Hourglass Figure

Posted on September 18th, 2010

Sitting in the reception area of Latitude 53 for a great majority of my time this week, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the people coming in and out of the ProjEx room where Chun Hua Catherine Dong is performing her piece, Hourglass. I’ve also hovered around quite a bit while others help her paint the grains black, one by one. One thing I’ve noticed is that most people, shortly after sitting down with Dong, proclaim that they find the task of painting the rice very meditative. Some are too frustrated by the overwhelming enormity of the task to continue, while others are content to sit for long periods of time, engaging the artist in conversation about the performance, her other work, and about whatever else comes up. Of course, whenever there is an opportunity to connect with the artist and learn more about their work, especially within the context of a performance, I am a strong advocate of taking advantage of the situation!

Speaking of which, there are 2 feedback sessions on festival projects today (Saturday) – Kelly Andres and Alison Reiko Loader talking about Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden at 10:30 AM at Latitude 53, and caribou x crossing talking about Miles of Aisles at 6 pm at Latitude 53.  This is your opportunity to find out what inspired some of the works in the festival and have your questions answered by the artists themselves.

In the case of Dong’s work, however I am also eager to encourage you – if you have a chance to sit down with Chun Hua Catherine one-on-one over a couple of bowls of rice, please take the time to talk with her about her work!

So I was talking with the artist about the work, and about how people have engaged with it, and she was telling me that indeed, most people seem to claim that they find the process of painting the rice very meditative. I suspect that if the project did not involve grains of rice but, let’s say, tiny plastic pellets, and if Chun Hua Catherine Dong was not Asian, it would be harder to solicit participation in the performance and that those who did participate would almost universally reject the notion that it is a soothing, relaxing or meditative experience. She said that in fact, when she performed this project in Vancouver, people tended to bow to her when they got up from helping her paint grains of rice, thanking her for sharing the experience with them.

With a gleeful laugh, Chun Hua Catherine (who seems to be developing a sophisticated practice around the notion that you simply cannot judge a book by its cover) explains that this performance is the farthest possible thing from the Buddhist meditation ritual people are perceiving the work to be, a ritual which is performed without goals – the meditation is its own goal. Conversely, her project of painting rice is very goal-oriented; she has set out to complete a very labour-intensive task, and when people volunteer to participate, they are not entering into a ritual that she is leading for their mutual betterment, they are entering into unpaid labour towards an enterprise of production for a thankless and endless task. And then they thank her for the opportunity!

It occurs to me that the viewer might easily replace the stereotype of the Asian zen-master in this scenario for that of the sweatshop.

Of course this is not to negate the experience of the participants; you will recall from earlier blog posts that I also found the experience of painting rice grains compelling. Rather, I think it is important to try to recognize the quiet deployment of well-worn stereotypes during activities and interactions we engage in which are deserving of deeper reflection.

Chun Hua Catherine and I talk about some of her other work, including a project called Looking for a White Husband where she has distributed promotion proclaiming herself to be “an exotic, compliant and artistic Asian girl, looking for A WHITE HUSBAND who would like to take me to his home and live with him for a day as his mail order bride.”

This husband-seeking project, as many of her other projects, I can see, has much to do with the exercise and exertion of power. I start to think about this in the context of the work she is presenting at Visualeyez, partly relative to her interactions with the participants, but also in terms of the content of the work itself, which aims to “reconfigure the established centralized power in order to create an equal, fair and balanced world.“

My friend Suzette Chan arrived at the Visualeyez launch party, and I was introducing her to the performances and installations throughout the gallery spaces. Chun Hua Catherine Dong had not yet arrived and in fact had not performed on Thursday at all, so the performative space appeared very different from how I had been experiencing it to date – quiet, and because of the employment of precision implements (tweezers, tiny paintbrushes, tiny ink bowls) and stark white colour, quite sterile. I recounted to Suzette the story Chun Hua Catherine had told me about the bowing participants and their reading of the work as meditative. (To be fair to the participants, the artist really was only too aware of this potential reading of the work from the beginning and is quite obviously exploiting those stereotypes in this work, especially upon reading the rest of her Rice Performance Series, where reliance on Asian stereotypes is essential to the work.) I think Dong’s amusement in this case resides not in any reading or misreading of the work, which is in fact very multilayered and engages stereotypes through employing them quite literally and humorously; it lies, I think, in the reactions of participants, which have  been uniform enough to carry some important revelations about the work and how it is understood. If only I could decode what revelations those might be…

So Suzette and I were looking at the performance site sans artist and I was telling her how other people were reading the work, when she told me that upon first glance at the unpeopled work, POWER is the FIRST thing she thought of. And that the bowl of painted rice, contrasted against the clean and controlled space looked, to her, very violent.

