The Immigrant Artist Biennial – In Dialogue

Dreams and Rituals: Mia Enell, Chiarina Chen, and Jamie Martinez

When does rational agency relinquish its control over the human psyche? In poetic dreams? During nightmares? Or during meditative rituals? In their work, Mia Enell, Chiarina Chen, and Jamie Martinez explore how meaning is derived from out-of-the-ordinary experiences.

Enell, whose work will be exhibited in Excavated Selves: Becoming Magic Bodies, approaches image-making “with humor and a surrealist bent.” Bodies transformed into vibrant geometries as “a proxy for survival” seem simultaneously physical and non-physical in her work. Chen, an independent curator whose workshop Heal Me Through Your Nightmare will take place on October 22nd, grounds her practice on exploring posthumanism and proposes a collective reconsideration of relationships—with oneself, others, and society. Participating in the group show Enmeshed: Dreams of Water, Colombian-U.S. artist Martinez taps into his creative process through intuitive inquiries that are spiritual and ritualistic. He speaks about the encounter with transcendental artistic guidance by opening up to what’s beyond one’s faculties.

As part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial: Contact Zone, the three creatives come together with Xuezhu Jenny Wang, TIAB’s writer-in-residence, to discuss the intangible and the inexplicable: dreams, rituals, bodies, and metaphysical relations.


Mia Enell. Human Mess, 2023. Acrylic on canvas, 58 x 71 in. Courtesy of the artist and Bienvenue Steinberg & Partner.

Mia, your work intersects surrealism, supernaturalism, and visions. What is your relationship to escapism and dreams?

ME: Escapism and dreams are two very different things for me. Escapism is like watching a Netflix series at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while dreams are about limitless poetry. My persistent and strange “dream visions” are intriguing and can find their way into my artworks.

There are poetic dreams, and there are also dreams that perturb and cause fear. Chiarina, your workshop is titled Heal Me Through Your Nightmare. Why nightmares? How does the concept of nightmares relate to your practice?

CC: Working with nightmares relates to my continuous explorations of the hidden or once-oppressed paths of understanding ourselves and others. It has nothing to do with psychoanalytic methods, though. And it is far from the whole tradition of dream interpretation. In my project, the notion of nightmares goes side by side with collective listening and sharing. We all have nightmares once in a while, and we’ve all had the experience of waking up in shock, trying to catch the fading imageries of strangeness and absurdity.

When a nightmare gets converted into words through verbalization, it immediately becomes a collective experience. Here, what’s important is not the meaning of each dream or symbol but how we create a sphere that foregrounds the unfiltered expressions of pain, fear, and hope that arises from the depths of the unconscious. It’s about learning how storytelling becomes a key to unlocking our embodied knowledge and experience. I am always amazed by how many nightmares we share and how, every time, this unchained “terror” proves its collective capabilities.

Chiarina Chen. Heal Me Through Your Nightmares—courtesy of the curator and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

The individualized experience of dreams can turn into what seems to be a collective reflection or even meditation–it’s like a communal activity that speaks to what we call “rituals.” Jamie, what significance does the idea of rituals have in your work? What rituals do you replicate or create?

JM: Rituals play a profound role in my creative process, whether integrated into my workflow or contributing to the ultimate culmination of my work. A pivotal ritual that consistently precedes my artistic endeavors involves a sequence of steps. At first, I meditate, allowing myself to enter a transcendent state. I seek to connect with artistic guidance in this heightened consciousness, drawing inspiration and forging a clear direction for my upcoming creations.

Rather than attempting to generate ideas solely through my faculties, I purposefully distance myself from such influences. Instead, I open myself to a higher power that plants the seed of artistic inspiration within me. This divine influence takes charge, sculpting the vision for the new artwork. My role then shifts to that of an executor who meticulously realizes this creative vision without disrupting its inherent essence. Through this carefully honed ritual, I honor the significance of tapping into a higher plane of creativity, guided by forces beyond the immediate self.

I see—rituals seem to be about humbling oneself and allowing for connections with a non-physical realm of creativity. Mia, your work has many iterations of the body, but they seem to hinge on a nuanced view of physicality. How do you approach the concept of the body?

