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1 WORTH HOLDING By GIANG LIEN PHAM A PROJECT IN LIEU OF THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2013
2 ACKNOWLEDGEMENT S I would like to thank Professor Celeste Roberge for her care and consideration as the Chair of my committee, Associate Professor Sergio Vega for his broad knowledge and insights, and Associate Professor Katerie Gladdys for her expertise an d bringing me back to earth when I drifted too far off. Last but not least, thanks to my dear mother, whose difficult life served bitter lessons that were nonetheless inspirations for her children.
3 Giang Lien Pham 2013
4 To a new world.
5 LIST OF FIGURES Figure page 2 1 Near/Far: The Sensitivity of Perspective 13 3 1 Here/Ther e: The Boundary of One and Many .. .17 3 2 Five by Four artwork by Mel Bochner .. 19 3 3 Fa irytale artwork by Ai WeiWei .. 20 4 1 From Point artwork by Lee Ufan .. 22 4 2 From Line artwork by Lee Ufan ..... 24 4 3 Your Worth/My Worth: Energy Capsules ..... 25 5 1 Chance Presence: Between Labor ...29 5 2 Detail of Chance Presence: Between Labor ...30 5 3 and 5 4 Detail of printed facts in Chance Presence: Between Labor 30 6 1 Homage To The Square art w ork by Josef Albers .. 32 6 2 Substan tial Equivalence 34 6 3 Unlimited Ocean artwork by Wolfgang Laib .. .. 35
6 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGEMENT 2 COPYRIGHT3 DEDICATION...4 LIST OF FIGURES.. 5 ABSTRACT ...7 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION //from there to here// .. .. 9 2 NEAR/FAR: THE SENSITIVITY OF PERSPECTIVE ....11 //visibility// .12 3 HERE/THERE: THE BOUNDARY OF ONE AND MANY .14 //formless// 15 4 YOUR WORTH/MY WORTH: ENERGY CAPSULES ...21 //indexical// 22 5 CHANCE PRESENCE: BETWEEN LABOR 26 //abstraction// 27 6 SUBSTANTIAL EQUIVALENCE .. .. 31 //presence and stillness// 32 7 CONCLUSION //from here to wher e//.. 36 WORKS CITED .. 38 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ..40
7 Summary of Project in Lieu of Thesis Presented to the College of Fine Arts of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts WOR TH HOLDING By Giang Lien Pham May 2013 Chair: Celeste Roberge Major: Art This project in lieu of thesis, Worth Holding is a series of five artworks inspired by my personal history as the daughter of a rice farming family from Viet Nam. I use my personal experiences growing up both in Viet Nam and in the United States of America as a catalyst for understanding the social, political, and economic conditions of our global resources. Near/Far: The Sensitivity of Perspective (October 2012) questio ns our habits and priorities through proximity of perception. Here/There: The Boundary of One and Many (October 2012) locates our responsibility with respect to waste and worship in food. Your Worth/My Worth: Energy Capsules (installed at WARPhaus Gallery, October 2012) draws equivalence to actions of aimless scattering and designed placement Chance Presence: Between Labor (installed at Full Circle Gallery, November 2012) compares a site of commodification with a site of production as pennies fall from the ceiling by chance. Substantial Equivalence (installed at the University Gallery, the University of Florida, April 2013) evokes questions of material presence through the observation of weight and accumulation.
8 Through these installations and sculpture, I relate my artistic gestures to current issues in international food production and trade. I examine the value and worth of pennies and rice based on shifting experiences of my immigration as a child from Viet Nam to the United States, from a site of extreme conservation to extreme abundance How we value and assign worth to materials depend on our perspective; our perspectives are shaped by our context As materials, pennies and rice cost more to produce than what they represent in terms of market va lue or give back in terms of caloric energy. By rearranging these two materials in sculpture and installation, I utilize the approach of the Mono ha, an art movement started in 1960s Japan that focused on the arrangement of raw and industrialized materials to bring attention to space as site. I also employ the aesthetic of Post Minimalism an aesthetic of material presence to reframe the value and worth of these materials in different situations. Using Homi Bhabha's definition of the ambivalent space as the interstitial existence that "entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy" (5) I examine space in my works as interstitial sites. Combining Mono ha, Post Minimalism, and the theories Homi Bhabha, I arrive at an art practice similar to Art e Povera, a group of artists established in the late 1960s who used "'poor' materials, both natural and artificial" ( Christov Bakargiev 22). Arte Povera was also "informed by phenomenological and empirical perspectives, and they employed simple techniques and processes to generate significant experiences" (22). The installations and sculptures that comprise the Worth Holding series emphasize a push pull relationship between the materials and myself and provoke questions of value and worth for the viewer.
