Patty Chang’s multi-channel video installation Milk Debt, ongoing since 2018, features lists of fears solicited from an open call in Hong Kong and the United States—including one in New York during the height of its COVID epidemic. Compiled into a running script, the list is read by women pumping their breast milk in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and the US/Mexico border. Rich with hormones prolactin and oxytocin—which together promote bonding between mother and newborn—breast milk, in Milk Debt, becomes a charged and timely metaphor for the importance of empathy, understanding, and mutual obligation during a time of worldwide crises. Formerly presented at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, this exhibition marks its New York debut.
The project came into being after Chang, a longtime New Yorker, moved to Los Angeles in a record-breaking heatwave. Feeling intense worry about climate change, a friend suggested she jot down her fears onto a list, which grew to four pages. Chang invited her friends and colleagues to contribute their own worries, and she began conceiving these lists as a prompt for performance and video. Since then, Milk Debt has expanded to include nine female performers and the list has grown in scope. Perhaps most striking about the project is the uniformity of concerns spread across every demographic: fear of death, fear of catching COVID, fear of losing a job, fear of being unloved. The project, in its essence, serves as a portrait of collective anxiety. At a time of deep political division, civil unrest, pandemic spread, and doubts of our collective future, the idea of the collective itself has never been more important. Widely recognized for her pioneering, often provocative feminist work that has grown in acclaim since the 1990s, Chang‘s centering of the female body, in this instance, opens it up to collective contribution.
Taking its title from a tenet in Chinese Buddhism, which states payments must be made toward a mother’s afterlife for years of her life-giving breast milk, Milk Debt suggests that there are many debts we, as a human race, owe to the planet and to each other. As Chang has noted: “I believe that the act of producing breast milk and lactation is an empathetic act. Biologically, breast milk is created when the body starts to produce the hormones of prolactin and oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced when someone is in love. The act of producing breast milk allows the woman to engage in this state of being, which some might describe as being more connected, being more open and accepting, and not thinking of oneself first.”
Patty Chang: Milk Debt was curated at Pioneer Works by David Everitt Howe. The project originated at 18th Street Art Center, Santa Monica, and was originally curated by Anuradha Vikram.
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
About the Artist
Patty Chang is a Los Angeles-based artist and educator who uses performance, video, installation, and narrative forms when considering identity, gender, transnationalism, colonial legacies, the environment, large-scale infrastructural projects, and impacted subjectivities. Her work has been exhibited nationwide and internationally at such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York; New Museum, New York; M+ Museum, Hong Kong; BAK, Basis voor actuele Kunst, Utrecht; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, England; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Times Museum in Guangzhou, China; and Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. She has received a United States Artist Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, a Creative Capital Fellowship, short listed for the Hugo Boss Prize, a Guna S. Mundheim Fellowship in the Visual Arts at the American Academy in Berlin, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and an Anonymous Was a Woman Grant. She teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.