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Rhunhattan: An Interview with Beatrice Glow

During the Spice Wars in the 17th century, nutmeg was worth its weight in gold, and its trees grew only on the Moluccas Islands of Indonesia. One of the smallest of these islands, Rhun, was considered the first English overseas colony, and its people and resources were quickly war-torn by competing Western powers. Rhunhattan, Beatrice Glow’s installation in Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space, not only ruminates on a particular colonial history, but also brings into question the many trajectories which continue to develop out of complex networks of globalization. The aestheticizing of violence, colonialism and environmental exploitation only continue to morph and expand. Today, Manhattan is an economic capital of the world, while Rhun has disappeared from Western memory. Despite Dutch attempts, in 1665, to destroy Rhun’s remaining natural resources, nutmeg trees continue to grow on the island today.[1] Glow’s work is an effort to uncover these forgotten histories, as well as enduring legacies. In advance of the Artist’s Talk Saturday afternoon, October 24, in Glyndor Gallery, Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, discussed Rhunhattan, cross-cultural narratives, art-making with spices, and more with Glow.Beatrice-Glow-place-setting

Danni Shen: Visitors are enveloped i​n an​ aroma as they approach the sunroom. What is this scent?

Beatrice Glow: I infused my sculptures with a blend of scents, using spices and herbs that have been at the center of colonial commerce and conflict during the Age of Discovery. Dominant notes include nutmeg, mace, cloves, black pepper from Malabar coast, patchouli and cinnamon. Historically, spices have been held in high regard as medicine. They have been used in religious rites, act as status symbols fit only for royals and nobles and have even served as aphrodisiacs. They were literally “to die for.” As writer Jack Turner puts it, spice is the “taste that launched thousands of ships.” [2]

I work with olfactory art for its ephemeral, transporting and polymorphous qualities. It resurrects​ dusty memories. Visitors to the show can be seduced and repulsed altogether by the scent—which is a metaphor for the stench of money,​ at which I am pointing​. As visitors leave the gallery and the scent dissipates, so does their memory of it evaporate.

DS: How do these trajectories of globalization, the Spice Trade and Rhun manifest themselves today, and resonate in our contemporary post-colonial times? That’s a broad question, but you can specify how they appear in, or affect, your work/practice? How do you tie these relationships together visually in your work? Do you start with a narrative, a personal history, a cultural custom?

BG: In a nutshell, nutmeg was to the Age of Discovery what petroleum is today. Viewing the spice trade as a gateway drug to commodity fetishism, Rhunhattan unearths the forgotten tale of two islands that were swapped at the inception of globalization, using it as a media archaeological dig into the strata of unsavory economic exploits. Because I was thinking through the impact of the Spice Wars, it was appropriate to present the work as a conversation about commodities—spices, coffee, sugar, chocolate.  While I am intrigued by how ocean trade and travel make it possible for culture and objects to circulate between Asia and the Americas, and that often is embedded in a history of labor exploitation, I am responding to global concerns about exploitation in all its forms―across intersections of race, gender, socioeconomic conditions, natural resources and geopolitical peripheries.

Beatrice-Glow-pitcher​In addition, ever since the installation opened, the golden nutmeg ​ceramic ​pieces have been disappearing from the installation. I​ see this as a​ participatory performance where the​ public​ is​ responding to my proposition by snatching up my golden nutmegs. It fits neatly into the ​Spice Wars ​narrative.

DS: Are there particular elements, of the Sunporch, of Glyndor House or Wave Hill in generalarchitectural, for instance, or historicalto which you are speaking in creating this installation?

BG: Wave Hill is a feast of senses. I especially love inhaling the intoxicating floral fragrances of the greenhouse while admiring the living collection of transplants from distant tropical lands, all contained in the glass box of the Conservatory. It presented quite a contrast during the winter, while I was in residence [during Wave Hill’s 2015 Winter Workspace Program]. This notion of domesticated wilderness inspired me to approach my installation in the Sunporch as a pristine tearoom that harbors the insanity, greed and desire of commerce.

Architecturally speaking, the light-filled Sunporch is situated in the American Federalist style Glyndor House. The building’s red brick walls are framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. Through the glass, one feels embraced by surrounding greenery. It is very inviting. I chose a red color palette in response to the brick walls, but also to speak to industrial paint colors—Colonial Brick Red, Oriental Red and Colonial White. And of course, blood red.

I was intrigued by the idea of toying with the colonial aesthetic by creating a refined ​atmosphere that, upon closer observation, becomes, unsettlingly, “blood china,” as one visitor exclaimed. By reappropriating the aesthetics of museographic cultural authority, I am able to interject an erased colonial history

DS: Why the format of a tearoom? And can you talk more about Delftware?

BG: In Rhunhattan, I ​revisit colonial commerce between Europe and Asia​. And Delftware is a celebrated pottery style that emerged during the 17th century, when the Dutch imported a lot of Chinese porcelain. Chinese internal politics, however, led to a cease in foreign trade in 1620. This, then, led to a boom in Delftware as Europeans scrambled to feed the desire for fine porcelain. With roots in chinoiserie, the famed blue and white Delftware is ironically an appropriation of a Chinese exportation aesthetic. Sometimes, Delftware has idyllic landscape imagery depicting Asia or Europe, so I wanted the narrative to be inclusive. And so I inserted a darker chapter from that time period.

