In my current body of work, Price of Prosperity, I create visual arguments on the theme of loss, pain, and growth with the use of digital media, drawing, altered and found images, and sculpture. I construct these arguments by borrowing the language of cultivation (rice farming) and compare it with the language of war and conflict. My installations serve as a reminder of the spiral of growth and destruction that a society seeks in order to grow and prosper. The context of my work is woven through an individual narrative that is made political through these visual arguments.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
I grew up in post-war Vietnam, and have experienced extreme hunger and poverty with my family. My family worked in the rice fields, which was enough for only the food on our plate. I was seven when we moved to the United States, where my family faced a whole other side of poverty. The experiences I had growing up in Vietnam then in the US define my appreciation for food, the objects I consume in my daily life, and the state of the body. My art practice stemmed from this appreciation and these experiences.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I have a very small studio space that I share with my roommate (about 84 square feet for each of us), but I only visit it if I know exactly what I’m doing in the studio. Most of my studio time is spent in my head, grappling with issues of identity politics and trying to figure out how the visual art can be used to convey these complex issues. Unfortunately, the road map for identity issues in visual art is always a breath away from disappearing. Because of who I am and the subject matter of my work, I have to spend a lot of time finding and constructing the right wheels to travel on barely visible roads.
I realized early on that in order to make challenging and purposeful works that do not perpetuate stereotypes, I have certain responsibilities as an artist. These responsibilities include: having processed and understood the issue at hand through research and reflection, devising effective strategies to visually communicate and contextualize the idea without simply illustrating it, and having worked out at least three possibilities on how I can go about acquiring, constructing, and arranging the necessary visual elements to convey the idea. After this initial work, I spend the remaining 10% of my studio time in my physical studio experimenting with materials and constructing the work.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I used to think that I could draw, paint, and make any and all types of art. But I was wrong. The visual culture doesn’t need me to arbitrarily draw or paint another flower, focus on a specific art technique or style, make meta-art, or even convey issues in my work that anyone else could without the context of being an Asian-American woman. I leave those topics to my more privileged peers. Now I play the role of the critical artist. I’m not afraid to make art that challenges the viewer. I’m in love with the visual art because I can make something so attractive yet so difficult to spend time with.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
Due to my studio practice, the best time for me to make art is after I’ve contextualized the idea through the rigorous process of research, reflection, strategizing, and acquisition of materials. The work is nothing without context. This means that most of my time is spent in a state of funk. I call it funk because I’m always chewing on unpalatable issues and trying to figure out how they all fit with the big picture. Once I’m finished with this funk, I can move to the fun part of constructing objects, images, and spaces for the idea.
I used to dance around difficult ideas because I lacked the visual and verbal vocabulary to voice them. Five years ago, I was making art that utilizes the strategy of substitution too often – using stuffed animals to create commentary. But I was still too young to know how to effectively and critically accomplish this. I floundered because I didn’t know of any role models and didn’t have teachers that could mentor me through this process. Grad school was a necessary meat-grinder because of this lack of preparation. I had to chart my own path and learned through trial by fire. Now that I’ve paid my dues to the devil and survived, my work has more cohesive metaphors and it’s more deliberate in its execution.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
I’m very fortunate to have my transgendered artist roommate, Oliver, who does privilege workshops. Oliver and I bounce ideas off each other and even collaborate. We’re very honest if an idea sounds like it’s co-opting someone’s space, perpetuating stereotypes, further marginalizing a group, or if it’s just plain dumb. We both work very hard together and separately to build the necessary art network for each of us to survive. We recently had the pleasure of hosting and learning from artist Kenya Robinson, who uses privilege as a plastic material and carries a white man in her pocket. For me, painters Michael Dixon and Beverly McGiver serve as role models who produce and introduce often-eclipsed narratives into our visual culture. Artists Doris Salcedo, Do-Ho Suh, Binod Shrestha, and Janine Antoni also serve as signposts for topics and approaches I’m interested in and pursuing. Seeing and being around similar minded folks help me feel not so lonely in less charted territories.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
I try to balance all three of my passions: art, teaching, and plants.
I’m currently teaching art at two separate higher institutions and conducting my art research at the same time. I love to teach because it challenges me to always be authentic. I also use teaching as a medium to communicate the importance of mindful contributions to the visual culture.
My orchid and succulent collections calm me through the care and the slow rate of growth for plants. They’re a necessary balance to our speed-of-thought society and our digital gadgets at the moment. I would have gotten degrees in botany and horticulture if visual art hadn’t swooped me off my feet. I would have been happy with either outcome because I know that either path would have led me to a place of criticality.
Giang Pham (pronounced yang’fam) lives in Gainesville, FL, where she teaches art at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College. Giang received a Master’s of Fine Art in Sculpture from the University of Florida and a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Painting and Printmaking from the University of Tulsa, OK. Giang’s practice spans a wide breadth of mediums. Currently, Giang is investigating issues of loss, pain, and growth in relation to food and the body.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.