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Heidi Lau’s Spirit Vessels

June 1, 2022

Visit our Awards page for this film’s honors and recognition.

The first ever artist-in-residence at famed Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, sculptor Heidi Lau channels personal history, colonial culture, and the spiritual world through her hands and into her otherworldly clay works. Delighting in chance and improvisation, Lau shapes all her clay sculptures by hand and applies overlapping layers of glaze to create iridescent works that resemble architectural forms, funerary vessels or mourning garments. “Instead of me sculpting it, it’s like it’s sculpting me back”, Lau says of her chosen medium. Set on the grounds and in the Catacombs of Green-wood, this film explores a uniquely tactile yet spiritual relationship between an artist and her material.

Growing up in Macau Lau explored the colonial ruins left behind from Portuguese rule, while also being immersed in the city’s original Chinese culture and history. Lau’s later sculptures call back to these disparate influences, intermingling Portuguese and Chinese architectural elements while also drawing on Taoist mythologies. In New York City where Lau now lives, she frequents Wing On Wo, a 130 year old store in Chinatown, comforted and inspired by the traditional Chinese ceramics on display. There the artist consults with owner Mei Lum on her latest sculptures, chainmail garments and urns modeled after the Han and Qing dynasty burial objects that Lau began researching after the passing of her mother. Labor intensive and, in the artist’s own words, intentionally impractical, Lau’s self-taught creative process allows the artist to grieve “with her hands.” These works and others make up Lau’s latest exhibition, Gardens as Cosmic Terrains, sited within the Catacombs at Green-wood. Lau sees her work as a bridge between opposing worlds, that of the human and non-human, known and unknown, and sculpts in clay to create “remnants of memory which will eventually rebuild something.”

More information and credits


New York Close Up Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Director: Bryan Chang. Editor: Leah Galant. Cinematography: Sean Hanley, Sana A. Malik, Eric Phillips-Horst, Jeff Sterrenberg. Production Services: Meerkat Media. Color Correction: Sean Hanley. Sound Design & Mix: Bryan Chang. Design & Graphics: Chips. Music: APM Music. Artwork Courtesy: Heidi Lau. Thanks: Mei Lum, The Green-wood Cemetery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wing on Wo. © Art21, Inc. 2022. All rights reserved.

New York Close Up is supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts; and, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; and by individual contributors.

Digital exhibition of New York Close Up films is made possible in part by the New York State Council on the Arts.

Translated subtitles are generously contributed by our volunteer translation community. Visit our translation team at Amara for the full list of contributors.

Closed captionsAvailable in English, German, Romanian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian

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Heidi Lau

Heidi Lau was born in 1987 and grew up in Macau, China, and currently lives and works in New York City. Lau received her BFA from New York University in 2008, where she primarily studied printmaking and drawing. Dissatisfied with these mediums, the artist taught herself to make ceramics, creating works that evoke miniature architectures, funerary vessels, and creatures drawn from Taoist mythology. Building her works by hand, Lau channels and fuses her interests and influences into otherworldly objects that perforate the boundaries between the human and the spiritual.