9 1 INTRODUCTION // from there to h ere // I am lost in a sea of endless material things. I am blinded by the next desirable object. In the midst of all the glaring, blaring, and emblazoned objects, it is difficu lt for me to see the value of a single grain of rice or a single penny on the ground. Should I pick up that penny? Should I eat every grain of rice in my bowl? C an I afford to leave them to waste? Everyday I am confronted with questions of this nature, amplified or minimized according to object, amount, and scale. At the root of the question of value and wort h in objects of our environment l i e s a deeper question of the limited resources on this planet. E nvironmental degradation is a worldwide phenomenon caused by irresponsible management of our resources T he value of our environmental resource s are never considered because the immediate monetary worth dictates decisions; ecosystems that are disrupted and destroyed through dam projects, water quality of developing nations plummeting through pollution from industrial production of objects consumed by people in developed countries, the wastefulness of such consumption that produces five garbage islands in our oceans and affecting animal health Just by exis ting on modern standard of living we all have a hand in the environment's ailing health. As an immigrant from a developing country these issues weigh heavily on me. My family came from a place with little resources only to encounter a place that consumes too much A s an artist, I cho o se impoverish ed materials and employ a practice that leaves little behind, be it in my product or in my process Through th e examination of pennies and rice, I invite my audience to
10 reconsider the value and worth each one individually and judge accordingly what is worth holding onto and what deserves to be discarded. In all my installations and sculpture s I regard the process of material preparation as crucial to my practice as the works produced Because I reuse materials, t h e process of preparing the materials for installation usually involves hours of sifting rice and picking bugs, gravel, hair, an d various non rice agents out of the rice The pennies I re use suffer the same fate of getting dirty where regular maintenance involves removing dust, dirt, and sand from pennies Where material maintenance ends, more work begins at the installation phase, which takes several days for an installation that is always temporary. My labor is a precursor to the perceived value of the materials in each work The labor is apparent in the precision and attention to detail in each installation The intervention and interaction of the viewer activate the material, leaving the viewer to rectify not only the value o f materials but also negotiate the value system of the viewer. I use the idea of the ambival ent space as articulated by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture to situate the viewer between the polarities in my artwork such as near and far, form and formless your worth and my worth, sites of commodification and sites of production, and perceived mass versus physical mass My work illustrates the polarities of ambivalent spaces through the use of rice (consumable) and pennies (currency), minimal arran gement based on material and body positions and economic proportionality based on visual and physical mass. Each artwork I make is weigh ted with specific personal stories based on my past and my family's past in Viet Nam and the United States How I arrange the components in each work is a reenactment of
11 negotiations sited in the ambivalent space. B y taking a closer look at the materials of rice and pennies, the sculpture and art installations in this project, and my personal stories, I aim to create a personal, political, and poetic experience for the audience. 2 NEAR/FAR: THE SENSITIVITY OF PERSPECTIVE There is only so much attention a person can spare There was only so much energy my mother could give Yet she invested her limited energy in search of stores with the best bargain s keeping her eyes out for ads, clipping coupons, and paying attention to prices in five different stores. This process cost more than she save d. Yet she always managed to make the most of our limited and h ard earned money. She was f r ugal a master of saving, a responsible mother, and a person ruled by her past. My mother's past, like most post War Vietnamese, was laden with loss and difficulty. She experienced her children's hunger before her own. She supp orted two children, whose father was serving seven years in reeducation camp, by growing and selling purple potatoes. When her husband returned home, she supported her family of six by smuggling sugar and spices to sell at illegal outposts. My mother was s carred by hunger and hardship. She sees in every object how muc h money can be made and how much it would benefit her family For all her savings and smart spending, she rarely indulged her children. And because of this tendency in her, I wondered for a tim e, as her child, if she valued objects and material things more than me. M y mother made me pick up every grain of rice that had fallen on the sandy soil, and never let any of us leave a grain uneaten. A grain of rice, to her, is precious.
