Lighting The Dark

“By turns poignant, humorous and virtuosic, Chen’s performance offered a slyly subversive take on issues relating to femininity, technology and power…the looping, spellbinding music…became a fitting tribute to the modest, repetitive, yet quietly heroic work of women.” –New York Times (on Lighting The Dark)

Lighting The Dark
(2014) was inspired by the women, stories and photographs from photojournalist Paola Gianturco‘s books. The work uses toy pianos, clavichord, music boxes, accordion, electronics and was commissioned and premiered at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC on December 10, 2014. (Read about the concert in the New York Times.)

For the last several years, I have fallen in love with making music boxes. It’s not just the timbre of it that I love, but its diminutive size and sense of intimacy when playing one. Growing up, I owned a music box with a spinning pink ballerina in the middle of it. As I’ve been working more with music boxes, I started to wonder why this ballerina figurine has never changed.  Is this really our ideal symbol of beauty, femininity and elegance?

I decided to make new music boxes by swapping  old tunes with new original tunes and changing the figurines/characters (made by puppeteer, Jordan Morley)  that lives inside of these boxes.  I wanted to create a more thoughtful depiction of women that is more relevant to us.

When  I came upon the incredible work of photojournalist Paola Gianturco ( who has photographed  women in over 55 countries,)  I was deeply moved by this artist/activist that gave me new light in issues that feel near to me.  I have become increasingly aware of global women’s issues  and the on-going brutalities that face so many women everywhere (particularly in less developed countries.)  As a mother to a daughter, there are times I feel blessed to live in such fortunate conditions and other times, I sense the fragility of the progress we’ve made for women here and elsewhere.

The issues that face many women around the world are dark, often causing me to break down in tears. How can we help each other or help them help themselves? Even in these dire situations, Paola shows us that there are inspiring women who are creating a wave of change, helping women in their own communities,  some of which are the most tragic and desperate situations.  This change is happening and it will grow stronger so long that others join them, follow their momentum and example to continue moving forward. These incredible women, who’s stories are documented in her five books, serve as an inspiration for me in creating this piece.

Instead of directly depicting certain women in the music boxes, I decided to take four different environments or themes from her books. As I discovered in some of her stories, there are a variety of traditions where women ride a lit boat at night to complete a ritual in their cultures.  This image of traversing dark waters with a single light spoke to me as a courage these women have.


In some places, women complete the role of mother, nurturer, caretaker, worker and farmer simultaneously, never failing to be a provider for families emotionally and physically on a daily basis. This role of mother and worker is one that translates to all cultures and I wanted to celebrate this in the second music box.


One prominent issue in many countries is raising girls’ literacy.  Girls education is often sacrificed for numerous reasons, making them more vulnerable to physical violence and less likely to become independent. However, there have been great efforts made world-wide to educate young girls.


Finally, as Paola shows us in her book Grandmother Power, many grandmothers are raising their children’s children and fighting courageously for their grandchildren to live in a better future. As Paola says, she realized the future of the world is in these grandmother’s hands.


 Even in dark moments, it is possible for us to contribute something to make a positive change. As an artist, I feel thankful to the Baryshnikov Arts Center for having a conscious time and space to share something with you. This piece is dedicated to Paola Gianturco, all the incredible women who light the dark, and the woman that has done that most in my life, my mother.