First documented in China in 2,500 B.C., the earliest evidence of the cultivation of rice has been found in archaeological sites dating back more than 5,000 years earlier. A versatile crop that can grow in numerous climates, the plentiful grain plays an integral role in cuisine and folkloric traditions and underpins artist Hayoon Jay Lee’s intricate wall reliefs.
Born in Daegu, South Korea, and currently based in New York City, Lee is interested in what she describes in a statement as the “fundamental tension between indulgence and abnegation”—the act of renouncing or rejecting something—in individual, social, and political dynamics. Contrasting ideas of attraction and repulsion, conflict and harmony, privilege and poverty, or East and West provide the groundwork for abstract compositions made by precisely placing thousands of grains into rippling patterns. The surfaces reference topographical overviews, shifting landmasses, swirling motion, and ruptures.
Across Asia, rice is grown primarily by small-scale producers. However, food-chain inequalities and critical impacts from climate change place farming systems, jobs, and food security on increasingly precarious footing. For Lee, rice is utilized “as object, motif, and metaphor: as the building block for civilizations and also as the basis for social inequities,” she explains.