It Takes Three Generations

米 mǐ | uncooked rice: It Takes Three Generations; artist’s portrait by Stefan Gibson

It Takes Three Generations is the second iteration of my 米 mǐ | uncooked rice series.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice is an installation based on representational disparities in the US arts industry. mǐ is about unfolding the emotional and personal core for why this data matters, to reveal that underneath the numbers are people’s lives.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, art installation full view of tables, wood shavings on floor, and woodblock prints

米 (mǐ) is the Chinese word for uncooked rice and other grains, a metaphor for that which could sustain us, but in its unprocessed form is indigestible.

I am a second generation Taiwanese and Chinese American and the benefactor of two generations of my family’s immigration to the United States. My family owned a takeout retaurant in Kansas City in the 1990s, and this restaurant became the economic vehicle by which we pulled ourselves out of poverty. The takeout table, specifically, was a space of formative learning for me: where I learned to draw, read, observe people, and engage with the public. My first job was counting change to empty the cash register at closing time. My first business was selling 50 cent tins of tiger balm to customers waiting for their orders.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of the bowls / rice, which correspond with US population / US arts representation

There are layers of removal, of diaspora, that take place within 米 mǐ.

A drawing of a rice plant evolves into a pictograph before it becomes the modern Chinese character 米. Prints fade and language changes as we move farther from the source. Wood shavings form the English words, uncooked rice, the residue leftover from the carving and printing process.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, woodblock print of rice plant on muslin canvas, 39.5 x 39.5 inches
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, woodblock print of 米 Chinese character for rice on muslin canvas, 39.5 x 39.5 inches

A woodblock creates the print on canvas and the refuse on the floor, and is itself destroyed in its original purpose as a printing tool when transformed into a functional table.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of wood shavings spelling the words, uncooked rice

Data about who has representation in the art world unfolds to reveal personal stories that constitute the whole. A laminated placemat / menu displays US population percentages side-by-side with representation in US museums, galleries, and private art collections. Bowls on on table are either overflowing or under-filled, based on each population’s representation in the arts. For instance, while white men are 31% of the US (as represented by a 31 ounce bowl), their bowl overflows with 77% of the rice served on the table. Meanwhile, women of color collectively are less than half of one percent of US arts representation; their bowls contain only a couple grains of rice each.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of the bowls / rice, which correspond with US population / US arts representation
Bar graph of US Population versus representation in US museums, gallery, & private art collections: This was printed as a laminated placemat / menu on the table and on the wall by the waiting area

A final, tri-fold menu unfolds to reveal a personal timeline, my family story told via food as a political and socioeconomic indicator.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of wall installation of graphs and artist’s books (takeout menus) accompanying the exhibition

The table is a place for gathering, and is also an altar to memory and grief. It feels necessary to have made space to remember and grieve what’s lost. For it is only after reckoning with how we got here that we can ask, what’s next for our future selves?

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, art installation full view of tables, wood shavings on floor, and woodblock prints
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, installation view in Michael O’Brien Exhibition Commons at Emily Carr University
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, front view of art installation
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, artist Jenie Gao sitting in the waiting area of the restaurant installation / exhibition
Photo credit Stefan Gibson

米 (mǐ) | uncooked rice | US population vs US arts representation

Photos of the finished installation for 米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice. The Chinese symbol carved on the woodblock table top is 米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice. The size of the bowls correlate with the size of different demographics of the US population according to the US Census. The rice correlates with each demographic’s representation in the US arts industry. A set of stacked, empty bowls represents data that has not been collected by the US Census or another comparable study.

米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice, 39.5″ x 39.5″ carved woodblock table, Baltic birch plywood, ink, bowls, rice. Full shot, 3/4 view.
米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice, 39.5″ x 39.5″ carved woodblock table, Baltic birch plywood, ink, bowls, rice. Full shot, 3/4 view.
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Full shot of 米 (mǐ), front view.

Photos by Sidi Chen

米 (mǐ) is the Chinese character for uncooked rice

Below is the concept sketch of my art installation, mǐ / uncooked rice.

I have collected a great deal of data on disparities over the years, and as I explore data visualizations in my work, I am contending with this tension: When people share data and statistics, their goal is to prompt some kind of emotional reaction. Surprise. Shock. Rage. A desire to take action. But the visual representations of data tend to be cold and analytical, even if they are beautifully designed. We seem to want numbers to be objective and unbiased, but they are not, and our use of them is highly subjective and biased. I am embarking on an investigation of how to depict data in a way that is emotional and personal, starting with my formative experiences growing up in my family’s Chinese takeout restaurant.

