Andrea Chung in Artfile Magazine 10.15.14

by AM DeBrincat


DeBrincat: In 2013, you presented a large-scale installation entitled Bato Disik and a video projection entitled Bain de Mer at Helmuth Projects in San Diego, CA. Please tell us about the installation: the historical tragedy it is responding to, your research, the creation of the installation, and the culmination of the project in its presentation to the public.
The installation was based on my research during my Fulbright in 2009. I spent about a year in Mauritius (a former sugar colony) to study the food as a way to discuss migration patterns into the island. I was particularly interested in Le Morne, the mountain where a group of escaped slaves strategically established a village. When the British abolished slavery, they sent soldiers to tell them of their freedom. When the escaped slaves saw soldiers coming they jumped off the mountain and into the ocean. They would rather die than be recaptured.

By law, the newly free were suppose to do an apprenticeship for their former plantation masters to help with the transitional period from free enslaved labor to emancipation. However, former slaves in the southern part of Mauritius, especially in Le Morne, refused to do so and took up fishing as a trade. Fishing became a Creole generational trade. Presently the fishing trade is dying out due to over fishing and illegal foreign ships entering Mauritian waters. Creole fishermen are stigmatized because they are the decedents of slaves. They are referred to as lazy, drunk and savages, and are also marginalized by the government, often receiving unequal education. Their history is also purposely disregarded as not to create race riots amongst the communities.

I thought about fishing as as a revolutionary act and decided to make work that would try to honor the Creole community. I decided to cast boats out of sugar and place them in shallow water baths, allowing them to slowly melt and disappear over time, similar to the way the fishing trade is now disappearing in Mauritius.

Your video piece Bain de Mer is incredibly intense. I found the juxtaposition of the seemingly peaceful imagery – the sea, the methodical scrubbing of the text, the calm and deliberate actions we are shown throughout the video – with the “simply unbearable story” being calmly described in the voiceover to be very powerful. This piece made me think about the multiplicity of historical narrative, about the quiet violence of erasure that happens so often in our encounters with history, and about the complicated relationship between storytelling and ‘historical truth.’ Do you feel that these themes intersect with this piece? Please tell us about Bain de Mer.
That’s an interesting read on the work that I haven’t encountered before. I suppose they do intersect. When I was making this video I was thinking about Le Morne and trying to memorialize those that died. I went through the Mauritian archives and found a list of slaves that escaped in Black River, the district in which Le Morne is located, and wrote their names in sugar. I then collected water from the sea to wash away their names and then returned the water into the sea, which felt more like a burial. I suppose I was trying to free them in some way. Their deaths were so tragic. I didn’t want to completely wash any evidence of them ever existing though. It’s a fine line. I feel as though their story isn’t well preserved. I want the viewer to really think about what it takes to make the decision to end your life; the desperation of people who’d rather jump off a cliff than to go back to a system of slavery.

Please tell us about your piece Sink & Swim.
Sink & Swim relates back to the story of Le Morne. It was actually my first attempt at retelling the story. It took me three years to conceptualize the work. My husband was in Mauritius with me and he spent a lot of time fishing. He told me that despite the rods and reels, a lot of fishermen would use a line fishing method. The fishing line is wrapped around a bottle and nuts, bolts and rocks are used as weights. The line is cast into the water and when they feel a fish they pull the line up with their hands. I decided to cast liquor bottles out of sugar and recreate this type of fishing, wrapping and knotting up the line around the bottles. I also cast nuts and bolts out of sugar. I hung everything and allowed the bottles to slowly pull and melts on their own. The great thing about this installation was that the residency gave me a studio space that had it’s own thermostat, so I could really play with temperature of the environment.

You recently completed an installation entitled Natives at Vermont Studio Center, where you were awarded the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship to be an artist-in-residence. How did the experience of being an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center affect your work? Please tell us about Natives.
Residencies have always been a great creative space for me. I don’t have a dedicated studio anywhere so residencies have always been the way I get to experiment on a larger scale. I also really enjoy the community. I’m very isolated in San Diego, so it’s a good way to see a lot of art in one place and have sincere conversations with other artists, and also witness their process.

Natives started as time filler while I was working on another project. Most, if not all, of my work is research heavy and this was the opposite: playful and meditative. I didn’t plan on creating the installation. I just started cutting out the leaves and sticking them on the walls and couldn’t stop. I tend to do repetitive gestures in my work and I think I sort of zone out and allow myself to relax. I think that’s how Natives started. It kind of feels like drawing again, which is something I rarely do in my practice.

Your work addresses complicated and powerful themes – including colonialism, history, and truth – in works that are both visually arresting and, to me, quite beautiful. What is your work’s relationship with beauty, and what role, if any, do you feel that beauty plays in your work?
I really don’t think about beauty when I’m making work. Beauty is overrated and not always honest. I think more about refinement. How can I make a concise statement? I do try to make the work elegant, but not necessarily in an aesthetic way. I think elegant in a conceptual way.

Your practice is highly interdisciplinary and work often utilizes unconventional materials, including food. Please talk a bit about your relationship with materials, and the way that materiality creates meaning in your work.
Grad school really challenged my notion of what art could look like, and I thought about finding a different way to paint. I’d been making paintings about my family and sugar was the material that kept popping up. It was the start of me really examining the history of the mundane materials in our lives and our relationship to them. Sometimes those relationships are painful and complicated. We consume so many of these foodstuffs without ever questioning the politics behind them. You can trace what was happening in the world if you start to research the history of food items, like sugar, or rice. You start to see migration patterns all over the world, new languages and new cultures developing as a result of these movements. I’m interested in the power of these materials and their history in relation to those whose lives have been affected by the desire to consume them.

Please tell us about your piece Tourist Trap/Piége de Tourists.
While I was doing a residency at the McColl Center in Charlotte, I was asked to do a public project. I decided to serve food to the public and try to get them to think about the way in which they consume. I prepared dinner and lunch for two groups of invited guests from the Charlotte community and recreated a restaurant setting in my studio. I had a loop of songs playing, including Margaritaville, the audio from a Jamaican tourism board commercial, and music by Kaya, a Mauritian artist. I served the diners while wearing a t-shirt that had a bikini printed front and back while also carrying my 6-month-old son.

I served two dishes, one from Jamaica and the other from Mauritius. Both island nations are former sugar colonies with economies that depend heavily on tourism. I recreated some of my earlier cut out pieces, turning them into cloth napkins and made the diners eat with their hands. I engaged all of the diners’ senses to prompt them to recall their experiences with tourism and to examine their roles in the consumption of culture.

Your work often deals with history and place, and often culminates in pieces that are site specific. You have studied in Florence, New York City, and Baltimore, and have presented your work all over the United States, as well as in several other countries. How does place affect the creation and presentation of your work? What considerations enter into the creation of a piece for a specific location, and how does your familiarity or lack of familiarity with a place affect the way that you present work in that locale?
Installation is a new and scary world for me. It’s definitely not something I’m 100% comfortable with, but I suppose it would be bad if I were, right? Most of my installations take place in a residency space, so time and what I can and cannot do in the space always challenge me. Sugar really freaks people out. I think they are terrified of bugs and critters coming into their space. (I’ve never really actually had that problem.) But because I don’t have a permanent studio, I think I’m used to adapting to various spaces. I see the “limitations” as challenges.

What do you hope to impart to viewers who encounter your work, and what do you hope they take away from the experience of viewing your pieces?
I hope that people will consider labor and its complicated relationships with cultures that have developed from the descendants of people who were coerced into colonial workforces.

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