Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique
Ceramic, digital print on self-adhesive vinyl, aluminum shelves, paint
9 x 13 x 2 ft
Installation for SPRING/BREAK Art Show (New York, NY) 2018.
Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique
Ceramic, painted cardboard boxes, adhesive vinyl, wood table
10 x 14 x 5 ft
Installation at Hunter College (New York, NY) November 2016
In 2011 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I came across nine panels from the original twenty that comprise the 1806 French panoramic wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (“The Native Peoples of the Pacific Ocean”). I recognized the depiction of a feathered helmet worn in Hawaii at the time of James Cook’s arrival in 1778 similarly illustrated by an artist employed on that expedition. The wall text informed me I was viewing a “Tahitian-inspired landscape…populated by native people from various Pacific islands, shown in their distinctive costumes.” In this Orientalist staging of Pacific Islander types, people otherwise separated by hundreds or thousands of miles stand side-by-side playing their part in a French fantasy of a Pacific Eden.
I have been fascinated with this wallpaper because it empowered its viewer to feel control and domination through sight – the panoramic wallpaper functioned like Foucault’s panopticon. I am interested in how designer Jean-Gabriel Charvet and manufacturer Dufour et Cie employed different visual languages, spatial tactics, and forms of knowledge to convey possession and mastery of the world. Science merges with mythology, knowledge with fantasy. The work of natural science – botanical illustration, topographic coastal drawings, and observational depictions of tools and ships – frames and legitimizes an epic spectacle of other people and other lands. Its spatial organization resembles a diorama, frieze, or theatrical set, but this layout also creates a fictional geography of the Pacific and serves ethnographic ideology by hierarchically positioning people by skin color. Neither Charvet, Dufour, nor any artist who worked on this monumental project had ever been to the Pacific. As a young artist Charvet had lived for three years in Guadeloupe, producing hundreds of drawings of plants, people, and things. He saw the Pacific through this formative experience in the Caribbean.
In my installation Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (2016/2018) I recreated the wall panels depicting Tahiti and Hawaii through a digital collage of iPhone photos – exposing glitches, gaps, and mismatched layers. Scaled to match the original at nine feet high, the fragmentation of my image alludes to tactics of appropriation and compositing employed by Charvet and Dufour et Cie to construct this artifice - an incredibly faulty and complex document. I used my wallpaper reconstruction as a backdrop for hand-built ceramic figures and natural forms, these distressed versions of what one sees in the wallpaper. I wanted to disrupt the aesthetic harmony and unity of the image and challenge the way its romantic aesthetics cloak a colonialist ideology.
I began working on Les Sauvages by remaking the figures in clay. The medium was all about physical contact. As I worked I decided to break down the copy. I wanted to reveal these figures as constructions, fantasies, fallacies. I wanted these figures to speak simultaneously through sensuality and distress, disrupting cohesion and ideas of utopia. The sculpting process required me to gouge and hollow, but I pushed this action further in order to disfigure and corrupt. Breaking through the surface, or breaking parts of the figure through an aggressive hollowing, provided a counter-aesthetic, a way to challenge the aesthetic harmony and neoclassical elegance of the image. The fragmentation and abject qualities of these sculptures convey the urgency and immediacy of the present. I was aiming for a disunity of broken form and mottled surface to demythify, to dig out truth, and to insert my authority over this relic.
In the first iteration for Hunter College in 2016, twenty-seven objects - figures, figure groupings, breadfruits, trees, and a volcano - were surrounded by ceramic debris and arranged in frieze formation on a 50-inch high table enabling viewers to see everything at once, at eye-level, layered upon each other. For the 2018 installation at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, I framed the wallpaper with ten figures and figure clusters on thin shelves spray-painted with a wash of color matching the wallpaper. Glistening ceramic breadfruits were densely piled at the base of the wall, extending towards the viewer’s feet. For both iterations I wanted the abundant presence of sensually decaying natural forms to undermine the wallpaper as a structure of control and reemphasize the power of the natural world.
The breadfruit tree is depicted in the Tahitian panel of Dufour et Cie’s Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. The breadfruit itself has a complex history: it is indigenous to the southern Pacific and Southeast Asia, and traveled across Melanesia and Polynesia as a canoe plant with the first human settlement of Oceania. It is common in Hawaii – my sisters have breadfruit trees in their backyards – and in Tahiti, where it was found by the British in 1769 and considered to be the most useful plant in the world. Between 1778 and 1780, the Royal Society offered fifty pounds or a gold medal to anyone who could bring at least three live species in a “growing state” to London.
I cast the breadfruit forms from thirteen different molds made from breadfruits purchased at Brooklyn and New York markets. I pressed and manipulated the clay directly in the mold to make approximately 50 unique castings. The ceramic fruits appear at different stages of ripeness, decay, or rot; pecked by birds or cast aside by humans. I have been repelled and mesmerized since childhood by the sensation that tropical fruits closely resemble parts of the body not only in size and shape, but also through textural qualities of an outer “skin” that evoke the pores, warts, bumps, bruises, and lesions of human skin. In my installation, I have arranged the fruits in piles, alluding to topography, the forest floor, and the sensuality of bodily forms. In this context they also convey ideas of ecological processes, preciousness, and violence.
- Rachelle Dang, 2018