Do you know of boneware? In the process of decoding the formula behind Chinese porcelain, the potters used bone ash, deducing that because silk comes from a worm,  porcelain had to come from an animal as well. This historical reality is macabre and manicured at the same time like a blood diamond.Beatrice-Glow-platter-with-nuts

DS: As an American of Taiwanese descent investigating indigenous and Pacific-centric aspects of your diasporic roots, how do you position yourself in these dialogues?

BG: I’m a big proponent of structuring conversations around hemispheric, oceanic, diasporic and transnational cross-sections. When I think of Taiwan, I think of an island that has undergone numerous waves of colonization, martial law, migration and emigration. I also think of resourceful islanders, always with their eyes on the horizon. As an American daughter of immigrants, I am sensitive to notions of belonging. These layers of genetic and cultural memory make me wary of nationalisms and ethnocentricity.

My earlier works were largely auto-ethnographic research-creations. In 2007, I searched for family in Buenos Aires. Then I traveled through Peru’s plantations, through the Andes and the Amazon, uncovering the history of migration and of the labor exploitation of Asian coolies. In those two years, I met many Chinese-Peruvian elders, who shared their stories with me. My role became that of a medium who archives and transmits. After Peru, I shifted my focus towards Austronesia, a term that refers to the regions with linguistic roots originating in Taiwan and spanning west to Madagascar, north to Hawaii, south to Papua New Guinea and east to Easter Island. On the one hand, I am curious about Taiwan’s indigenous identity; on the other, I also look towards Austronesia with awe: it is the largely forgotten history of five millennia of human migration across a vast watery continent! Along this trajectory, Rhunhattan is an important chapter about the circulations between Asia and the Americas to which I find myself drawn. While this work can be seen as very region-specific, it offers a voice for illustrating identities in flux in a globalized sphere. I think it is a voice that must be heard.

DS: What is the next step of your project Rhunhattan? Does the research-creation continue?

BG: I want to develop an augmented reality experience that will overlay Rhun’s colonial landmarks onto Manhattan through the lens of a tablet. Ideally experienced through a guided tour, participants will be transported even further by the power of smell—taken on an immersive psychogeographical journey by wearing sculptures aromatized with scents from the Spice Islands. While participants travel through Manhattan’s financial district, African Burial Grounds and the waterfront, the app will display corresponding views from Rhun: a nutmeg orchard flourishes in Ground Zero, the Old English Fort stands in Battery Park and a battleground enshrouds Soho. To develop this, I plan to conduct travel-research to map and build 3-D scans of Rhun.  By merging the two islands, Rhunhattan will foment reflections on globalization’s wheel of fortune, the balance of trade, labor and resource exploitation, and expose invisible narratives between Asia and the Americas. I believe that the augmented-reality experience, because it can place the user virtually in the shoes of another, holds immense potential for maximizing the effectiveness of telling difficult social histories, thereby increasing levels of empathy and reflection. Beatrice-Glow-plates

DS: Who, what  and where are your inspirations?

BG: Artist Ping Chong’s wise words that “all islands are connected underwater” resonates deeply with me. From continent to continent, people to people, culture to culture, island to island, we share so much more than what is apparent on the surface. If spirit animals exist, mine would be a blue marlin traversing the oceans with a sword-like snout, charging across borders. I am moved by the silenced histories that have been dumped in postcolonial landfill. To borrow a phrase from Foucault, ships are our civilizations’ reservoirs of imagination. They remind me of the immensity of the ocean, and of all the exploration that lays ahead.

DS: Where do you see your practice heading? As an artist, do you have an agenda?

BG: I see myself stringing together fragments of history from the periphery, filling in the blind spots by retelling oral histories or creating missing archaeological artifacts. I’m interested in how historical erasure affects how we perceive cultural/racial/gendered hierarchies. People without material culture are deemed dismissable in the western canon. Diasporic and migratory people are often caught in survival mode. Since their cultural and socioeconomic foundations have been drastically shaken in a postcolonial world, they often lack the resources to write their own history. My continual effort is to dissolve nationalisms and ethocentricity. I apply myself towards decolonizing our minds of erroneous social imaginaries of the “other” so that respect for both ethnospheres and biospheres can take place. This is why I find the intertwined fate between Rhun and Manhattan arresting. It so effectively demonstrates how one event can lead to such an out-of-proportion global impact​.​ This logic applies at both macro and micro levels: any decision, or indecision, is consequential in the co-creation of our collective future. In plain words, we are in this boat together. I want to highlight this thread of pervasive interconnectivity.

[1] Dotschkal, Janna. The Spice Trade’s Forgotten Island. National Geographic. June 22, 2015.

[2] Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of a Temptation. London: Vintage. 2005.

Pictured above, from the top:
Rhunhattan, 2015, Beatrice Glow, detail. Credit Wave Hill.
Rhunhattan, 2015, Beatrice Glow, detail. Image courtesy of the artist
Rhunhattan, 2015, Beatrice Glow, detail. Photo by Stefan Hagen
Rhunhattan, 2015, Beatrice Glow, detail. Credit Wave Hill

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