Critics’ Picks

View of “Patty Chang: Milk Debt,” 2021.

View of “Patty Chang: Milk Debt,” 2021.

New York

Patty Chang

Pioneer Works
159 Pioneer Street
March 19–May 23, 2021

Perhaps our ability to be consumed by fears that are, all at once, deeply felt, minute, planetary, violent, and occasionally absurd is what genuinely separates us Homo sapiens from other species. And few artworks possess the ability to reflect this aggregation of terror as poignantly and forcefully as Patty Chang’s ongoing, multichannel video installation, Milk Debt, 2018–. In this work, the artist compiled a list of anxieties from a diverse group of women and turned them into a script for female actors to recite on camera while pumping breast milk. The performers discuss a range of worries in several languages from a variety of settings, such as the protest-filled streets of Hong Kong, crowded subway cars, and living rooms framed by Zoom. As these monologues unfold, a series of slow-scrolling sans serif texts, presented on multiple screens and projected onto different walls of the gallery space, surround the viewer with more inventories of fright and alarm.

Humbling, healing, cathartic, overwhelming—Milk Debt grew from a four-page list Chang created when she moved to Los Angeles from New York as she was experiencing intense unease over climate change. Part of the work’s success comes from how seamlessly the catalogue of distress shifts between the public and private, the specific and general, the banal and the truly horrifying. Among the things we hear these women mention: “a binary perspective,” “bad dreams,” “white men who have lived in Asia,” “having to kill someone with their bare hands,” “labels on fruit,” “saying stupid white lady shit,” and “incessant heavy rain.”

According to the show’s press release, Chang titled the installation after “a tenet in Chinese Buddhism, which states payments must be made toward a mother’s afterlife for years of her life-giving breast milk.” This expansive work, fearless in its vulnerability, offers up a powerful feminist vision of empathy and kinship. But more importantly, it gives us a sense of what we owe those who loved and nurtured us into existence.