12 A grain of rice t o me, in my more luxurious life in America, is still precious. I have become like my mother in this way for I see in any object its monetary value and its potential use. It all boils down to a single grain of rice. If I can see the value and worth of a si ngle grain of rice, then everything else is just as precious. //visibility // I believe the value and the worth of any object are based on circumstance s In times of need, a grain of rice is precious. In times of abundance, a grain of rice is insignificant. This shift in perspective is relative How much attention do we pay to each single grain of rice when there is so much? How much attention do we lo se when there is only one left? The distance and directness from which we perceive each detail depends on our priorit ies In my sculpture, Near/Far: The Sensitivity of Perspective (Figure 2 1 ) a single grain of rice is centered on a rectangular stack of muslin The grain of rice becomes visible only up close. From afar, the layers of stacked musli n overwhelm the eye to the extent that the whiteness of the rice merges with the muslin. Barely perceptible beneath the stack of muslin, a slightly dark er area at the center and beneath the cloth draw s the eye closer, and once the viewer comes near the dark er area is ov erwhelmed by details of white. Despite its tiny size, t he single grain of rice at the center commands the viewer's attention to the exclusion of anything else As the proximity of the viewer's eye to the object changes, emphasis and d etails vary and shift.
13 Figure 2 1 Near/Far: The Sensitivity of Perspective (October 2012). Layered muslin, rice grain, and hidden object. 4" x 6" x 0.5". I n a polarity of precious and worthless have and have not, and near and far, it is the shift between circumstance s between places that br ings our attention to seemingly insignificant details such as a grain of rice This shift is the ambivalent space coined by Homi Bhabha, an area of being in between and from which we begin a process of negotiatio n in p erspective. My mother is an example of someone negotiating the ambivalent space. In her negotiation with the past in Viet Nam and the present in America my mother remained steadfast in her obsession with saving and conservation of resources. My mot her's negotiation with her past and her present was a negotiation for her children by proxy. She did not exist in an ambivalent space, but on the side of extreme conservation. But u nlike my mother, who still values every single object and holds onto them in her very cluttered house, I negotiate the value and worth of objects based on
14 my need and the visual, mental, and physical space they inhabit How important would an object seem i f other distracting objects crowd it? How quick ly would I recall an object if other more important objects take up my mental space? How hard would it be to find an object behind other objects that overshadow and overwhelm ? In this negotiation, I am positio ned between sites of my mother's extreme frugality and my need to be free of material and monetary needs. The ambivalence of my position leads me to consider that subjective value is concrete while the outward wor th of objects are situational. Because I ea t r ice it will always retain a particular value based on my past history despite the situational w orth dictated by the market 3 HERE/THERE: THE BOUNDARY OF ONE AND MANY I still consume a large amount of rice since immigrating to America. Unlike the grains of rice my mother made me pick up off the sandy soil, rice in America is abundant. I could afford to eat more and could afford to throw away more. Like all things in abu ndance, one form begins to merge with the next, until all singular grains of rice become a mass of white. In this time of plenty, I often forget the individual grains that make up my bowl of rice. My occasional wastefulness is symptomatic of all actions th at cause unforeseen consequences in our society. We consume objects without considering their origin, process of production, and process of distribution Because of perceived abundance waste is a common outcome of mass production which hides the true cos t of objects t he cost of environmental degradation and the human cost needed to maintain the system of mass production
15 Instead of a fixation on acquisition like my mother or a fixation on waste from abundance, I am fixated on an appreciation that neither possess es or wast es I n my artwork, I acknowledge e ach object's existence and through my actions I seek to situate each object in a position of worth and value through the strategy of reduction the Minimalism strategy of "less is more." //formless// H owever, there are times when I am not able to assess the value or worth a material due to the opacity of its production or like rice to flour to the loss of its original form. Would a loss in form make a material lose its identity ? Would a loss in worth make us more wasteful of the material ? These questions are pertinent to my deliberation of rice. When a grain of rice is ground into flour, it goes from being one whole to be coming many parts A grain of rice transformed into flour becomes a formless mass of fine particles R ice flour then, could be mistaken for any other white powder D id rice flour lose its original identity and now seems to be worth less? To start this investigation, I look to Bataille's definition of formless, "a term that serves to [bring] things down in the world" (Bois and Krauss 18). To be formless is to have lost some aspect of identification and to be lowered from predisposed associations through form. As Yves Alain Boi s and Rosalind Krauss describes in F ormless: A User's Guide formless is "Nothing in and of itself, the formless has only an operational existence: it is a performative, like obscene words, the violence of which derives less from semantics than from the very act of delivery. The formless is an operation" (18).
