不變真參 American Ginseng, 2015
Neon signage, laser-sintered polymer, rubber casts, gold paint, velvet boxes, acrylic cases, thread, cotton ribbons, glass jars, cardboard boxes, commercial shelving and display
305 x 153 x 26 cm
Ginseng is a fascinating plant. It is a plant that belongs to the genus Panax, which means “all-heal” in Greek. Widely used in traditional Chinese medicine since ancient times, the perennial roots (some more than a century old) have been highly prized and sought after. It is believed that their longevity can be transferred to the person who consumes them. Growing up in my grandfather’s traditional Chinese medical hall, I am familiar with natural herbs that promote energy and vitality. As the ‘root to good health’, ginseng is perhaps one of the most recognizable symbols of traditional Chinese medicine.
The term ‘ginseng’ is derived from the Chinese term “zhen-shen”, which translates to “in the image of a man”. With its characteristic forked appearance that resembles the limbs of a person, ginseng epitomizes energy and a life force in Chinese culture and tradition. However, an expanding and profitable market for traditional Chinese medicine worldwide has brought new meanings to this archaic practice – the commodification and fetishizing of the object. According to the LA Times, “the U.S. exported $77.3 million in ginseng roots in 2014, most of it to Hong Kong, with American ginseng fetching the highest price of any cultivated variety”. Packaged in prosperous red boxes dressed with quality control seals and branded with American flags, American ginseng has become one of the most popular holiday gifts in China.
Inspired by this growing trend and interest in American ginseng, I constructed an installation piece, referencing a section of a traditional Chinese medical hall. The main display of my shop is a neon signage advertising an outline of a ginseng. The Chinese characters accompanying the outline translates into “100% Authentic”, or “never changing”, reflecting commercial marketing and the value of the ginseng product. Flanking this signage are 12 rows of glass shelves, displaying “never changing” laser-sintered polymer replicas of ginsengs and other rubber casts of prized traditional Chinese medical products like cordyceps, sea cucumbers and birds’ nests. According to value, the American ginsengs are placed at the top shelves. Nested in red handmade velvet boxes housed in acrylic cases, the ginsengs proudly display their made-in U.S.A. branding with American flag ribbons. The other products sit delicately in glass jars.
Consistent throughout the installation are the gilded surfaces of the plastic facsimiles. The glossy gold paint elevates the products’ status, and reminds viewers’ of their prices. On the flip side of the coin, I also want to direct attention to the problem of “access” – who can afford these exorbitant prices and improve their health with the products?
While the aesthetics and marketing strategy is inherently Western in aspiration, the juxtaposition of ginseng and the Made in U.S.A. label challenges our understanding of cultural signs and symbols. Beyond the dialogue of East and West, I also question notions of meaning and authenticity, and more specifically, value and consumer-driven desire that have evolved from a market construct with this installation.