Rachelle Dang, Southern Oceans, 2018 (detail), Copper, wood, steel, ceramic, digital print on self-adhesive vinyl, 9 x 14 x 18 ft.


Artist Statement

My work uncovers historical connections between places, people, and things. I remake and transform images and objects from the past to address critical questions in the present, particularly related to colonial legacies of ecology, labor, and migration. I manipulate materials and forms to create installation environments for contemplation, transformation, and empathy. Although my focus is the Pacific, particularly Tahiti and Hawaii, where my family has lived for six generations or longer, I aim to create works that are bridges connecting histories in cross-cultural, transoceanic ways.

Since moving to New York three years ago, I began to ask how I could make Pacific stories matter to an Atlantic audience. How do I locate and transform my work here? How are my concerns tied to the East Coast, the Caribbean, and Europe? I trace my family’s history to the migration of labor and the rise of sugar plantations and agricultural monopolies in Hawaii. I am interested in seeing my family’s story as part of an interwoven history connecting Polynesia to other colonial territories and to global issues of migration, labor, and ecology.

For my installation, “Southern Oceans” (2018), I placed sculptural works against a panoramic wallpaper which spanned the gallery. I reconstructed a new version of “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique,” a French colonial wallpaper produced in 1805 by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and currently housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Through a digital collage of iPhone photos taken of the original, I recreated the wallpaper with glitches, gaps, and mismatched layers to refer to tactics of appropriation and compositing used to construct the original ideological image. The fragmentation alludes to the compositing of tropes and fantasies of Otherness layered upon Polynesian ethnographic “types.” Sculptural works in the installation included reconstructions of large-scale, copper shipping containers based on scientific drawings from the 18th century, designed to transport newly-discovered breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to England for study and cultivation. Simultaneously prison and sanctuary, they suggest the treatment and transport of human bodies as commodities. 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 variegated copper patina created from salt and vinegar alludes to ocean voyages and wounded skin, while the sensually rotting ceramic breadfruits disrupt the monumentality of the shipping carriers by evoking renewal, regeneration, and the power of the natural world.

A new work, “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. Constructed from airy diamond mesh and covered in flowering vines, the all-white form relates to memory, displacement, and rebirth. Elevated on a stack of shipping pallets – like a house protected from a flood – and surrounded by larger-than-life seedpods, the structure has a ghostly presence. The flowering vines, leaves, and fallen seedpods are handmade from self-drying paper clay and appear calcified, like bone, or as bleached coral. Inside the carrier are broken pots, remnants of a garden nursery or an archaeological site. In my work there is paradox: what appears to be beautiful is questionable, what may seem precious or luscious is also disturbing and unsettling.

I feel that critical dialogue about history is crucial to grappling with our conception of the present and how we might orient ourselves towards the future. I want to create conditions for the viewer to experience something from the past in a way that is strongly relevant and felt. My goals are to provoke recognition of shared histories and to bring forward this complexity.