16 In Here/There: The Boundary of One and Many (Figure 3 1 ) I explore identification issue s of being a formed whole versus many formless parts between a grain of rice and rice flour through a performative en gagement by the viewer now participant In this installation, participants pick up with the soles of their feet and drag rice flour from the entrance into the space toward a 72" taped off square in the middle. A barely visible grain of rice in the middle o f this taped square draws the participants to walk around the room and to peer into it. Their paths are recorded on the floor through footprints with rice flour before each participant realizes the impact of each step While the square remains clean with its single grain of rice, the area outside is messy with footprints. The formless rice flour is given form through the performative operation of the participants. I also examine the relationship between the grain of rice and rice flour in this installation through Gestalt theory, which looks at the function between the parts and the whole. In this particular instance, Rosalind Krauss's explanation of Gestalt applies: "the figure which is sensed is well built, as most securely hanging together, as guided by the rules of good form' to constitute a whole rather than a shapeless mass of inchoate fragments, it will be symmetry and particularly center that will ballast these rules. For no matter how riven the body is, between up and down, front and back, and rig ht and left, and thus how unequal the spatial coordinates, it is the centering of the conscious subject through the experience of Gestalt itself as centrically organized image that is continually mapped onto this perceptual field" (Bois and Krauss 89).
17 F igure 3 1 Here/Ther e: The Boundary of One and Many (October 2012). Rice grain, rice flour, masking tape, and participants' footsteps.
18 The form of the grain of rice is well built and symmetrically centered. Despite being barely visible or almost invisibl e, the placement of the grain in the center and the acknowledgement of rice flour dragged across the floor position the body and the perceptual field in a final state that contemplates the significance of a single grain of rice. Rice flou r, as a reduction of rice grain is situated as a formless mass through the operation of participants and the perceived value through Gestalt. Furthermore t he difference in treatment between the two materials through a simple border is analogous to Mel Bochner's strategy in his Five By Four ( Figure 3 2 ) installation Bochner arranged four groups of glass shards on the floor five shards in each group, and separated each large group and smaller groups within groups through thin lines of drawn chalk. The simple cha lk line becomes a border that calls attention to the contrast between the outside and the inside, and separ ates the one from the many and the couple from the few. Similar to the glass shards that become even more precious on the floor through their separat ion from normal space by simple drawn chalk lines, the grain of rice in the middle of the taped off square in my piece, Here/There: The Boundary of One and Many is lost to the eye at first, but gains significance when it is recognized as having its own Gestalt enacted by the trace of rice flour created by movement of the participant I return to this polarity of importance between form and formless as a situation of perspective. In this ambivalent space, I negotiate the microscopic identity of the traces of rice flour with the form of rice grains visible to the naked eye.
19 Figure 3 2 Mel Bochner. Five by Four (1972/1999). Glass shards and chalk. For a more global and macroscopic view, I look to Ai WeiWei's Fairy Tale installation ( Fig ure 3 3 ) where one thousand and one empty Ming and Qing dynasty chairs are arranged side by side in an assembly to represent the 1,001 Chinese who would never have been able to leave China without Ai WeiWei's project. Viewed as a whole, the chairs blend in with o ne another as a mass of planes a nd lines that compose each chair. Where one chair in Ai Weiwei's installation is hard to make out within a dense mass a speck of rice flour is difficult to separate from a mass of flour
20 Figure 3 3 Ai WeiWei. Fairytal e (2007). 1,001 Ming and Qing dynasty chairs. Installed for Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. There are times in my life when I cannot distinguish between the microscopic and the macroscopic when form becomes formless. Rice, my precious material, cannot be taken at face value. Like its modified form, flour, rice bears many unseen processes in its production. We often take this tiny grain for granted, forgetting that for the majority of the world population, each grain was a culmination of continuo us labor ing in the rice field, hand harvest ed with a sickle, dr ied out on dusty streets until each grain had lost up to 40% of its moisture content, milled and polished until the grain is white, and transported from tiny farming communities in one country to large megalopolis in another country.
