Nova Jiang’s “Archipelagos” Project at the 01SJ Biennial

by Patrick Lydon

Often incorporating works of technological marvel, but never forgetting the merit of old-fashioned mechanical devices, Los Angeles-based artist Nova Jiang has been busy since earning her MFA from UCLA in 2009. In the past year, she has exhibited works in California, Japan, Netherlands, Italy, and Mexico. Her most recent piece, titled Archipelagos, was commissioned for the 01SJ Biennial of Art and Technology in San Jose, California.

Jiang’s bright green, three-wheeled, metal and wood islands that roamed the streets of San Jose during the biennial are interactive, public expressions of struggle and isolation, and in many ways represent a somewhat personal agenda for the artist.

But the islands aren’t just a personal refuge for Jiang; they represent feelings that each of us have from time to time, and by the artist’s design, they call for us to address these issues with interaction. Each asymmetrically shaped mobile island is fitted with it’s very own sand dune, out of which stick pens, and corked glass bottles with empty papers inside.

These tools are provided to the public with the hope of obtaining messages in bottles, which Jiang is using in a web-based format that allows the public to view and respond to the anonymous messages.

As Jiang sat inside of her artwork on South First Street during the nighttime Absolute Zero street festival, her head seemed to float – sometimes happily, sometimes broodingly – atop her island, and under her fabricated plywood palm tree, which spun slowly with each brisk gust of early-autumn wind. It was here that she offered a chance for the public to envision themselves the same way… and hundreds took her up on the opportunity.

Jiang also gave me the opportunity to pilot one of the three islands during the street festival. The interactive element of her artwork put the Archipelagos pilots and the public in close contact with one another, perhaps belying the lonely island theme and even making it an island party of sorts. It was revealing to witness thousands of passers-by stopping in their tracks, at first to smile, gawk, ponder, or criticize Jiang’s works as they floated gently amongst the tides of people.

The few hundred who stopped to interact with the particular island I piloted seemed to have an instant connection with the piece, yet they were often confused about what to do.

The simple line of “fill out a message in a bottle” seemed to start some rusty, forgotten, gears turning in the heads of most people.

“OH! I get it! Clever!” quipped a few participants, while others simply gestured with smiles, wrinkled foreheads, bit lips, blank stares, or a combination of such looks as they filled out a piece of paper, placed it in one of the bottles, and sent it down a PVC tube, into the rear collection unit of the Archipelagos. Not everyone appreciated the rather innocent notion Miss Jiang was attempting to convey however; a handful of visitors, perhaps not ready to envision themselves as an island, let out a grumpy “humph!” at me as they spun around and stomped off to the adjacent food lot, burning man vehicles, or concert stages.

In a general sense though, Jiang’s roaming artwork connected with a good number of 01SJ biennial visitors who wanted to touch, see, connect, or take a joy ride themselves. Whether these visitors were artists or computer programmers, Archipelagos communicated with each one on common ground, giving them at the very least a tactile opportunity for interaction both in public and private senses.

Although we may not have our own green plywood islands to drive around town, Jiang reminds us that at times, we can all be islands ourselves. For a short few days in downtown San Jose, California, Archipelagos gave people an opportunity to reach out from these bubbles we construct … even if it was only in the form of a message in a bottle.

Article and photographs by Patrick Lydon


For more on the Archipelagos project, or on Nova Jiang’s work in general, visit

Comments are closed.