Google Maps has become a fixture of 21st-century life—but typically, one doesn’t use it to plan transcontinental journeys. But in 2010, when Yu-Wen Wu couldn’t afford the airfare from Boston to Taipei to visit her sick grandmother, she typed in the addresses to their respective homes and asked for walking directions.
“It actually gave me instructions for 155 days to Taipei City,” Wu told Artnet News.
It was an impossible trip—the directions included kayaking across the Pacific ocean for some three months, with a stop in Hawaii. It was also the beginning of an epic art project that would take Wu a decade, transforming the outlandish journey into a 20-foot long collage in the tradition of a Chinese landscape scroll, stored in a traditional wooden box.
“It’s a trip of longings in some ways,” Wu said. “Only in my mind have I followed these directions.”
To transform a Google glitch into a work of art, Wu first printed out the directions, which she had saved as a PDF, on rice and mulberry paper. That proved a fortunate decision, as she was never able to get Google to suggest the fantastical journey again.
“It was gone within seconds,” she said.
Wu cut each of the 2,052 steps of the directions into strips, and pasted them onto a 20-foot scroll. To fully experience the piece, the viewer has to be ready to stretch their legs, as each line stretches the full length of the artwork.
“I wanted you the viewer to walk the distance if you were to read it,” Wu said. “I was thinking about it as a contemporary landscape and also a data structure.”
The work, titled Walking to Taipei (2021) and on view with Boston gallery and first-time Independent exhibitor Praise Shadows at the New York art fair, is priced at $50,000. The hope is to attract an institutional buyer for the piece, which includes a custom-built table on which to display the scroll, and a large panel of acrylic to keep the portion on display lying flat.
Fortunately, some months after her fateful Google Maps query—made on April 10, 2010, according to the PDF—Wu was able to visit her grandmother, who died not long after. But the image of a transcontinental journey made on foot, crossing the ocean in a solitary vessel, would stay with her for years to come, even as she struggled to complete the painstaking cutting and pasting that the project required.
It’s presented at the fair with a suite of sculptures and works on paper by Wu, including her series “Intentions,” chains of Buddhist meditation beads made from bundles of gilded Taiwanese tea leaves wrapped with red thread, hanging from the ceiling to the floor. Other works on paper are embellished with gold leaf.
“All of this is based on my immigrant story,” said Wu. “When I came, I thought the streets would be paved in gold. I was seven—what did I know?”
But even if they were, it probably still wouldn’t be possible to use them to walk back to Taipei.
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