No Business

Our interactions with art, especially process and concept, are often fleeting. In a world where what we see and experience is driven by want and immediacy, No Business Magazine encourages readers to slow down while exploring stories of artists and art-making.

Issue 1: Identity
Issue 2: Power Colors

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“what’s your identity?” What IS an identity?
How are identities formed? Is it a (perceived)
choice or is it imposed on your personhood?

Identity is a lot of things, it goes beyond self, it’s complex, it’s a long conversation we tend to summarize.


A lot.



This interview was between Marsha Mack
and Angela Zonunpari. Photos by Sara Ford.
For a few years now, Denver-based artist Marsha Mack has made bodies of work that look at subjective identity and cultural forces at play (that form identity). One of her more recent installations — Miss Vietnam — hit closer to home for the artist. It came together after an exploratory first glance at the origins of her Vietnamese heritage. The installation presents recurring motifs that relate back to femininity, Asianness, commercialization, and an ideal standard for identity. It gives us a perspective on a non-identity through the eyes of Mack.
Tell me a little about yourself, where you grew up, your art beginnings, schools, etc.

I am a Bay Area native, born and raised in San Rafael, CA. My dad owns an art picture framing business that was based in San Francisco for my entire childhood, so I grew up around art and attending art openings. For as long as I can remember I have been an artist, originally painting and drawing and begging my dad to buy/bring home art supplies. For better or for worse, my dad recognized my interest and encouraged my childhood artistic endeavors, up until today. I was never expected to be a lawyer, never told to think far into the future beyond my latest art obsessions. I feel very lucky for this.

Also, in most of my recounting personal mythology, I often leave out my mother. I was raised primarily by my father, as my parents were divorced when I was very young. She was still present throughout my life, often popping in weekly to bring me candies/treats or to cook food. Much of Miss Vietnam is reconciling this void or separation from her that I’ve created in my mind, trying to bridge a gap that inevitably widens without intentional maintenance.

Society can read
“ethnic” on my skin,
and yet I have
no connection to
the ghost limb of my Vietnamese heritage.

How did you come to making the works in Miss Vietnam? And, how did the idea of Miss Vietnam come about?

I came to a point in my artmaking where I wanted to dig deep into unexplored/uncomfortable content. These days I am continually challenging myself to create more ambitious, unusual works to keep my practice progressing and my senses sharp. This is not the easier path, but it is the more gratifying.

Identity work so easily can become a pejorative term, as often it can be purely self-referential and nothing more. I wanted to go into this risky territory, authentically make it my own, and create works that look beyond the self. When I began to think about my mixed race heritage, my largely “white” upbringing and lifestyle, and my relationship with Vietnamese food as surrogate for my mother, the work took off.

Was your recent trip to Vietnam your first time there? How did you identify yourself while making this body of work?

Yes, it was my first and only trip to Vietnam. It was so so wonderful, delicious, exciting, and challenging. While there, people recognized that I had Vietnamese blood, but very rarely mistook me for a Vietnamese national. While there, I found myself alternating between thinking about my mother and her childhood in then Saigon, which would have been completely unrecognizable from its current reality. I began to notice the ubiquitous woman in a yellow ao dai that is on all kinds of tourist trinkets, which took on symbolic meaning during my trip. I began to purchase as many of these trinkets as possible, not knowing when or how I would make sense of my spontaneous collecting. In Miss Vietnam, the woman in yellow ao dai speaks to Vietnamese femininity and identify, as both marketable image to outsiders, as well as cultural ideal. She is a mysterious figure that appears throughout my works, coyly gazing over her shoulder at onlookers.

While making the exhibition, a new facet of identity’s complicated nature took shape. I was beginning to think of myself as a Vietnamese person, but without the access points of culture, language, and only 50% genetics. Society can read “ethnic” on my skin, and yet I have no connection to the ghost limb of my Vietnamese heritage. In many ways I felt further from my cultural whiteness, and hopelessly distanced from my mother and her influence. I still feel this way, but have come to recognize this disconnect as meaningful. I will spend the rest of my life trying to get closer to cultural fullness, and I’m at peace with that.