Concept sketch for mǐ / uncooked rice, an art installation.
mǐ / uncooked rice will physically illustrate the data contained in this chart of the US population versus representation of artists in US museums.

A note on using multiple languages: As an Asian American woman, daughter of immigrants who grew up in rural Kansas, former educator in the underfunded Milwaukee public school system, former project manager in the white male dominated industry of manufacturing, and artist-entrepreneur who communicates between the arts and clients in other industries, I am well accustomed to code switching.

This is the irony of cultural assimilation. I spoke exclusively in Chinese and some Taiwanese until I was 3-4 years old. When I started preschool at age 3, the other children made fun of how I spoke, so as soon as I started learning English, I told my parents I no longer wanted to speak Chinese at home. The pressure of cultural assimilation was for someone like me to speak exclusively in the English language. But the long-term reality of assimilation is that I will be translating between communication strategies for the rest of my life.

In the context of data visualization, I wonder, how will the way data is represented change how people perceive and interact with it? When it is propagandistic? When it is personal?

How many times will I have to translate this information before you, the viewer, believe what I am telling you?

Exploring Data Visualizations

On a broad level, I am investigating potential countermeasures to arts-based gentrification. Specifically, I am currently looking at representation and compensation of women of colour artists, one of the most excluded groups in the arts industry, and what their access to cultural and economic power entails for the future of the arts and city development.

Jenie Gao’s poster, Do women have to be white to get into the Met. Museum?, on arts representation in 2021, following up on the 1989 Guerrilla Girls poster
Jenie’s hand drawn bar graph of US population versus US museum representation. Click image to view larger.

I am working with drawings, prints, and data presentation. My material interests include:

  1. Reproducible, distributable items like postcards, prints, and maps / tools for guidance.
  2. Large-scale works like projections, installation, and billboards to take over public space.

I come from a strong technical background. I enjoy creating beautiful things and images as vehicles for emotion and action. I am pondering, how do I develop an aesthetic language for this work that feels genuine to me? I am referencing examples of how others have presented data, like W.E.B. DuBois’ data portraits of Black America, and Susan Jahoda / BFAMFAPhD’s criticism of the academic-industrial complex, in which nothing can finally be paid off.

BFAMFAPhD’s installation, in which nothing can finally be paid off.
W.E.B. DuBois’ data portraits of Black America

In her Art News article, What Can We Learn from Institutional Critique?, Aruna D’Souza writes, “Is the goal to make institutions ‘better,’ more responsive to social concern…models for a just society? Is the goal dismantling institutions in general? …Does institutional critique even have a politics and theory of change?” This quote articulates my concern—to what end is this for? My work can function across contexts, in the gallery or the community centre or public space, but long-term success relies on becoming a part of mainstream solutions. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, The Case for Reparations, was once criticized and is now discussed in the US Congress. To sustain, what was unrecognized must enter society’s framework of comprehension. So the ideal contexts for my art are those that enable it to connect with public awareness and lay the groundwork to connect with future policymaking.

How do I develop an aesthetic language to carry this information? How do I make room for personal exploration, particularly as an AAPI woman living in a majority Asian [diasporic] city for the first time? Coming from the US, what makes this work and research relevant in Canada? What funding and partnerships do I need to build to scale research efforts and grow this work?

Jenie’s hand drawn graphs of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual revenue versus expenses. Where does the money go, to what and to whom? Click image to view larger.

Final Notes

When I created the Instagram handle @paywomenofcolor, Instagram immediately flagged and deactivated the account before it ever went live. I submitted an appeal for Instagram to reactivate the account. Below are screenshots of the email Instagram sent me on how to appeal to have my account returned to me, a process that required me to literally dox myself and submit a mug shot. They never released the Instagram account.

The Starving Artist: A Poem

The Starving Artist tree poem is based on my recent essay series entitled Free Art & Racism: unpacking the role of unpaid artists’ labor in perpetuating racism and exploitation.

To create the poem, I searched for all instances of the term, “starving artist,” in my essay, and mapped the subsequent sentences and repeated phrases.

The Starving Artist: a poem by Jenie Gao. Click the image to enlarge.