I started thinking about the work in that context, and about forced change in nature; the compulsion to control and change people, plants, culture. I first read the work quite literally as an attempt to correct the power distribution to a white/non-white parity but now I am starting to read it also as the attempt to achieve a balance of the “natural” versus the “controlled,” and to see the artist as an agent for that control, much as she is in her other performance work.

Now, I know that white rice is already a pretty heavily-controlled commodity – cultivated, cleaned and packaged. But in this project it’s being taken from something useful and nutritious and being made useless. If this work is indeed about colonialism, is it about addressing and correcting a colonial world by taking half of it back, or is it the artist who is colonizing the rice, one grain at a time?

  • Suzette Chan

    I love your backgrounders and further contextualizing on this blog!

    I may not get a chance to sit down to do the painting task, so but I keep imaging myself doing it. Would I also feel zen about it? I imagine two possibilities:

    1) It becomes like a knitting club situation, where we are two women doing a repetitive task, but taking the opportunity to socialize. We don’t know each other, so we would be getting to know each other. But if we had known each other for years, and we get together to carry out this chore, would our discussion be as repetitive as the task?

    2) We become no different than the workers who manually assemble electronic parts, as featured in Manufacturing Landscapes, the movie about Edward Burtynsky’s work on industrializing China. As you say, rice is a heavily controlled commodity, with countries like Japan placing strict trading rules around it, and spikes in the global market causing localized famines that affect millions of people. Painting the grains would be just another enterprise to customize a resource commodity, like oil or copper or anything else that is “wasted” on unsustainable activities.

    Reading that over, I realize that my two immediate reactions were based on some superficial commonalities I see between the artist and me: our shared ethnicity and gender.

    This piece has given me a lot to think about, so thanks for speaking to me about it, Cindy. And, to Chun Hua Catherine, thank you for bringing it to Visualeyez!

  • hi cindy,

    u r doing a really great job blogging, bring up both the surface realities of who and what and where,but also contextualizing the work within a broader frame…so much work.thank you!

    i also was wondering about the difference between the words meditation and meditative. for me, there is quite a distinction in that something being meditative does not mean it has much connection to the practice of meditation(of which i know little about not being a practitioner.)in my experience of factory work where the hands are busy a space is produced where the mind feels free to wander, to dream in a kind of meditative way…however when i worked in the factory i was afraid this non engaging activity (other than the physical act of b over c and under d =f) would be my lot in life…and that is what makes it(factory work) seem rather unpleasant, not to mention the context of the factory itself of noise and obnoxious smells. so yeah, context does play a huge role in the reception of a work, for instance if the work was performed in a factory setting with loud machines and crappy lighting and toxic smells it might not seems so pleasant, also as you mention the perception of who is performing will also alter the reading…nothing new here … what i find intriguing is the sense of futility(me projecting my own interests) in the action…that if the goal is to have the rice black one would just dump the rice in a black paint wash… but the act of performing a rather useless repetitive task to produce a product no-one wants…ah…now that i like!

    • Cindy

      Hi Karen! Thanks for the thoughts!

      I completely agree that there is a huge difference between “meditation” and “meditative” and probably I should have kept the 2 ideas separate; I have heard people here describe the work only as ‘meditative’ and not specifically as a meditation. Chun Hua Catherine, however, has had specific instances of people mistaking her work for meditation rituals.

      I think that kind of work is meditative myself, (though I balk at using that specific word), so I understand fully why others do too, but I can also see why the artist would not; she’s the one who set up this ridiculous task in the first place! Futility is simply an inevitability of the project and not a goal; the artist fully intends to complete the work, and the stress of being unable to do so probably helps remove it from the realm of meditative work!

  • lol, yeah, i think if one aimed for futility and achieved futility that would destroy the notion of futility itself(kinda like you can’t succeed at failing because then it wouldn’t be a failure…)
    so thanks for that distinction, it does help in the reading of the work. and it is interesting to note that stress and meditation probably don’t go together either(although i am not sure of this having never meditated…for all i know it is stressful.) which does make the labour invovlved more like the factory repetitive work where the boss wants you to do more than you can possibly do…

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