Chee Brings China to Des Moines

Amanda Pierre
October 3, 2004

Bowls and rice take on monumental importance in the work of Chee Wang Ng, a New York artist who has three bodies of work currently in Des Moines.

The convenient vessel and the Asian dietary staple are key to his work on cultural identity, world hunger and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The work showcases the artist's wit and aesthetic flair. He studied at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and now works at the Asian American Arts Centre in New York.

His display, "Eaten Your Fill of Rice?" in the atrium of Capital Square, consists of 15 8-by-8-foot square panels hung on the walls.

The title is a traditional Chinese greeting. As Americans might say "How you doing?" or "What's up?" the Chinese often salute each other and begin cursory conversations with the question: "Eaten your bowl of rice?" Ng said this stems from a basic need to know that your neighbors and friends are well-fed.

Some of the bowls pictured are white and luminous, some rich red or minty green. Some look bumpy; others are smooth and transparent. Their background settings contain a variety of objects, such as chopsticks, pears and seeds.

The meanings behind the motifs come from Chinese folk sayings or reference Buddhist morality tales.

For instance, in "Mindful of the Seven Emotions," a simple white bowl of rice is flanked by containers shaped like female forms in a backdrop with dim and sultry lighting.

In the catalog that accompanies the display, a reader learns that the picture represents the journey of a Buddhist monk who, on his search for the Holy Sutra, was almost distracted from his purpose by seductive women.

He must be "mindful of the seven emotions," which, according to Buddhism, are happiness, anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate and desire.

In another piece, "Providence," a mound of rice in a radiant red bowl is placed against a similarly sleek plane of red, with red chopsticks off to the side that seem to delineate an upward dynamic. The accompanying text explains that red is known as the color of fortune, or "providence."

While teaching about the Asian culture, this work also fits in neatly with the theme of this year's World Food Prize International Symposium, "Rice: From Asia to Africa," and helps celebrate the year 2004's designation as "the Year of Rice" by the United Nations.

Although Ng started this series in 1998, a new photograph, "A Bountiful Harvest" was commissioned to honor the co-recipients of this year's World Food Prize - Professor Yuan Longping of China and Dr. Monty Jones of Sierra Leone, both significant contributors to world rice production.

"There was a natural link to this year's focus of the prize, and the fact that rice is the staple food of most of the world's people," said Des Moines art collector Arthur Neis, who helped make the connection between Ng and the World Food Prize Foundation.

Ng's piece for the prize, "A Bountiful Harvest" features five different grains, including rice, corn, millet and soy, pictured in bowls decorated with cowrie shells, on a mud cloth mat of African origin.

Ng has smaller versions of two of his "Eaten Your Fill of Rice?" pieces at the Plymouth Congregational Church, (titled "Fulfillment to All Desire" and "Four Seasons of Brilliance") along with two other installations.

The installation, "100 China(s): All Chinese Look Alike…," is Ng's tongue-in-cheek tribute to stereotyping and cultural identity. In this exhibit, he presents 100 white bowls, or pieces of China, in a clear case.

If you look underneath the bowls, you can see their global origins. Even a brief look at the display shows that, indeed, not every white bowl is alike. They have different patterns, textures and variations in shape.

Also at the church, Ng has set up his memorial to Sept. 11.

Ng informs the viewer with such statements as this one: "In the civil Confucian tradition, a meal is a rite at a round table where everyone is at rest, sharing the daily bounty."

And, "Chopsticks should always be placed on the side. It is taboo to stick chopsticks vertically into the rice bowl because it resembles joss sticks (or incense sticks), offerings to the dead and not to the living."

Such statements bring poignancy to the presentation of two oversized chopsticks upright in a bowl at the center of the exhibit. In that position, they resemble the World Trade Center's twin towers.

The bowl is set at a low, round table for one. A Buddhist salvation prayer is heard as part of the exhibit, impressing upon the viewer that respectful mourning speaks no single language, and that the tragedy can be seen from a world view.

Copyright © 2004 The Des Moines Register