Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba has been making art with food for two years. Inspired by a visit to Tokyo, he adopted rice-a treasured staple food in the Orient and symbolic of life itslef-as his primary material. Following a series of wall-mounted works with cooked, sticky rice and other foods such as broccoli and cantaloupe rinds, he began to work outdoors, affixing moist rice to abandoned construction materials. Similar projects, glistening with snow-like incrustations, were produced during his residency in San Antonio and documented-because of their inaccessibility and impermanence-in a series of photographs.
Nguyen-Hatsushiba is not alone in his discovery of the evocative potential of food. The Italian Arte Povera artists of the 1960s used food as an inexpensive, natural material. Marcel Broodthaers’s egg and mussel shells, Daniel Spoerri’s mounted remains from dinner parties, and Wolfgang Laib’s delicate displays of milk and pollen convey the fragility and transience of life. Along with rice, Nguyen-Hatsushiba often includes waste materials, such as peels or rinds, to reinforce the idea of food as life sustaining. Recalling the symbolic images of peeled fruits in seventeeth century Dutchvanitas paintings, his materials also serve as reminders of the inevitablility of mortality.
Looking for a way to use uncooked rice, Nguyen-Hatsushiba developed a technique of sprinkling the dry grains from his hand on to the floor, reminiscent of the image-making processes of Tibetan monks and Navajo sand painters. Partially covering an elliptical mound of rice with dried orange and grapefruit rinds resulted in The Boat People (1994). The phenomenon of boat people, originally associated with the post-Vietnam era, led to Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s association of orange peels, the discarded materials of consumption, with the floating emigrants adrift between one society and another. Spoon, exhibited in ArtPace’s conference room gallery in the spring of 1995, pursued the issues raised by The Boat People in an oval sea of orange peels surrounding a precisely formed soup spoon made of dry rice.
Accompanying Spoon was a series of photographs taken by the artist during a recent fellowship period in Vietnam. Lacking any artifice and revealing only rare achnowledgements of the photographer’s presence, many of the photographers document the preparation and consumption of food and the cleaning of utensils. Another series of photographs was inspired by the prevalence of billboards devoted to AIDS prevention in Vietnam. Mounted by the Vietnamese government in response to the devastating epidemic in neighboring Thailand, the billboards feature families and condoms, while indicting syringes and prostitution. American viewers are struck by the absence of references to homosexuality, so prevalent in the homophobic West. At ArtPace, the AIDS photographs are displayed with floor-bound mounds of rice, like so many islands in the sea, that cradle transparent plastic globes filled with blood-colored dried tomatoes.
Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s most elaborate installtion to date, Shovel Boat-Perpetual Maze, was produced during his residency at ArtPace. Rising from a labryinth of chalky, black charcoal briquets is the shovel-like prow of a pristinge white boat formed of rice. The boat appears to glide effortlessly on a calm sea of pitch, melancholic-because of its transient, unfixed existence-and yet, like all of his work, celibratory of the poetry of life.