Bowl as Vessel - Robert Lee 伍振良

Chee Wang Ng’s art of large digital photographs has now been is complimented by installations that can become quite elaborate. As the director of the Asian American Arts Centre of New York, I have had the opportunity to see his work develop. The unifying thread in his work is the bowl, i.e., the bowl of rice, a common mode of eating throughout many parts of Asia. Before addressing this, it is perhaps better for me to discuss his photographs.

    At 48” x 48”, his large digital photographic still lifes mimic the exceptional visual clarity and readability of commercial advertisements. The titles reveal their predecessor; the art of Chinese woodblock prints, rich with traditional imagery, and coupled with proverbial observations, usually hung in the home as auspicious decorations. The play between the words and the image are visual puns peculiar to the Chinese language. For example, persimmon in Chinese, “shi” has a similar sound to the word “affair”, and the mushroom, Genoderma Lucidum, is similar in shape to the Chinese scepter Joo-i, a symbol of fulfillment. They give currency to a way of expressing words with objects whose names resemble those words, a technique called “rebus.” By playing with the celebrity appearance of familiar objects in these still lifes, Ng invokes an entirely Asian outlook, allowing ancient folk conventions to sing along digitally with high-tech society.

    Ng’s expresses one way in which modernity is experienced, i.e., within the context of affirmative Chinese traditional wishes. His art emphasizes an ethical meaning to events, interpreting them through familiar Chinese legends and myths. For him, myth encompasses rationality. That is, the modern tendency to dismiss tradition is inverted and reversed so that tradition encompasses modernity. The playful way postmodernism in the West appropriates past styles, taken further, it parallels a logos technologically playful and appropriate for many diverse peoples who live in the heart of American cities.

    The significance of his work however, goes beyond this. In surveying how some artists re-create themselves, AAAC has been interested in exactly what amalgam of their inherited culture and their adopted culture they chose to forge, thus inventing an art that is often entirely new. For Ng it is clear to me that his collection of bowls in his installation 100 China(s): All Chinese Looks Alike… go beyond his stated theme and are a re-affirmation of the original archetypal vessel form from Bronze Age China, the early beginnings of Chinese civilization. If the reader is not familiar with this early art form, I can only say that it is comparable in significance to the Greeks’ attention to the human form; only in China the art form continued to play a central iconic role for well over a thousand years; (before the Han Dynasty began in 206 BCE). Of course these lovely porcelain bowls do not claim the authority or high achievement of a bronze. However, they do retain the general idea in its form–an enclosed emptiness, here filled with rice, without which the bowl would be useless and unable to serve as a symbol of daily nourishment.

    Ng’s consistent emphasis on the bowl form throughout his various media, though ubiquitous in every urban society, is focused on the vast range of diverse shapes this basic form/idea can take today. As a bronze vessel from China’s historical past, it is appropriate to read it as a metaphor for structured psychic, social, and political relationships. As a contemporary phenomena, so ordinary and innocuous, such bowls are embedded in daily mundane habits in so many countries—an unconscious part of our lives, that their discovery by the artist, his vision in presenting them to us in the way that he has, enables us to read them as unique individuals.

    From the world famous French Limoges manufacturer, Bernardaud, which grace the most exclusive tables of the world, to Martha Stewart’s Everyday Ware sold in K-Mart and manufactured in China, to Continental, vitrified hotelware made in South Africa—the happy personality of each is striking.

    Ng makes us fully conscious, with tongue-in-cheek, that no two bowls are alike; that is, contrary to stereotypes, no two Asians are alike. He makes us fully conscious that this ancient Chinese archetype is fully capable of a remarkable range of adaptability, individuality, and creativity. Their presence in so many cultures is not new, many have been with us for some time. Or should I say the reverse, they have been perpetually new and are regularly being re-invented.

    The fear and suspicion with which some regard China’s seminal art as a potent alien expression not reflective of democratic ideals, may thus be recognized as groundless. It can be put aside, shelved, for reference surely, to collect dust, till finally, it can, like so many fears, be let go, dispensed with and dispersed.

    When I look at these bowls, hundreds, each with their own lineage, I am impressed. To survey them as a visual feast filled with rice ready to be eaten with chopsticks in hand is to glimpse yet more. They are not passive. They are filled with energy. They clamor and are noisy, with pride if not vanity in display of their unique beauty, but fight they do not. They are after all, open containers, receptacles open to the sky, masters of the management of liquids, serving with utter simplicity in poised alignment to gravity, complete in and of themselves. One wonders if the qualities of this archetypal form will ever hold more significance for us, even for the structure of individuality.

    I have to thank the artist, Ng, for his remarkable delight in collecting these bowls, and for bringing to my attention, how diverse traditions, in this case China’s, live on. The public Archive of Asian American artists housed at AAAC has over 1400 entries from 1945 to the present. Ng is one of these artists, from whom I find why I wanted to study something called Asian American art in the first place.

* Eaten Your Fill of Rice - Chee Wang Ng.
   ISBN: 0-9761698-0-0     Copyright © 2004

- Robert Lee 伍振良
is the Executive Director and Curator of the Asian American Arts Centre. He initiated the Arts Centre's visual arts programming in 1978 and the Archive for Asian American Artists in 1982, drawing attention to the work Asian American artists as a field of special study. Many of today’s well-known artists were exhibited by him early in their career (see He has gathered AAAC’s Permanent Collection of four hundred works of art, the start of a public art history on this subject from 1945 onwards. In 1993, Lee was Chair of The Association of American Cultures (TAAC), a national advocacy organization on diversity in the arts where he served as a Board Member for eight years.