I am interested in pushing sculpture forward into a public dialogue related to matters of identity, personal history, and colonial legacies. My work involves reconstructing and transforming objects from the past to address critical questions and tensions in the present. The objects I am engaged with have been crucial to the expansion of empire in the Pacific and to the formation of early modern science such as botany. I manipulate materials and forms to create space for the viewer to renegotiate the past and its present-day legacies through introspection, scrutiny, and the activation of the imagination.
My inquiry into botany is part of my work because it is also part of my ancestry: I trace my family’s history in Hawaii to the mid-1800s and the transoceanic movement of people and plants across the Pacific during that period. American sugar planters in Hawaii sought out a local botanist with connections to China – he could send for both plants and people on the same ship. My relatives passed through the sugar and pineapple plantations, rice fields, and ranches of Hawaii; and my father’s side is of mixed ancestry: Chinese and Native Hawaiian. Hawaii’s troubled history of colonialism, ecological devastation, and dispossession is part of a story that productively shadows all of my work.
A project stays with me for months or even years at a time through which I am both working on it and thinking about it. The public exhibition activates the work through the viewer’s experience and through site-specificity. My installations engage wall space, floor space, and the in-between, and the work cannot be seen all at once. For the last several years ceramics has been crucial to my practice. Clay is a humble, affordable material, connecting us to the natural world while activating our sensory awareness. Ceramics carries within itself hybrid, cross-cultural influences and dialogues; it relates to global trade; and it is part of most aspects of human life. It relates to memory, touch, history, and desire.
In Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (2016/2018) I used clay to reconstruct the figures of this French colonial wallpaper. In remaking them, the process required hollowing and gouging into each figure, and shaping them with my hands. Through this process, the figures appeared mutilated, halfway merged with stone, coral, or earth. I used the tools roughly, allowing parts of the body to break off, and sometimes while hollowing I would puncture through the figure. My hands created the language for these ruptured figures to comment critically on this colonial wallpaper and its ideological representations of people from the Pacific. I put these figures on a 50-inch high narrow wall a few feet in front of the wallpaper to see everything simultaneously.
Southern Oceans (2018) featured a reconstruction of two 18th century copper-clad botanical shipping cases, 250 ceramic breadfruit sculptures, and an expanded version of the wallpaper “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique” – digitally corrupted with mismatches, blurs, and color shifts, while spanning three walls of the gallery in fragmented sections. The shipping carriers were rebuilt from 18th century scientific designs for the transportation of living breadfruit plants from Tahiti to England for study, cultivation, and eventual commercial planting in other colonial territories. These carriers appear as small prisons, cabinets, or tombs, to encase and protect the plants on a year-long ocean voyage. I wanted to use materiality and the relationship to the body to provoke expanded readings about violence, slavery, and labor, and the ecological legacies of colonialism. The sensually rotting ceramic breadfruits disrupted the monumentality of the shipping carriers by evoking renewal, regeneration, and the power of the natural world.
Seedling Carrier Both Tomb and Womb (2019) is a sculptural paradox. The form resembles a dollhouse, sarcophagus, or birdcage – simultaneously evoking safety, captivity, loss, and wonder. Elevated like a house protected from a flood and constructed from airy diamond mesh, the form relates to memory, displacement, and rebirth. The flowering vines, leaves, and fallen seedpods are handmade from paper clay and appear calcified, like bone, or as bleached coral, evoking a ghostly presence. Inside the carrier are broken pots, remnants of a garden nursery or an archaeological site.
30,000 Pressings (2019) is an oversized 5 ft reconstruction of a 19th century plant press displayed at the Botanical Museum at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. An Enlightenment-era machine, it is similar to one taken on a Pacific voyage, the HMS Endeavour, that collected 30,000 plant specimens between 1768-1771. The air holes, tightening bolts, mottled papers, and somber staining convey a kind of menace and a sinister quality. The plant press was constructed at human scale to defamiliarize the object and challenge viewer expectations.
Through their references to the natural world and their fragile, hand-made elements, these works evoke feeling of loss, displacement, and lingering vulnerability. The immersive and sensory qualities of these installations invite viewers to spend time in introspection and critical thought. What is the price for one kind of vision of the world imposing itself over another? How can we suggest other ways of being in the world?
M.F.A. Hunter College, New York, NY (2018)
B.A. Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA (2001)
A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn, NY (upcoming 2020, solo exhibition)
Socrates Sculpture Park Annual, Long Island City, NY (upcoming 2019)
Detroit Art Week, Young Curators, New Ideas V (upcoming 2019, two-person exhibition)
mh PROJECT, New York, NY (upcoming 2019, solo exhibition)
Super Dutchess, New York, NY (2019, solo exhibition)
Fergus McCaffrey, New York, NY (2019)
Underdonk, Brooklyn, NY (2019, two-person exhibition)
Haverford College Art Galleries, Philadelphia, PA, (2019, three-person exhibition)
Motel, Brooklyn, NY (2018, solo exhibition)
Nathalie Karg Gallery, New York, NY (2018)
Cooper Union, Artist-in-Residence Exhibition, New York, NY (2018)
Hunter College, 205 Hudson Gallery, New York, NY (2018)
SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York, NY (2018)
TAG Gallery, Santa Monica, CA (2015)
Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA (2015)
Gallery 825, Los Angeles, CA (2015)
Hawaii Pacific University, Kaneohe, HI (2013, two-person exhibition)
Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, HI (2012)
Honolulu Museum of Art, “Artists of Hawaii Biennial,” Honolulu, HI (2011)
Hunter College Evelyn Kranes Kossak Travel Grant (2017)
Hunter College MFA Mid-Program Award (2016)
Hunter College MFA Scholarship Award (2015)
Residencies and Fellowships:
A.I.R. Gallery, Artist Fellowship, Brooklyn, NY (2019-2020)
Smack Mellon, Artist Studio Program Residency, Brooklyn, NY (2019-2020)
Socrates Sculpture Park, Emerging Artist Fellowship, Long Island City, NY (2019)
Sculpture Space, Emerging Sculptor Fellowship and Residency, Utica, NY (2018)
Shandaken: Storm King Art Center Residency, New Windsor, NY (2018)
Cooper Union Artist-in-Residence, New York, NY (2018)
Studios at MASS MoCA Artist-in-Residence, North Adams, MA (2017)
Vermont Studio Center Residency and Scholarship, Johnson, NY (2015)
Brooklyn Rail, “Rachelle Dang: Southern Oceans,” Nina Wolpow (October 2018)
Hyperallergic, “Laughter and Tears in Hunter College’s MFA Thesis Show,” Zachary Small (May 2018) Whitehot Magazine, “Stepping into Spring Before it Was Warm Outside,” Daryl King (May 2018)
Haverford College Art Galleries, “Your Special Island: Andrea Chung, Rachelle Dang, Ming Wong,” catalog and essay by Courtney Lynne Carter and Maya Berrol-Young (February 2019)
B O D Y Literature, “Interview with Sculptor Rachelle Dang,” Jessica Mensch (April 2019)