21 4 YOUR WORTH/MY WORTH: ENERGY CAPSULES Even the thing that is most precious still suffers the fate of falling in to ruin. Some of my most precious possessions have now become trash. For a time, such precious things serve d a purpose for me. But now those objects are obsolete. I wonder what changed in me to make my hands lose hold of once precious objects. Can I reclaim the discarded? Pennies were once precious to me. I poured hours over each, making piles of pennies into dime equivalen ts quarter equivalen ts and even dollars. There were many pennies and so few dimes, quarters, and dollars. T he large amount of space that pennies take up can be re placed with candies and food. In my daydreams, if I br ought a US penny ba ck to Viet Nam, I could get four pieces of candy, a bowl of breakfast rice cakes, a deep fried doughnut made of rice or one of a multitude of breakfast and lunch items my family could never afford to feed me. When I emigrated from Viet Nam to the United S tates at the age of seven s taring at my cans of pennies ease d the displacement and discomfort of assimilation. It didn't matter that school in America was confusing, I had cans of pennies that would fill the kids in my neighborhood in Viet Nam with envy. It didn't matter that my family was once poor in Viet Nam, because I could bring my cans of pennies back and afford lunch for a year! It didn't matter that even in America we were still struggling to be fe d with my parent s minimum wage. I had cans of penn ies that could help pay taxes on our house if we move d back to Viet Nam. Every situation in which I'm rich was based on moving back to Viet Nam. My cans of pennies could only gain more significance if I
22 move d back to Viet Nam. In the United States, those c ans of pennies add ed up to only a few dollars, which was barely enough to buy lunch at school for a day. As I adapted to life in America, shifting to Viet Nam through daydreams became less and less frequent The value of pennies to me became less and less important to the point where it is like a grain of rice the importance is there, but there are so many! A once precious object has become a minor annoyance. Pennies are everywhere; on the ground, taking up space, weighing down my wallet, collecting under sofa cushions, and never around when I need to make change. In an age of plastic money and digital credit, pennies have sunk to the bottom of the totem pole as tangible cash becomes less used. What is a penny if not something that causes more trouble than th e benefits it brings? What is the value of a penny if more e nergy i s spent in its production than what it represents? What is the worth of a penny if its sole purpose is reduced to making change ? The most important question to me is: how can I reclaim penn ies as a precious material to me? //indexical// The scattering of pennies in Your Worth/My Worth: Energy Capsules ( Figure 4 3 ) hark en s back to the pennies we f i nd on the ground as a metaphor for impermanent existence A carefully placed grain of rice in the center of each penny ma kes both materials more deliberate and precious much like the intention s of my parents as they carefully transplant each seedling into the rice bed The process of pla c ing and marking each penny with a grain of rice becomes a labor to prove each material's significance Each penny now has a purpose, and its purpose is to highlight the grain of
23 rice Or is it the grain of rice that highlights the penny? This symbiotic relationship between food and money produced a new purpose for two seemingly insignificant materials. In addition, the written wor ds "make it worthwhile" in the corner of the installation indicate more challenge s to consider such as the value negotiation between the work presente d and the viewer's personal value system Figure 4 1 Lee Ufan. From Point (1976). Glue and stone pigment on canvas. 89" x 71.5". Similar to the pigment paintings of Mono ha artist, Lee Ufan, From Point ( Figure 4 1 ) and From Line ( Figure 4 2 ), the marking of each penny in Your Worth/My Worth: Energy Capsules is entwined with the existence of a material. Ufan's paintings are
24 Figure 4 2 Lee Ufan. From Line (1977). Pigment suspended in glue on canvas. 18" x 20". composed of marks made with a loaded brush until the process of mark making has exhausted the pigments before the brush is reloaded, leaving traces of a gesture under heavy consideration. E ach grain of rice in my installation has a similar gesture and consideration as Ufan's marks U nlike Ufan's paintings, the position of each grain of rice is tenuous; leaving a lot of room to chanc e and accidents that might disturb the grains of rice I'm interested in not only the marking of existence but also the precariousness of existence of thes e two materials. Pennies and rice may have certain values and worth today, but that may be gone tomorrow.
25 Figure 4 3 Your Worth/My Worth: Energy Capsules (October 2012). Rice grains and pennies. Installed at WARPhaus Gallery, the University of Florida, Gainesville.
26 5 CHANCE PRESENCE: BETWEEN LABOR My parents were perfect assembly line workers. They worked for companies that produce d machine parts for cars and airplanes. Repetitive tasks, menial labor, and craft were easy for my parents to grasp. These activities were meditative to my parents, or had to be come meditative as a coping mechanism that allowed my parents to return to them day after day. This is an appreciation and a skill they lear ned as rice farmers in Viet Nam where they spent time tilling the soil, transplanting seedlings, weeding, and harvesting rice. In a labor economy such as farming, endurance is daily work and efficienc y is money. In any system and any situation, my parents learned the tricks of each trade quickly Despite their efforts and daily exertion s rice farming was difficult to predict. Each season brings uncertain ties that challenge farmers weather, pests, weed s, and fluctuating market prices. Rice farming becomes a combination of end urance, efficiency, and chance, as m y parents were forced to accepted poor harvests, rock bottom market prices, and high taxes on the land. They learned to accept our empty hands an d move d on by working on the next season 's crop To distract us from discomfort due to hunger and hard times, my parents spun tales of paradise in America. In America we will work indoors and there will be machines that make cold air In America we will wear new clothes and our hands will not be ruin ed by washing detergent In America we will watch television on our own color TV. Most importantly, in America we will have plenty to eat and a soft bed to sleep in Those visions were eno ugh to keep us distracted until we remembered our discomfort and empty hands
