Beili Liu is soaking her daughter's old clothes in concrete. They lose their bright colors and patterns as soon as she submerges them in the gray goo. When the concrete dries on Liu's shop table, the cloth stiffens straight and loses its soft texture. Wrinkles and folds in the fabric are frozen in swirling waves.
Liu is working on an installation in Seattle’s MadArt studio. It’s how the Texas-based artist is expressing concern for the well-being of children in immigration detention centers, as their families seek asylum.
Liu says she is not making a political statement. Art is her way of processing the border crisis and putting herself in the shoes of mothers separated from their children.
“I remember her in this little vest,” Liu says, pointing to a hooded vest with tiny ears on top. “It brings so much happiness into our memory. But now it’s gray. It’s intense and it’s tragic but at the same time it helped me talk about this impossible situation.”
The destruction of the clothing is reminiscent of the emotional trauma migrant children face when held in detention centers as their families seek asylum, Liu said. She hopes the project inspires conversation among people witnessing the migration crisis through the news.
Liu's daughter, Cyan, is 5 years old. She brings her mother more of her clothes when she thinks she's outgrown them. She's also making her mother rethink migration at the southern border.
“I think if I was not a mother, this piece might not exist,” Liu said. “I might respond to this story or situation very differently.”
Each piece of clothing holds a memory for Liu of her daughter, even when petrified. But the clothing itself isn't always destroyed when dipped in concrete. Decorative elements like embroidery, ruffles and color can survive the process.
“I love it when a little bit of color peeks through,” Liu said. “It’s like that sense of resilience, when everything is gray, when there’s no joy, but joy persists and it comes through, just a little bit.”
Liu lays the dry clothes on the concrete floor of the studio. Hundreds of white threads dangle from the ceiling above like shafts of light. Once the installation is complete, Liu will perform in silence by mending damaged but still colorful clothing as an expression of her motherly affection and concern.
The exhibition at MadArt studio runs through Aug. 31.