Set off by itself in a corner of the gallery, on a white pedestal, there is a brutalized object. It's a fleshy and brownish thing squeezing through the bars of an odd-looking metal cage. It blobs out on all sides, the sight of it making my own skin tighten.
What I'm seeing looks like a gourd. A gourd in pain, like one of those male bodies all twisted up in the center of a noxious environment in a Francis Bacon painting. As the body tries to exert itself, the world punches back.
I first saw this sculpture this past summer, at the Out of Sight exhibition concurrent with Seattle Art Fair. It's by Robert Rhee, and he's showing more pieces from the same series this month at Glass Box Gallery.
At Glass Box, some of the sculptures sit on pedestals and some hang on the walls. Each is a different variation that induces the same fundamental curiosity. Are those actual gourds, and if they are, how did they get inside those cages?
It turns out that the answer involves the Washington State Gourd Society.
The Gourd Society was formed in 2007 and, according to its mission statement, "does not discriminate on the basis of age, color, disability, education, financial status, height, marital status, national origin, political beliefs, religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, weight, or whether you craft in big, small, round, or skinny gourds."
The Gourd Society helped connect Rhee to gourd farmers who agreed to work with him. What Rhee wanted was to put his welded metal cages in their fields so that gourds would grow up into them to make art.
Gourds have been used as art, musical instruments, containers, and tools for the longest time—literally. They're one of and possibly the oldest plants tended by human beings, and they appeared everywhere ancient humans lived, from Africa to Asia to the Americas. Gourds are ancient art in every culture. They belong to history, not country.
With heads and bottoms and shells like skins, gourds are easily made into metaphors for bodies. At the time when Rhee began to think about gourds, he'd just been invited to do an exhibition in Korea. Rhee is Korean American, simultaneously Korean and not Korean, living an unfolding hybrid identity. For his exhibition in Korea, he wanted to create sculptures that would interact with their environments in unpredictable ways. He wanted to make new heirloom plants.
It wasn't until later that he hit on gourds.
After several ideas, what he decided to do was this: He'd select a specific type of gourd, say a Goose Neck or a Snake or a Cannonball, and design a specific cage to set on the ground where the seeds were planted. (For large farms that wouldn't let him place his own cages in their fields, he indicated which way was up.)
Each cage was meant to intervene in the expression of that particular type of seed's DNA. The cage, in the final sculpture, becomes an observable force. You see the clash between the gourd that the gourd's genes set out to make and the gourd as it actually grew. Nature versus (constricting) nurture. It all hints at the presence of invisible forces like weather chance, timing, the elements of any life.
Rhee's new gourd hybrids wear cages that remember and visualize their histories. They also combine industrialized, agricultural, standardized growth with the kind of personal attention that defines "heirlooms," plants tended and brought forward through time by individuals rather than large-scale operations. The name of the gourd series, which is ongoing, is The Occupations of Uninhabited Space, and the title of the Glass Box exhibition is Winter Wheat.
Rhee's other works in Winter Wheat include yellowed clouds of spray-foam insulation emanating into the air straight from the manufacturer's can, and lines of caulk inserted in standard industrial copper tubes that catalyzed them into different shades of light blue and shaped them into various-sized craggy piles. The crags are as enchanting as natural stalagmites. The insulation cloud looks so deliberate and exquisite, it could be a stylized drawing in 19th-century Japanese ukiyo-e. All the works are collisions of intention and happenstance, choreography and chance.
Not leaving behind the mysterious but systematic forces of the internet, Rhee used Google Translate to create the final work in the show. He sent a piece of poetry in an ancient Japanese form (he does not speak Japanese) through Google Translate hundreds of times and printed out the results in accordion books that demonstrate the absurdity and yet seeming innate intelligence of the computer code. Google Translate is a good, a bad, and never a dull poet.
The other part of this poetry installation, which I don't fully understand, involves a tissue box on a pedestal that's attached to a hidden crank so that the tissue ripples and waves gently in the silences between readings of the poetry, in Japanese and English, on a speaker. How would you feel, I guess, if a poem by Google Translate moved you to sniffly tears?
Rhee is a relatively new presence in Seattle art, having relocated just a few years ago from the East Coast. (He teaches at Cornish College of the Arts.) Earlier this year, he created the installation Xenia, a functional Airbnb listing that was a group art installation you lived inside of overnight. It was immersive and subtle (a trick of a combination).
Among the works in that Airbnb condo, a few small, quiet, and playful abstract sculptures made of mysteriously sourced material sat on a shelf—traditional little visual intrigues. They were by Rhee, too.
I can still recall exactly what I felt when I first saw one of the gourds, last summer. It was like hallucinating. Those metal cage fingers indenting the gourd indented my flesh. It was the same feeling I got in a gallery in Rome when I first came face-to-face with Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 1622 marble sculpture The Rape of Proserpina. The god Pluto's fingers are gripping the upper thigh of Proserpina as she tries, futilely, to escape him. Those fingers on that thigh—just that fragment—tell the same story of the gourd, about the desire to be free from forces that can't be understood, predicted, or controlled, or the simple longing at least to see those forces' hands at work.