27 Now in the United States of America, I see that paradise comes at a price. Even in paradise the work is just as hard as in our past life in Viet Nam and we still f elt empty des pite the abundance of food. My parents worked incessantly to support our family of six on minimum wage. Housing, utilities, insurance, and cellphone service are n ecessities at high prices. Why wa s it that our life of great abundance in America wa s still la cking? What was it that we we re working so hard toward when we could n't even see past the clock, the numbers, the dollars, and the next necessity? At least in Viet Nam we could see and eat the product of our labor, but in the United States all we could see were abstract representations of our labor. //abstraction// It is difficult for me to keep my bearings through numbers and dollar signs alone. Moreover, I get confused when assessin g the worth of objects amid very abstract representations of labor. I regain my balance by spinning visions of being with my parents in the rice fields of Viet Nam. If we were still rice farmers today in Viet Nam what would be our wage based on current rice production market rate and standard of living ? I pose d this situation at F ull Circle Gallery (Gainesville, FL) in the exhibition Chance Presence: Between Labor (Figure 5 1 ) i n November 2012. If the space of Full Circle Gallery were transported to Viet Nam, how much rice would be produced? How much would a farmer in Viet Nam currently sell rice for per pound? How many rice plants can efficiently fit in this space? Rice facts and figures (Fig ures 5 3 and 5 4 ) derived from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Viet Nam address es
28 these questions and fill ed the wall s of the 300 square foot space (MARD 1 ). The optimum harvest is represented by 3 1 empty cups on the floor and 1 cup filled with one pound of rice Pennies are pasted in a systematic manner on the ceiling using cooked rice as glue (Figure 5 2 ) They resemble rows of rice plants in the field and fall to the floor by chance where they remain. Pennies in America may seem trivial and worthless, but twelve cents is t he best market price in Viet Nam per pound of rice (MARD 1 ) My parents often spoke of money falling from the sky like ma n na from Heaven. All we would have to do is pick them up. But if things come so easily, would we still value them as we would if we ha d toiled for them? If I see a penny on the ground in America, I will pick it up, not because it can afford me anything but because it represents a potential that was lost and need s to be placed in situations so that it could flourish in value.
29 Figure 5 1 Chance Presence: Between Labor (November 2012). Rice grains, cooked rice, pennies, plastic cups, and gravity. Installed at Full Circle Gallery, Gainesville, FL.
30 Figure 5 2 Detail of Chance Presence: Between Labor with pasted pennies and rice as glue. Figures 5 3 and 5 4 Samples of printed facts on wall of installation.
31 6 SUBSTANTIAL EQUIVALENCE If having children were just about feeding them, then life in Viet Nam would have been easy. We could have practice d su bsistence farming, and anything extra would have be en a bonus for next year. Our life in Viet Nam, however, was difficult. My parents often calculated the costs of clothing, school supplies, tuition, medicine, and other things we could not afford unless we sell a c ertain amount of rice. After the Communist Party of Vietnam established the Doi M oi Policy in 1986, taxes on rice farmers eliminated any profits they make each season (Troung 9) leaving barely any rice to feed the family and not much for anything else Th is situation is not unique to Viet Nam and my family, but has occurred worl dwide in developing countries. For example, th e documentary The End of Poverty? makes a case against Neocolonialism, a system that wealthier nations and corrupt governments currently employ to economically enslave developing nations through abstracted concept s such as monetary taxes and debts, which have accrued since globalization and colonial conquest in the 15th century If my family did not have to worry about taxes we c ould have possibly eked out an existence as rice farmers on subsistence farming In order to have enough to supplement other costs of living, we often ate less and worked more, and half the time even that was not enough. Those days of eating less a re painf ul permanent memories. As a toddler in Viet Nam I could feel that e very action I ma de would cause me to become more tired Even existing caused me to lose myself in a dizzying haze of cold hunger. I anticipated the taste of the next meal and had no concen tration for anything else. N ow in America, I anticipate getting energy into my body with the next meal only for the purpose of
