Chee Wang Ng: Eaten Your Fill of Rice? - Jonathan Goodman

As the artist Chee Wang Ng points out, the vernacular Chinese greeting “Eaten Your Fill of Rice?” is equivalent to saying “How are you?” or “What’s up?” It is also the title of an ambitious and engaging series of photographs, in which the artist addresses his culture by photographing bowls of rice that refer to different meanings in Chinese culture. Recently, the artworld in New York seems to have been overtaken by Chinese art; everywhere you look, there is another exhibition of contemporary work by a Chinese artist, not only from the mainland but also from the increasingly active Chinese diaspora, to which Ng belongs. Yet there remains much to be discussed; often we face images that need to be explained for the benefit of the general audience, who may be quite taken with the beauty of what they see but do not necessarily understand the implications of the painting, photograph, or object. In Ng’s art, one is similarly exposed to often subtle and highly sophisticated presentations of Chinese symbolism, which are found in the makeup and colors of the bowls and their surrounding ephemeral accessories. Ng is deeply interested in communicating aspects of Chinese culture to his worldly, but often uninformed audience, who wish for a background that would explain the differences between Chinese culture and their own way of doing things. He is a conceptual photographer, whose work often depends upon an awareness of context as well as the art itself.

    At play in the photographic series “Eaten Your Fill of Rice?” is more than meets the eye. The elaborately arranged, beautifully produced images can be analyzed for their formal balance, something that Ng strives for in each of the works. There is also a genuine richness in the specific meanings of the bowls and their attendant objects—for example, in Wise Beyond His Years (2000) we see a green bowl of rice with chopsticks, behind which is a basket of pears. A smaller pear sits to the right of the basket; in this case it is a literal illustration of a well-known story in which four-year-old Kung Jung, a 20th generation descendant of Confucius, is asked to select a pear from a basket. Upon choosing the smallest one, he is asked why. He replies, “My brothers are all older, they eat more than me. I am small, I don’t need much.” Ng comments that the father is proud of his son’s choice, seeing it as an example of wisdom, unselfishness, and respect for his elders. There is no way of knowing this story from the photograph itself, which in fact illustrates the tale quite specifically. As a result, the image is very contemporary, for it illustrates the tale conceptually, in a way that quite succinctly, but also exquisitely, summarizes the story’s content. Understanding the work is a case of our needing to know the details of the narrative so as to fully experience and appreciate the context of the story, which so beautifully embodies Confucian virtue.

    The other photographs are equally convincing as signs of Chinese culture. In the image Mindful of the Seven Emotions (2000), Ng refers to the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Cheng’en-en, who tells the story of Tripitaka, the monk in search of a holy sutra. He is tempted by desire when he is lured to a land in which only women live, but his determination to find the holy text keeps his from temptation. He must learn, in transit, to master the Buddhist list of seven primary emotions: happiness, anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate, and desire. Ng’s illustration of the text includes the omnipresent bowl of rice and chopsticks, backed in the photo by tableware consisting of the female form. The tureen, stein, wine glass, decanter, cup, plate, and chopsticks rest are all based upon the female figure, which here punctuates the tale of resistance to the erotic attraction of women. While Ng is illustrating a part of the novel, he is at the same time continuing his search for a visual language that would adequately indicate what it means to be Chinese; in the case of Mindful of the Seven Emotions, the story is a classic, well known to educated Chinese, and it would seem that Ng is attempting to impart some of the novel’s wisdom to his viewers.

    Not all of the images are so intricately connected to Chinese achievements—most of them incorporate a less complicated symbolism, as in the example Blessed with Progeny and Wealth (1999), in which a green rice bowl, signifying status and wealth, is coupled by a porcelain child, another symbol of a happy life. On both sides of the green bowl are red peonies, which also indicate wealth. This rather materialist treatment of Chinese culture is offset by the esoteric Illuminating Pearl of Zen (1998), in which a rice bowl, decorated by rows of dots that transmit light, is surrounded by a ground with a repetitive pattern that also suggests points of light. Of course, the aim of Zen is to be illuminated from within, a goal that the humble bowl of rice symbolizes with its translucent pattern. Here the symbolism grows subtly, infusing the image with a powerful clarity. And in Providence (1999), a digital C-print, Ng concentrates on the color red, which symbolizes good fortune. The bowl is red, as is the table on which it rests; additionally, the chopsticks are red, the elements construing an environment in which good luck can thrive. The mound of white rice is the only other color in the work, leaving to concentrate his attention on the red hue.

    Like most New Yorkers, Ng was deeply affected by the tragedy of September 11th. He decided to make a memorial installation, playing off the notion that it is taboo in Chinese culture to stick chopsticks into a bowl of rice because the chopsticks then resemble sticks of incense, burned to commemorate the dead. Reversing tradition, Ng made a memorial installation in which a bowl of rice has two tall, white “chopsticks” representing the twin towers that were destroyed. The bowl itself is decorated with seven red horizontal lines dripping blood—the image is meant to symbolically depict the red stripes of the American flag. Encircling the bowl are fifty stars, representing the fifty states, on blue candles. The installation has been created to give voice to those rendered voiceless; it is also a highly patriotic display who wanted to add his recognition of the terrible events in a way that would do justice to the American tradition, which of course is based on the efforts of immigrants much as Ng himself, who is originally from Malaysia. The point here is that people from many kinds of backgrounds, including the Asian diaspora, were victims of the terrorism, and consequently, Ng’s art moves beyond polemic to a truly moving consideration of the event’s tragic destructiveness, in a language that incorporates his identity even as it pushes forward a belief in the unity of experience and expression regarding the burden of grief all Americans share.

    Ng’s last project is entitled 100 China(s): All Chinese Looks Alike.... Ng, who has been collecting white ceramic/porcelain bowls for years from all over the world, makes the point that what is deeply associated with Chinese culture is actually the result, for example, of what has been made in Sri Lanka with New Zealand clay, funded by Japanese investments using English technology and German-made kilns. This is all for an American market, and all of the finished work is called “china.” Ng’s idea is to display 99 bowls, engaging the viewer as the person theoretically completing the 100th example. He asks, “Is there a missing void or a welcome to join in this union?” “Should the vessel blend in or will it stand out?” And, “Do we need more bowls?” Each of the bowls will be accompanied by a pair of chopsticks and a dog tag detailing its place or origin. 100 China(s) tells a story of multiple identities gathered under a single group and understandably places emphasis on the globalized craft that makes the bowls what they are. The subtle differences from bowl to bowl point out how complicated Chinese identity has become; we must remember that Ng himself is a part of the Chinese diaspora, now dispersed throughout the world.

    Asking questions in a way that incorporates contemporary notions of Chinese existence, within the political and economic awareness of how globalization has changed our notions of who we are, Ng moves beyond specifics while being deeply rooted in them. The bowls of rice owe their considerable cultural force because they are a transformed stereotype; it is Ng’s goal to address the stereotype and find meaning in its excavation from received ideas, freeing our notions of traditional Chinese culture in favor of a less boundaried, more openly fluid awareness of what it means to be Chinese. As a result, it is fair to say that Ng’s projects are profoundly contemporary attempts to define the state of Chineseness, in a way that encompasses everyone’s attempt, so difficult in today’s culture, to become a person in his own right.

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

- Jonathan Goodman
is a poet and writer who has specialized in writing about Asian, specifically Chinese, art for the last ten years. He lives and works in New York, where he teaches at Pratt Institute. Writing for several magazines, including Art in America and Sculpture, he handles the reviews section for the quarterly Art Asia Pacific, a publication devoted to contemporary Asian art.