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I Was Here

By Kaitlin Chan

  • July 11, 2022

This comic was created with watercolor on paper. The first panel begins with the text “Suicide is something we’re not supposed to talk about.” This is accompanied by two self-portrait illustrations of the author. In one, we just see the back of her head; her black hair is cut short. In the other, she is submerged in a bathtub with just her face, hands, and kneecaps emerging out of the water. The Chinese characters 香港 indicate she is writing from Hong Kong.

The silhouette of a figure on the ground is painted in red. The text reads “A thirty-year-old woman ended her own life last week, near the apartment I lived in for twenty-five years. The proximity left me shaking.” The panel begins with the text “On December 5, 1969, the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara sent a telegram to the curator Michel Claura:” and is followed be a reproduction of said telegram, which states “I am not going to commit suicide don’t worry.” The author’s next caption reads “This would grow into ‘I Am Still Alive,’ a series of nearly 900 telegrams sent over the course of three decades.” The text reads: “On Kawara also documented the passage of time through attending to his daily rituals, resulting in three bodies of work produced between 1968 and 1979. Each day he made two postcards to evidence: I got up. Each day he recorded all the people he encountered. I met. Each day he traced his routes in maps with a red pen. I went.” This is accompanied by small illustrations showing examples of the three mentioned series. The text reads: “He is also known for his ‘date paintings,’ which are often displayed alongside the delicate newspaper-lined boxes that he used to store each work.” Below this is a reproduction of Kawara’s date painting for December 29, 1977. The canvas is painted all red and the date is written in big characters. The accompanying box is lined with the front page from that day’s New York Times. Accompanied by an illustration of the author at the Guggenheim, the text reads: “This obsessive personal record-keeping, his ritual of marking his aliveness, is astounding to me. I remember seeing his telegrams at a museum and feeling my own struggles with staying alive laid bare.” The text reads: “When you regularly walk the line of wanting to live and wanting to die, every little thing matters. Every encounter, every excursion, and every morning, is momentous.” The text begins: “There has been death in the air here, ever since 2019. Some days, we are told, are to be forgotten:” This is followed by an illustration of one of Kawara’s date painting set on fire. The red flames contrast vividly with the blue canvas. The text continues: “But when the official records are wiped clean, there will always be the records we keep on our own.” A self-portrait illustration of the author drawing at her desk is accompanied by the text “I was here.” A stamp in the bottom lower right corner is initialed and dated, marking the comic as “completed.”

THIS PIECE IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES, “VISUAL REFERENCE,” IN WHICH COMICS ARTISTS RESPOND TO THE WORK OF A VISUAL ARTIST THEY HOLD CLOSE.
Kaitlin Chan is a cartoonist and cultural worker based in Hong Kong. Her graphic memoir, Homecoming, is forthcoming from Surely Books in January 2023.