A Bowl of Rice by Zai Kuning

Price of Rice and the value of art

Rice, a potentially politically and economically charged commodity has hit the news headlines several times with rising prices, and seemed a taboo material to be used in abundance for arts sake. Rice, a staple for all South East Asian nations and beyond, is often compared to gold at harvest, and deeply intertwined with folklore and traditional virtues of labour. Bordering on an act of re-distribution, the artist hopes to use the address the global economical dimension of this recent rice price hike, and the inequalities faced by small scale farmers that rely on rice for livelihood, affected by natural climate and man-made exploitations; in our local context, the difficulties faced by those where rice is a staple food, a necessity.

The installation by Zai Kuning consists of kolam patterns growing, reconfigured and diminished every Sunday– made from 500Kg of rice purchased from Sculpture Square’s project fund for it’s 9th Anniversary exhibition and rice donated by viewers and well wishers. In the centre of the kolam, are placed 9 wafer thin gold discs, arranged in a circle, suggesting the preciousness of the staple grain, and perhaps to imbue it with spiritual importance, like offerings seen in rituals of the Balinese Hindu, Taoism or Tibet; or the gold that clad the Pagodas of Myanmar. The rice from the installation is neatly packed in plastic bags, assisted by H.O.M.E, and distributed to local charitable organizations – Catholic Welfare Service, Singapore (CWS) Darul Ihsan Orphanage, Singapore Kampung Senang Charity & Education Foundation and Marine Parade Family Service Centre, Food Not Bombs and other beneficiaries.

One of the site-specifici reasons for the work lies in the history of the chapel gallery, a site that once cleansed weary souls and offered a place of prayers for many. Zai Kuning, famous for his 90s action as a Butou Dancer in theatrical circles, and earlier profound involvement in radical performance art, and continued exploration of music through his collaborations under Onistudio, threads this installation with a few accompaniments of singing and the guitar unplugged – to sing a song of praise in tribute for the farmers. Can a live action or performance be spiritual, without being religious? Can the artist intervention raise the value of the rice gathered, and in turn feed more? But if so, for how long? The installation definitely subverts the art market, opening more questions of our own values towards rice and ‘an act of charity’ beyond that as a commodity to be speculated.

The symbolism or significance of the material used in Zai’s work also reminds one of Thai artist Montien Boonma’s work, or conceptual German artist Joseph Beuy’s work where the material takes centre stage of the work’s meaning. Montien Boonma uses powerful spices and herbs in a bid for spiritual healing; Joseph Bueys associates felt, and animal fat with his own biographical, mythical healing. While it is questionable whether art can make the rice taste better, or indeed would it make us savour every grain of rice at lunch and dinner time, one is only touched by the art when we see each grain as a fruit of someone’s labour, and witness first-hand the respect the artist accords his material.

A bowl of rice by Zai Kuning

Sculpture Square, Chapel Gallery
22 June – 13 July, 2008
10 – 6pm daily, admission free

Zai Kuning’s Onistudio Blog at http://onisstudio.blogspot.com/2008/06/bowl-of-rice.html
Montien Boonma’s Temple of the Mind: http://www.nga.gov.au/Boonma/edu.cfm

One response to “A Bowl of Rice by Zai Kuning

  1. I like your art it’s very zen, kind like mine except I use flour and spices. Koodos! Beautiful work!

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