Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rice: Funny, Moving, Beautiful and Edifying

When I covered the delivery of 4,000 pounds of rice for Wesleyan's most recent installation of Feet to the Fire, Stan's Cafe, Of All the People in the World, USA. I was, frankly, skeptical that piles of rice, representing world statistics, could actually be "art" worth considering.

I was wrong.

I attended the opening of the installation Friday, and was immediately struck by the simple beauty of the piles of rice, where each kernel represents a single human being, spread on a gallery floor, on white sheets of paper containing compelling statistics.

The first two piles of rice you encounter in the exhibit are one which represents "All the people in the world who died today," juxtaposed with the second pile which represents "All the people in the world who were born today."

(Actress and docent, Charlotte Gregory, of Birmingham England, attends a stray grain on a pile of rice.)

The piles of rice, attended by actors in the role of docents, who measure (each pound of rice contains 27,263 grains), assemble and tidy the piles of rice, are spread through the Zilkha Gallery. Others, mainly with historical statistical significance, can be found at the Olin Library on campus. Several other smaller installations will appear throughout the campus, and the city over the 12 run of the installation. And local restaurants have been cajoled into serving special rice dishes in conjunction with the exhibit.

(Wesleyan professor and Feet to the Fire director, Barry Chernoff, and Stan's Cafe director, and creator of Of All the People in the World, James Yarker.)

Statistics for the Wesleyan presentation of the exhibit were compiled by Wesleyan biology professor Barry Chernoff's students in an introductory biology and environmental science course. Eleven thousand pounds of rice will be used in the display, all of which will be re-bagged and donated to local charities and soup kitchens.

The simple beauty of the rice piles is framed by the statistics, which can make the piles seem awesome in the way they reveal numbers - McDonald's customers served in the USA today, or hilarious in their perspective - a single rice grain on a sheet of paper and the caption Morgan Spurlock (the director of Supersize Me).

The piles can also have a big emotional impact, as with the piles which represent all the people who died in the Holocaust, or the one which illustrates all the people who heard Martin Luther King's "I have a dream," speech, which is complete with a representation of the reflecting pool (more on that later).

Some of the piles are whimsical, such as The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, positioned on its sheet of paper like a conductor and and an orchestra, while some are instructive as the large pile which illustrates all the people in Connecticut who drive alone to work and some is shockingly tragic as is the enormous pile which represents all Americans without health insurance.

"I created the piece because I wanted to understand my place in the world, and who I share the world with," explained James Yarker, director of Stan Cafe, and creator of the piece. "I can take one grain of rice in my hand and say, 'That's me.'"

In fact, Yarker explained that people often find themselves in the show, but not quite so explicitly as one woman who approached him at a show in New York and claimed she had found herself. Yarker acknowledged the woman's claim, but she was insistent that she show Yarker the pile which she inhabited. She walked with Yarker to the pile which represented the Martin Luther King speech on the mall in Washington DC and she told Yarker she was there.

"'I was standing right next to the reflecting pool,' she told me," Yarker said. "But the remarkable thing was that she told me she had fallen into the reflecting pool, and she pointed to our exhibit pile, where a single grain of rice had fallen into our representation of that pool. She said, 'There. That's me.'"

The exhibit continues through March 3, and admission is free and open to the public. The gallery will hold family workshops on Sunday February 22, and Sunday March 1, during which parents and children will learn about compiling statistics, and how to measure and display those statistics with rice.


Anonymous said...

The installation was surprisingly visually attractive. Another appealing aspect was the low-tech, cheap-art, everyday accessibility. Very Zen!

Anonymous said...

I. too, would encourage all to spend a few minutes at the Zilka before March 3, when the show closes. Last night after my visit, I found myself thinking about those grains of rice and how they changed my understanding of the world we live in.

Anonymous said...

There is also a small presentation of the show in the window of Main St. Market - where It's Only Natural used to have their store. I agree - the show is very thought provoking.