Back in early November, I welcomed econ expert Mark Fogal to the chaos that is the anti-blog, and now it’s time for a second guest opinion piece, this time from artist Dan S. Wang, currently hailing from the same state that brought us cheeseheads, Leinenkugel’s, and six-foot badgers.  Read on...


Last Monday night at the Hyde Park Art Center Jennifer Montgomery blew my mind. Or at least opened my memories vault. She played for us her short film Transitional Objects. Not only had I never seen the film, I’d never given much thought to the whole idea of transitional objects, as theorized by D.W. Winnicott. From now on, I will.

Basically, the idea is that childhood development includes a stage in which the warmth and physical closeness of the mother is replaced by a doll, a teddy bear, a blanket, a pillow, or some other object. Jennifer explained this in her opening comments, and then drew a parallel to the loss and negotiation of loss she or other artists had to experience in the conversion from analog to digital media. She said that the idea of exploring this parallel in a film came out of her own life as a filmmaker and teacher facing a changing relationship to a technics of production. While accurate to describe the film as being about loss, far from imparting to the work a monochromatic mood, it entertains. From the opening image of operating a film editing machine with her feet to the collaged clips from Django, this picture is funny.

There is a long middle sequence (okay, not too long…the whole film is only nineteen minutes) in which a pair of hands cut apart with a razor blade, and then sew back together, a series of transitional objects/stuffed animals. This sequence depicts the threat of physical destruction suffered by nearly all transitional objects, as the child makes the final break, and the frequent ultimate survival of the object, as the physical destruction often remains incomplete. In the film, as parts are connected in oddly recombined ways, the sutured toys take on monstrous form. At the same time the progression of destroyed/put-back-together stuffed animals is narrated through a voice of a small child asking questions and remarking on the process, using the descriptive powers of a smart five year-old. It is a surreal passage, funny, poignant, lovely.

But in the conversation that followed the screening, from the audience Lauren Berlant pointed out that the film is also about trauma, depicting and evoking it. This middle sequence is what Berlant was talking about, with both the viscera (her word) of stuffed animals pouring forth, and then the secondary trauma of suturing, represented. Yes, she is right, and it is a physically painful film to watch. Oh, and the feet doing the threading of the film? Yes, they get cut and scratched. Blood is shed.

After that comment I had dancing in my head a memory, or blur of memories, from when I was about eight years old. The memory was of the semi-ritualized mutilation of my transitional object, never before regarded as such. The object was a doll, in fact, one of the few stuffed dolls ever intended for boys. It was a Dapper Dan, a small one, about eight inches (there were two versions from my childhood, small and large, about eighteen inches). I loved this thing. One day after a couple years of gentle handling, the story goes, I suddenly decided to give him a haircut, for which I used a pair of scissors, knowing full well that this was a permanent job. And then, with the help of my older sister, I ‘operated’ on him, which involved using our fingers and all sorts of stick-like objects to bore into his stomach area, as hard as we could without breaking the fabric doll skin. A traumatic climax was reached when we ended with a tug-o-war, with Dapper Dan as the rope. I had the head and she had the legs, and the contest ended with the three-part separation. 

I may be conflating several separate occasions. But no matter. Now with the theory in hand, they stand compressed together as one experience mapped over a continuous moment—a stage. The next part in the story happened once and quickly after the final act in the destructive episode. My grandmother came onto the scene, discovering the damage we did, and proceeded to rescue Dapper Dan. She sewed him back together, even using the Playskool tag from the back of the toy as a graft for the point of initial rupture along his neck, which the violence left as a gap even after the reattachement. My transitional object survived, and now he sits on a bookshelf in the bedroom, carrying scars. You can still feel the stomach depression from where we ‘operated.’  

Looking back, I can see that at the time I was indeed separating from my mother, who had gone to work more than full time, day and night, in our family’s restaurant business. So everything seems to fit the model. Everything, that is, except for my grandmother. I wouldn’t know if Winnicott wrote about grandparents, having never actually read his work. But if he did, it certainly was nothing compared to the years of thought and work attention obviously given to the mother. 

My grandmother walked with the small steps of a woman with bound feet. She was small, stooped, and wrinkly. She was wise and gentle. She used a cane and only spoke Chinese. She knew how to craft all sorts of paper sculptures. She was illiterate. She knit sweaters, throws, and warmers for my sister’s dog. She was the old country, the evidence of a pre-modern world. Above all, my grandmother represented for me the specificity of what came before, bearing in her person the details of a place we had originally come from. If my mother represented the loving but cruel world, my grandmother represented history. My transitional object survived my destructive impulses due to the intervention of history’s representative, as acted out by my grandmother. In other words, in my story the figure delivering rescue, repair, and therefore resolution, does so from the position of representing the dialectic of continuity and change over time, within the historical strand called a ‘family.’ If in multigenerational households or close families this rescue/repair dynamic is even somewhat common, I wonder then what happens to historical memory, as assimilated at a psychological level when embodied by a family figure, when that figure is not there. 

- Dan S. Wang

You can access Dan’s regular on-line writing venue at:


You can see a clip from Transitional Objects at the Video Data Bank website. You can also make inquiries about rentals there.$tapedetail?TRANSITION

photo credit: Dan S. Wang
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Friday, December 12, 2008