As You Look to the Sky, the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary: Zheng Chongbin’s Diffractive Heterotopia

“As You Look to the Sky, the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary: Zheng Chongbin’s Diffractive Heterotopia,” Zheng Chongbin: I Look for the Sky, Abby Chen, ed., Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2021: 31-43.

As You Look to the Sky, the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary: Zheng Chongbin’s Diffractive Heterotopia” explores the embodied experience of a new site-specific, environmentally-activated installation by contemporary artist Zheng Chongbin in dialogue with ideas of heterotopic spaces by Michel Foucault, Karen Barad's new materialist concepts of "diffractive" "intra-action," and takes Donna Haraway's call for "diffractive" readings into a mode of experiential engagement that entails a "making with" of the artwork through intra-action between artwork, viewer, and nonhuman agency in the natural world (particularly light, in this case). The essay shows how the place inside a place engendered by the artwork comes to life through the intra-active engagement of the audience members. Embodied experiences of this artwork that is a diffractive heterotopia can allow us to see ourselves, not as "the same but displaced" as in Foucault’s mirror-image heterotopia, but as part of a heterotopia of diffractive mappings of our entangled heterogeneous, multivalent, shared existence. Such an experience need not be primarily cerebral. To experience how each of us can make light move into iridescent wave patterns by "intra-acting" with it through this installation is a physical experience that offers an embodied, felt knowledge of our mortal, not just mental, connection to the material world through our material and mortal bodies—bodies that can see light; sense motion; perceive beauty; feel pleasure, awe, curiosity, and delight; and experience the sublime through our own flesh. As we take in the shifting iridescent diffraction patterns moving with our bodies and eyes, bathed in subtle light in motion, and we realize that those patterns dance with us, this artwork allows us to encounter the physical universe with both our bodies and our minds in a way that can bring us back experientially, even if only momentarily, to a ludic, childlike moment of unmediated connection with the workings of the natural world. In doing so, it can revitalize our connection with this more-than-human world.