Photo: of an art installation called Hiraeth
Vancouver City Centre


By Janet Wang

Image shows a detail of Hiraeth by Janet Wang.

“To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words” – Salman Rushdie, Shame

In the last two years, books became my portal to society and far-flung notions of travelling or gathering with loved ones.  In my reading, I came across a word, hiraeth, that unsettled me with its complete unfamiliarity, and profound resonance.  In Days of Distraction, by Alexandra Chang, the author uses this word to describe her father’s sense of longing for a bygone era or place, as he visited the neighborhood of his youth. Hiraeth is of Welsh origin, without a precise English translation. The liminal nature of its meaning, my tentative and whispered sounding of the syllables that caught in the back of my throat — these qualities capture what these last two years have been.

What will we be after we come through this time, where will be when we take stock of all that has been far and is now near, and all that may return?

This series of monochromatic portraits shows people embracing, signaling affection and intimacy.  In each portrait, only one person is portrayed, with the other intimated through cut-out negative space.  The figure is coupled with the shadow or trace of a complicated word, collected from over the last year from various books, conversations, and friends.

A short list of imperfect definitions:

 hiraeth (Welsh) – a longing for a bygone place or era

fernweh. (German) – Translated as wanderlust but more literally, far woe. Or, far pain. Longing for a distant place. Could be characterized as homesickness for somewhere you’ve never been before.

saudade – (Portuguese)  a state of intense longing for someone or something that is absent. Saudade comes from Portuguese culture, and it is often expressed in its literature and music. Saudade is described as a kind of melancholy yearning.

懐なつかしい  — (Japanese, natsukashii) nostalgic, reminiscent of good memories, missed, longed for, yearned after; (archaic) dear, beloved, cherished, sweet

dépaysement (French) – making yourself a stranger in your environment to see it more clearly

communitas (Latin) – When habitual structures dissolve, so do boundaries between people

This artwork was commissioned by the City of Vancouver Public Art Program for Platforms: We Are Here Live