back, right so, Cate we’re talking about how in some ways you created this art for your grandmother. So there is this kind of elegiac quality to the paintings or poems about my dad who passed away five years ago. So, whenever he is making appearances in my poems, automatically there’s a part of them that becomes nostalgic. And there’s this attempt to kind of like resurrect the ghost, but it’s a failed attempt, right? Like a ghost, you can bring the ghost back. But the ghost isn’t the person. That ghost is the shadow of the person. The ghost is just part of the person. It’s never fully the person, right? And then the ghost never can never fully be in the world that you’re in. Right? The ghosts are these really interesting creatures on and we’ll talk a lot about this Hannah in class. Like ghosts are really interesting creatures because they have this really wonderful ability to slip in and slip back and forth between worlds while never really ever fully belonging to one or the other. In Buddhism we have the story of the hungry ghosts who are not in hell and are not living but they kind of just wander back and forth in between, forever unsatisfied. So, ghosts can move back and forth between worlds, right? So, they’ve kind of possessed this quality that we too wish that we possess like disability to kind of like to kind of move back and forth between like America and between like the new land and the old land. And ghosts also are able to kind of slip in and out of selves, able to move in and out of identities. The idea of a being possessed right or possessing someone is to like inhabit a new to put on a mask right like the ghost when a ghost is hopping from form to form from the body to bodies slipping in and out effortlessly slipping in and out of identities in this way you know that as immigrants we have to become fluent in that but that’s a survival strategy right like you have to be able put on your American face or then put on your Thai face depending on the context. So, I think that what ghosts are able to do is something that we are trying to kind of recreate, right that like by infusing art with the Star Trek qualities, I think there’s nostalgia quality is really kind of like us. It’s kind of like spectral energy. It’s a ghost. It’s a ghost for us, for sure. haunts our work. I don’t mean haunted in a bad way. I mean,
CM: Definitely. Dealing with my grandma’s mother’s loss was really hard for me. And I think that painting it helped me try to capture that. Um, I think for me the longing of the past when I think of that, and my grandma specifically, I think of colors and I know that might sound a little weird, but, um, it’s just the way that I pick up different types of color schemes and how I put that on canvas every step of the way. I’m thinking of a different type of memory that I had with her and looking through pictures. And it’s a restorative type of nostalgia because in a way even though she’s not with me, I am processing and she’s helping me deal with that loss and I’m and then I’m helping me put that out in the world because then something about bottling it up just doesn’t fully help me express that sorrow and that grief.
NG: So like what you’re trying to do is like create on the canvas, or in my sense, version of that like on the page, like you’re trying to create a world or a landscape between the world of living, where you are in the world, and the dead, where she is. Through these kinds of creative acts of the imagination, you’re creating a landscape. That’s kind of halfway between the two, right? Where in my case where they are my dad can come back halfway, right? But then I leave the world, leave the real world, right through the axe through the imaginative act. I meet him there, right. So like, I meet him halfway right? Between the lands of the living and the land of the dead, right between the here and there. So, to leave the land of the living and even if it’s only to like, we’re halfway right. It’s like you have to dial right like you have to become a ghost yourself in order to beat the ghost coming from the other myth, the ghosts coming from a new direction, right? So, I think art is a haunted space because it’s neither real nor unreal, right? It lives in the middle and when you’re there when you’re coming, I’m not a painter, but like when you’re painting or when you’re writing, right, like you’re in your imagination. You’re not completely in the real world. You’re not completely masked, maybe some artists are, there’s some points. I’m like, they’re not. Like you’re still partially there, right? You’re still like using the thing of the world that you have partially left like you’re still like, bringing those flowers from the land of the living.
Whatever it is you using pieces of representations. have pieces from the real world to construct this liminal in between world where you can be a ghost, your father, your grandmother can be a ghost and you guys can sit down and connect again, I think this is kind of a writer named Michael Chabon. And he writes about nostalgia. And he says, he has this definition of it that I thought was really, really useful. So he says, “My work at times, is criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. This is partially my fault because I’ve written a lot about the theme of the soldier, and partially the fault of political and economic systems that abused nostalgia to foment violence to move units. But this isn’t Nostalgia’s fault. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion that has many variants in other languages, most of which are untranslatable. Nostalgia that arises such scorn and contempt in American culture predicated on some imagined greatness of the past, or the inability to accept the present is the one that interests me the least the nostalgia that I write about that I study that I feel, the ache that arises, and this is the definition that I love, from the consciousness of lost connection.” So it’s the connection, not the thing itself. But the thing connecting you to the thing that you’re trying that nostalgia is aimed at kind of living there right in the moment of connection, right? Like you’re not trying to restore the past. I’m not trying to bring my father back. I’m trying to live for a second longer with the connection that I had with him, right, which is different from him, right? But he is his own person, right? And can exist independently of me. But there’s this thing, right, that connects us, this bridge between us. And that nostalgia arises from the consciousness of that connection, that connection starting to dissipate and become weaker. So when we return to art, then in order to create a, in order to create that connection like that, that world between worlds, is that branch, right? That’s the place where you can connect with someone even when they’re gone or connect with a place even when that place is not not accessible to you.
HA: I think that all those things [were] somehow expressed in the artwork that Cate did. So, for everyone who’s watching this, we would love it if you could visit your Buddhist Art Gallery in the University Center and see the artwork for yourself and process your personal challenges and the ways that you have experienced it. So once again, thank you. Thank you to Nick and Cate and see you guys soon. Bye.