Rachelle Dang

Couroupita/Corpus at A.I.R. Gallery

Text by Adriana Furlong

Rachelle Dang: Couroupita/Corpus is on view at A.I.R. Gallery through December 20, 2020.

Two columnar forms face the viewer as she enters A.I.R. Gallery into a solemn, even funereal, atmosphere that engenders a respectful posture of silence and delicate treading, lest one interrupt the whispered conversations fossilized in Dang’s Couroupita/Corpus (2020). Dang’s sculpture, rooted in couroupita guianensis — known in the vernacular as the cannonball tree — is heavy with the possibility of abundant growth. Yet this allusion to botanical mobility is artifice. Should a breeze wind its way into the gallery, there would be no quiver of either leaf or budding flower. This formal heaviness proliferates at the bottom of the trunk where the tree reveals evidence of its yield: bulbous, almost skull-like forms weighed down by their ripeness and calcified in pristine condition. Here, decomposition and the natural order are denied and, as such, unsettle.

Adjacent to the corpus of the cannonball tree is a shipping container, metronomic in form, modeled on horticultural transportation boxes from the early 19th century: emblems of entrapment and curation promulgating narratives of dominance. Based on actual illustrations of the chambers forged to transport botanical conquests, these vessels indicate that although some systems of subjugation may have receded, the endurance of the original blueprints provides for their easy restoration. I am reminded here of French philosopher Édouard Glissant’s thesis on errantry, that is, the “explorer” asserting his preordained and therefore sanctioned journey of articulation of self in foreign lands. This point of contact engenders the gradual enervation of those colonized, and a painful and slow process then commences that sees the colonized attempting to regain their identity, a long struggle for selfhood through opposition. In this way the colonizer is the purveyor of an eclipsing silence.

Historical context for many of Dang’s sculptures is derived from a period in the mid to late 1800s when the United States and other nations began importing seeds and other plant elements from lands they had either colonized or explored, materials plundered and sequestered for an ostensibly scientific purpose. Altogether, this is a ploy for mastery: mastery over nature, over civilizations, over bodies. On its fraught journey, couroupita guianensis — its significance based in its supply of nutrients and medicinal properties to the indigenous communities whence it came — would naturally begin to lose its flowering buds and leaves. A negative space would then be re-rendered in wax on arrival to the museum in question. This transportation of goods was designed with the probability of death in mind, the limbs and trunk mirroring discardable bodies of those plundered from another land. Fundamental to this environmental subjugation, and what motivates it, is a desire for utopia, an ideal as suspect as it is flawed. A consequence of utopian thinking is a forgetfulness–and even suppression–of the past, especially its ambiguity.

Dang’s intervention in this suppression is both devotional and haunting. Subtle stitches at the back of the trunk bespeak a narrative that must be rearticulated. The resulting work is a palimpsest of lost diasporas that have only been murmured, if spoken at all. Unlike the various architects of utopian thought, Dang refutes future-oriented philosophies in order to escape the easy road of historical amnesia. Her careful casting of the tree and her weaving together of a multiplicity of narratives are a reinvestigation of the past, and create a schema of new possibilities for interpretation. Dang’s tree, emancipated from its tomb-like enclosure, is given a new lexicon by the artist and is both a radical homage to bodies uprooted and a re-articulation of narratives buried by forced migration.

Rachelle Dang (b. Honolulu, Hawai`i) was awarded a 2019-2020 Fellowship with A.I.R. Gallery, and has exhibited widely between New York and Hawaii. In 2021 she is scheduled to participate in a residency at Yaddo. Dang is an adjunct faculty member at Hunter College and is based in Brooklyn, NY.

rachelledang.com / @rachelledang.studio

Adriana Furlong is a multidisciplinary artist currently living in NYC and seeking her degree at Parsons School of Design. @adriana.furlong

Images courtesy of A.I.R. Gallery and the artist. Header and images 2, 3, and 4 by Etienne Frossard. Image 1 by Sebastian Bach.

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