by SJ Zanolini

I start collages with moods, and also an extensive collection of 1000s of printed photographs from the decade I shot and processed 35mm film. The landscape with meditating Buddhas is centered around an image of the sun sinking through tree cover at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven in 2010. Wandering through the gardens in the sticky heat of August to keep clear of orange-hatted tour groups waiting to enter the temple itself, I was frequently struck by the city residents hanging out in the park (unlike the shot centered here, which is surprisingly empty of people, I have dozens more from this walk of people napping, meditating, modeling, reading, sitting with children, snacking; I find these slices of life so dear, but have since questioned the ethics of snapping such photos in the first place). How similar it felt to Central Park or Golden Gate or even my beloved and squirrel-ridden little Live Oak in Berkeley. Parks are an invitation to find a small corner, spread a blanket, and just breathe for a bit. For the pittance of the 10 kuai price of admission, I could pretend to be a tree along with the Beijingers. With this mood in mind – though equally, if not more, guided by the serendipity of what lost bits, rough edges, and other material constraints happened to fit together in a kind of narrative gestalt – I layered in the artist-repurposed industrial structures of the 798 Art District, plant specimens from the Berkeley botanical garden, and glimpses of other flora lining California hiking trails from Joshua Tree to Mt. Tamalpais. The two doorways were the last major additions to the collage: linked by the Buddhas, I think of them as a reminder that losing oneself in the void of breath and being transcends place, and that the doorway to that head-and-soul-space is always open to us – wherever we are, but especially where there are trees.


This collage began with a sensation of blockage, and loss. My ex-partner, crouched in the lower right corner, passed away from cancer in 2012. We had not been on speaking terms for years, but the realization that we’d lost the ability to clear that karma in this life felt like choking as much as it also immediately registered as physical and emotional safety at last. Our time together was short, tumultuous, and in the final months strangled through with physical and emotional violence. Learning she was gone, I felt a semi-conscious pressure I had held onto for years suddenly release. Finally, I could take a deep breath. But at what cost? She introduced me to some of my favorite poets and dearest places. Our time together helped me to find my path in the world. I was never able to forgive, to thank her. How can I hold all these sensations together, honoring them even in their conflict? This work was one attempt to process that conflict by sitting with it, attending to it with my time and hands and focus. Most of the secondary images here were taken by me on walks in and around San Francisco during our relationship.  When the religious images began to cluster into a kind of framing curve, I added the vertical boulders from a hike off Solstice Canyon because even when I took that shot, they looked to me like the outline of hands in prayer. The bokeh in the central image, a bridge over a small, ordinarily dry creekbed in Topanga Canyon Park, merges with the vanishing point of the path, emphasizing focus, direction. Death closes our path forward, though. It is the ultimate dissolution of ego and focus. Loss is shitty, even when we feel conflicted about the loss. What is trying to process and understand and learn to accept something as incomprehensible as death but an impossible exercise in self-mockery? Seagulls strike me as mocking, taunting birds. The one pictured here – perched on its boulder, one eye on the viewer, still for just a moment – reminds me that one day, I and everyone else I love, will fly away.

SJ Zanolini is a PhD student of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School and a community acupuncturist. Their research focuses on Chinese medicine, especially diet and other quotidian therapeutics of the Early Modern period. Zanolini has been experimenting with collage as a therapeutic outlet for years, focusing on reappropriating and refashioning imperfect fragments into coherent visual narratives.

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