32 finishing my work for the day. It often happens that I miscalculate my portions and end up with more than I can eat, leaving me in a conflicting seesaw of increasing waste or increasing my bodily weight. I consumed a lot less rice in Viet Nam than I do at this point in America which led me to calculate the exact amount in raw rice I consume in America per year. / /presence and stillness// In Substantial Equivalence ( Figure 6 2 ), I investigate the physical manifest at ion of the yearly amount of rice required to sustain a person such as myself at this time, when one pound in rice is equivalent to a dollar in pennies I n th is piece I reiterate the importance of a grain of rice and a single penny through a formal strategy of accumulation similar to the pollen installations of the German artist Wolfgang Laib who uses basic forms such as the square and a labor intensive working method that "depends on a thoughtful accumulation of effort" (Diehl 126) Utilizing Josef Alber's static form the square (Figure 6 1 ) and his strategy of strict mathematical calculations, Substantial Equivalence achieves material and spatial presence. The amount of rice that nourishes my body per year is physically present and is economically relevant with its adjacency to the pennies The two basic materials of rice and pennies become sacred through my arrangement. In Substantial Equivalenc e (Figure 6 2 ), one hundred and thirty pounds of loosely packed rice forms a 72" square that is 4" tall. The physical hardness of a single grain of rice is visually softened by the massive amount of rice in the square, where light is diffused and grains of rice glow among themselves. The thirteen thousand
33 Figure 6 1 Josef Albers. Homage to the Square (1959). Oil on Masonite. 48 1/8" x 48 1/8". copper colored pennies radiate outward from the perimeter of the inner square of rice Near the perimeter the pennies are densely stacked and form a corona as pennies thinly radiate away from the center Each penny glows and glistens, reflecting light through the body s movement. The interaction of pennies and rice elevates the se previously insignificant mater ials, where each becomes sacred through simple physical phenomena. Material presence through this great accumulation of two impoverished materials is zoned in using Josef Alber's strategy in Homage To The Square se ries (Figure 6 1) "The square's perfectly harmonious form is clearly manmade, not
34 representative of anything in nature. It is pure form, a non subject so that one comes to it with no preconceived notions or emotions" (Garland 62) Instead of simply "exploring the subjective e xperience of color," Substantial Equivalence also explores the subjective experience of materiality and mass through reduction and Gestalt ("Josef Albers: Homage to the Square: With Rays (59.160)"). Figure 6 2 Substantial Equivalence (April 2013). Rice grains and pennies. Rice square is 72". Installed at University Gallery, the University of Florida, Gainesville. Unlike Wolfgang Laib (Fig ure 6 3 ) whose work is "apolitical, ahistorical, and impersonal," all my investigations have bee n rooted in my personal experience. Similar to Laib, however, the execution of my work is accomplished th rough heavy personal investment of time and labor The abstract nature of my work comes from this strategy I learned from Laib, who wants us to receive the work as spir itual and timeless, and all
35 its simplicity, refinement, and reflexivity combine to provoke us into a state of contemplation and stillness (Grundber). In my work, a state of contemplation and stillness is a moment when the predisposed value and worth of both materials transformed into something more. This transformation happens as the viewer walks around the installation, being careful not to step on the pennies and realizing that the white square is not carpet but in fact composed wit h an enormous amount of rice. Through careful steps around the installation, the viewer sees that newer pennies catch the light and glistens while the mass of rice grain in the middle grounds their sight in stillness. In this moment, predisposed value of w orth of rice and pennies are suspended and replaced with the experience between the viewer and work. Figure 6 3 Wolfgang Laib. Unlimited Ocean (2011). 30,00 piles of rice and 7 piles of pollen. Installed at Sullivan North Gallery, Chicago.
36 7 CONCLUSION //from here to w he re// I worry that the progress my parents provided for their children will prove insignificant if I lose sight of the true value of things. I worry about losing and discarding things that are worth holding onto, and just as i mportant, I worry about losing myself by hoarding and holding onto things that are not worth keeping I have reclaimed rice and pennies for myself in the art installations and sculpture of the Worth Holding series each work with its own chapter of negotiation consideration and positioning between a personal and political context In Near/Far: The Sensitivity of Perspective I questioned my habits and priorities through the influence of my mother who held onto habits and tendencies she developed i n the "old world" of post war Viet Nam These habits and priorities change within me depending on the proximity of perception, and so I situate the viewer between shifts of being physically near and far when viewing this art work. Perception is further ques tioned in Here/There: The Boundary of One and Many when waste from abundance is an issue of our more physically fulfilled life. Optical perception on the microscopic level versus the naked eye serves to remind us of the sticky situation of taking everythi ng at face value and for granted. The labor of a rice farmer cannot be seen in the final form of each rice grain, and formlessness of post production rice flour makes the issue even more ambiguous and opaque. Labor and intentionality becomes the basis for the following work, Your Worth/My Worth: Energy Capsules which brought purpose to the materials of rice and pennies through very specific actions. Broadcasting pennies in an aimless and random fashion becomes purposeful through the deliberate placement of
