The Borderlands of Belonging
Based on my Feb 2019 TEDx talk ‘The Borderlands of Belonging’, this heuristic arts-based research study explored my experience as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), and my attempts to re-integrate my identity as an adult in a foreign land. TCKs are individuals who have spent a significant portion of their formative years in countries or cultures other than that of their nationality, and often move between several such spaces in an ongoing state of liminality. This childhood of constant transition can impact their sense of belonging, creating hidden feelings of loss and rootlessness that affect the development of identity. By exploring my own TCK journey, through art making, I hoped to inform future therapy work with others in the inbetween, travelling through their own Borderlands of Belonging.
Where Do I Come From? (Where Am I Now?) Where Do I Go?
Media: Bisque Fired Clay
Size: 30cm x 30cm x 10cm
Heavy, limbless, yet incredibly fragile, three figures wander constantly in a circle, trapped in the ‘Where?’ Created during an early studio session, this exploratory piece acted as a springboard for my arts-based research, opening the dialogue with questions of identity and ‘situated-ness’.
“…there is a problem with holding on to the past and memories… sometimes it is no longer an active way of building your identity, but more a thing that you hang on to because you’re afraid that, if you don’t, then you won’t understand what your identity is”
Drawing Me Home
Media: Pencil & Sketchbook
Size: 4.8m x 21cm x 2cm
30 years, 27 moves, 12 houses, 4 countries. It began with the realisation that I could not remember what my childhood homes looked like, nor in what order I had stayed in them. ‘Drawing Me Home’ was an attempt to assemble a personal narrative by sketching each of my houses from family photographs. However, the act of collecting a chronological series of house images became enough to act as a concrete timeline, which perhaps hints at the usefulness of narrative therapy for TCKs. For now, the pages of the concertina sketchbook remain empty, but filled with numbers and memories, speaking of the questions of home and belonging.
Thirty Times I Tried
Media: Bisque-Fired & Unfired Clay
Size: 5m x 80cm x 10cm
This series formed the key part of my body of work, and involved making 30 consecutive plates on the pottery wheel over several months, as I learnt the new skill. Each attempt was kept, regardless of their finished state – whether balled, broken or solid enough to be fired in the kiln. The plates displayed a remarkable synchronicity with the years of my life, providing a safer and more abstract opportunity to externalise and (re)assemble a personal narrative of my lived TCK experience. Intended to be laid out as if at a dinner table, the powerful metaphor of plates – both broken and whole – is used to examine the questions of early nourishment, holding and containment.
The Graveyard of Goodbyes
Media: Digital Timelapse Video & Image Stills
Duration: 3m 11sec (Loop)
During the process of making ‘Thirty Times I Tried’, all the clay leftovers from trimming each plate were collected and preserved. However, after a significant personal trip in early-2020, these broken pieces were finally let go of and recycled into fresh clay, by adding water. Displayed here are a looped time-lapse video and photographic stills from this act of reconstitution, hinting at the hidden losses accumulated by TCKs and the slow process of the cycles of acculturation.
As a final form of reintegration, I had intended to fashion the recycled clay block into a large vessel on the pottery wheel, but this was interrupted by the COVID-19 shutdown of our art studio. For now, the clay remains in its packaging, a symbol of potential space and liminality, and a question of grief, anger, and perhaps acceptance.
Media: Found Objects
Year: 2020 (Ongoing)
The prolonged COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, which prevented access to a social support network and the facilities to throw a final clay piece, was a situation out of my control – an experience not unfamiliar to TCKs or ex-boarding school students. I instinctively began an alternative process of reconstruction – building household furniture by upcycling discarded, found objects with whatever materials I had available in my house.
An ongoing series, ‘Stay, Home’ represents an attempt to create a home, at home. The symbolic act of taking what was broken, embracing its loss and making something new, gives voice to the questions of reintegration and re-visioned identity.
An adult Third Culture Kid (TCK) born in Singapore, Josh is a former emcee, graphic designer and art facilitator for children and persons with special needs.
Since moving to the UK for Derby’s MA Art Therapy, he has completed several placements with the National Health Service (NHS) in community mental health settings across the Midlands, providing art therapy for individuals, from adolescents to adults.
A two-time TEDx speaker, Josh is particularly passionate about accessible art and the cross-cultural experience. His clinical interests include trauma, neurodiversity and working with diverse populations.
Copyright © 2020 Joshua Tan