ME: We tend to live predominantly in our headspace, but the body is where things always pass through—physical and spiritual experiences are digested and processed in the body before they are released. Ideally, our body, head, heart, soul, mind, and senses coexist. The presence of a painting itself can be like another body; standing in front of a painting are two bodies communicating. I approach my practice as if walking in an open unknown where I can sense things, drawing a line that flows from my head to arm to hand to pencil to paper. Remember that we need the body. Without it, we would not be here on earth.

Speaking of “not being here on earth,” Jamie, do you welcome or fear death? And how do you think we should better approach death as a society?

JM: I neither embrace nor dread death; as it arrives, so it shall be. Nevertheless, I assume I am ready for this journey between realms. We should approach death as a society by fostering open conversations, promoting end-of-life planning, providing comprehensive grief support, and embracing diverse cultural perspectives on death and the afterlife.

Jamie Martinez. The Spirit of the Octopus, 2023. Acrylic, oil paint, oil sticks, and oil pastels on canvas, 24 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

At Enmeshed: Dreams of Water, you are showing a work on canvas titled The Spirit of the Octopus. How do you choose the materials you work with?

JM: This new painting I am showing at the Immigrant Artist Biennial was created using a combination of acrylic paint, oil sticks, and oil pastels. The intriguing interplay between the acrylic paint and the oil sticks, applied in the final stages of making the painting, lends a distinct depth to the artwork. Additionally, incorporating oil pastels imparts a youthful quality, which has become particularly advantageous in my recent work. My creative expression is undergoing a revitalizing transformation, embracing an approach that is more whimsically childlike and naively comical.

Speaking of a path and a transformation, Chiarina, what was your path into curating, and why do you like the practice?

CC: I feel that two things add up: my profound boredom with endless self-perfection and my longtime interest in the “dark” or problematic side of everything. I grew up in a family with a background in traditional Chinese music, and I’ve spent tons of time on stage, either performing pipa or touring in competitions. I love music, but I knew then that I never wanted to spend my life alone in the spotlight, as the older generations in my family did. It was the earliest trace of me raising eyebrows at the perceived glory behind this endless pursuit of perfection. Escaping that fate and delving into criminal psychology and art history in college ignited my passion for exploring the problems and the derailed side of the existing world, or the “dark” side of the glory of man. These paths led me to posthuman thinking and curating.

At the core of my theoretical practices lie the discourses of posthuman predicament, not the triumph of human advancement. And I am even more specific about my disinterest in endless individualistic perfection. Just look at how much depression and burnout it brewed in global cognitive capitalistic machines. Meanwhile, the idea of an individualistic human being is simply not adequate for addressing our existence and our relationship to the world anymore. With these layers of realizations, I find curating to be both a method and a solution to my living. As an independent curator, my work ranges from researching, contextualizing, and conversing to landing on productions and archiving. It is everything from conceiving an idea to making it happen, even without institutional support or funding. It’s precarious, risky, and full of change. However, the longer I do what I do, the more I see the art of relationships within the process of curating.

Curating is always about fostering connections and linking separate dots. There can’t be an exhibition with just one curator but no artists or collaborators. Curatorial work involves moments of working alone, but ultimately, it is a cycle of weaving and gathering ideas, relations, and multitudes of happenings. I’ve learned so much from every encounter and everyone I’ve collaborated with. Even though I no longer play solo instruments, I felt music while curating. It is the music of transforming shared anxieties into affirmative relationships. It believes we could be connected and be each other’s source of strength instead of fighting alone.

About the writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a Chinese writer and translator specializing in postwar and contemporary visual culture and design. She is currently working on a research project focusing on mid-century interior design and mechanization. Wang has previously served as copy editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and producer of The Conversation Art Podcast. Her art criticism has been published in ArteFuse, Art Spiel, and Cultbytes. She has held project-based positions at Barro, Aicon Gallery, and Cai Studio and is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in History and Theory of Architecture at Columbia University.

Mia Enell, Chiarina Chen, and Jamie Matinez are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here

Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this interview is part of an interview and review series that will be published throughout its programming.