37 a grain of rice in the center of each penny, calling attention to the idea of labor and consideration of each object. The idea of randomness and aimlessness is further emphasized in Chance Presence: Between Labor when chance is charged with dropping orde rly pennies from the ceiling in a disorderly manner onto the ground. In a site of commodification such as a gallery, it is difficult to see the orderly structure of abstract labor in our Western lifestyle as a product of our daily investment in work. I situate the viewer between floor and ceiling, where falling pennies have the most impact, with the floor being the site of rice production in Viet Nam and the ceiling as the site of abstract concepts such as money and art Pennies can buy rice but rice mu st be consumed. In Substantial Equivalence a 130 pound square of rice is enclosed by a hundred and thirty dollars worth of pennies, calling attention to the mass of rice and the amount of pennies in space. I have ma de these two materials valuable and wort h holding while accepting the reality of their existence in and outside my body. A grain of r ice and an individual penny are insignificant I f I can change the perception of these two seemingly insignificant materials, then it may be possible to reclaim t he perception of other objects. Similar to rice and pennies, the objects and resource s of our environment are complex in their value and worth. Where an object may be worthless in one space, it may be worthwhile in another. To reclaim each object is to rec ast each in the correct frame of mind then replace each in situations that highlight its true worth. As Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift "The mythology of the rich in the overproducing nations that the poor are in on some secret about satisfaction black soul,' gypsy duende the noble savage, the simple farmer, the virile game keeper obscures the
38 harshness of modern capitalist poverty, but it does have a basis, for people who live in voluntary poverty or who are not capital intensive do have more ready access to erotic forms of exchange that are neither exhausting nor exhaustible and whose use assures their plenty" (29). Hyde's lesson is f ocused on the use of resources in a manner that does not deplete them physically from the environment, but recharges their worth through a frame of generosity and unselfishness. This generosity does not result in wastefulness from abundance, but results in an appreciation of each resource's worth that ensures its continued existence. I reframe my thinking from viewing rice as just another abundant material to be wasted, but a sacred material that nourishes my body and ensures my continued existence. A penny on the ground is not just a piece of copper that gets stepped on but an equivalent of 175 grains of rice at current market value. Each material is a gift to be shared and valued if they can be reframed WORKS CITED Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture Routledge, 2004. Paperback. Bois, Yve Alain and Kraus, Rosalind E. Formless : A User's Guide New York: Zone Books, 1997. Christov Bakargiev, Carolyn. "Thrust Into The Whirlwind: Italian Art Before Arte Povera." Zero To Infinity: Arte Povera 1962 1972 Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2001, pp. 21 39.
39 The End of Poverty? Dir. Phillip Diaz. Starring John Christensen, William Easterly, Susan George, et al. Cinema Libre Studio with the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 2008. Documentary Film. Diehl, Carol. "Wo lfgang Laib at Sperone Westwater." Art In America, November 1998, p. 126. 1 November 1998. Garland, Patricia Sherwin. "Josef Albers: His Paintings, Their Materials, Technique, and Treatment." Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring, 1983), pp. 62 67. Grundber, Andy. "Wolfgang Laib: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden." Artforum January, 2001. 1 January 2001. Hyde, Lewis. The Gift. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. "Josef Albers: Homage to the Square: With Rays (59.160)". I n Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 < http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/wo r ks of art/59.160> (October 2006) MARD. "Rice Prices Tipped To Remain." Viet Nam Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. August 2012.
40 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Giang Lien Pham was born on December 21st, 1985 in Binh Duong, Viet Nam The youngest of four children, she grew up in a small farming community in Viet Nam till the age of seven Her family moved to the state of Oklahoma in the USA where she sp ent the second half of her childhood and where her family began a new life of working mostly indoor. She earned her B.F A. in Painting and Printmaking in 2008 from the University of Tulsa (TU) in Oklahoma Upon graduating in May 2008 with her B.F.A. in Pai nting and Printmaking Giang spent a year as a continuing education student in Sculpture at TU She subsequently joined YES! AmeriCorps the following year where she: taught kindergartners and tutored 3rd and 4th graders, was trained in disaster preparednes s, and worked as a trained hand in a multitude of community oriented activities. As an AmeriCorps Member, Giang was re submerged in a multitude of class, race, and gender issues that arose in simple everyday activities which serve d as the tipping point for her reflections in her M.F.A. Project In Lieu of Thesis. Giang pursued a graduate education at the University of Florida (UF) in the Fall of 2010; at UF, she worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Sculpture. Giang received her M.F.A. in Sculp ture at the University of Florida in May 2013 Upon completion of her M.F.A. program Giang will be assigned to the 4Most Gallery at UF as an Artist in Residence and a Gallery Coordinator for the academic year 2013 2014 In addition, Giang will teach clas ses at UF as an Adjunct Professor in Art.