During our first conversation, you mentioned how you’ve presented works that touch on “subjective identity” or the forces at play that form identity, can you tell me more about your past bodies of work? How is Miss Vietnam distinct and how is it a different approach for you?

Previous bodies of work often rely on a maximal aesthetic, metaphorical ties to material, and an underlying cultural critique. My practice is frequently project-based, meaning my materials and subject change with each body of work. Previously I had created a body work focusing on bubblegum and macrame, and before that orchids and strawberry milk. I like to tie in visual and sensory elements to create new ways of looking at ourselves in our environment, assuming both are constructed under pervasive capitalist forces.
The jump from threading bubblegum beads onto wall hanging works to discussing my mother’s mental illness was quite a jump for me. Rather than culling content from my experience as a consumer in society that is designed to hit the largest audience, I brought the focus in as painfully close as I could handle. In doing this, I found the biggest challenge was forcing myself to have a conversation involving private/public personal mythology that I didn’t find in an academic text, but rather in my lived experience. I then found that the exact details of my history weren’t even particularly significant, but rather, the general complication of being a body moving through the world. For me, identity is made intelligible via comparison and contrast with our surroundings as well as the process by which we acknowledge it ourselves.

You bring in whimsy and sort of this sweetness to your works, what’s your process like in narrowing down those aspects of your concepts? Was it different for Miss Vietnam?

I have been using sugar and sweetness as a metaphor for social conditioning and gender expectation for about five years now. I like the idea of “sugar-coating” things to mask unpleasantries or as a means to be willfully ignorant. I genuinely love hyper cute, sparkly, sweet things, and when I use found objects in my work I often accumulate kawaii elements to hyperbolic ends in hopes of creating an aggressively passive aesthetic. In previous bodies of work this has meant using food items as art materials, either drilling through them, encasing them in resin, or in one case, literally sugar coating sculptures in melted candies. For Miss Vietnam, I embraced candy as an integral part of my identity, that is, White Rabbit Creamy Candy, Botan Rice Candy, and Strawberry Pocky. This holy trinity made up my three favorite treats from the Asian Market, and which played a major role in recognizing the Asian market as a “safe” space, or at least a space where I belonged and my white friends did not. In realizing that I passed in the market where my friends were confused by smells and wrappers and Asian languages, I became aware and accepting of my difference.

For me, having parents with two different ethnicities and being this crazy amalgamation of places and cultures I’ve lived in has always been an adventure in discovery and surprise/introspection (other than feeling a little isolated at times). Has Miss Vietnam been that for you in any way? Has this process helped in discovering things about your “identity”?

I did an artist talk while Miss Vietnam was up [at ATC DEN in Denver, CO], in which a Korean-American casually mentioned that I wasn’t a Vietnamese person in their question. At the time this went right over my head, because I agree — I’m not a real Vietnamese person. I often forget I am different than the imperative caucasian American cultural norm, and myself am confused at how and why I can be part something and yet have no sense or connection to what that means. It’s confusing to be two things at once.

Part of the motivation for Miss Vietnam was a longing to feel a sense of belonging to a culture that is readable by my physical features, but that I do not connect with otherwise. My mother is my bridge to my Vietnam heritage, and yet she is deeply emotionally and psychologically scarred by the violence she faced in warzone Saigon before her escape. I do not speak Vietnamese. I do not organically know about holidays and customs. Miss Vietnam is a futile, longing reach towards a heritage I may never fully understand. It is infused with the reality of understanding my heritage via imported candies in Asian grocery stores and traveling to my mother’s country only to still feel like an outsider. While I think there is an implied sadness in this work, there is also a curiosity and a slow burning desire.

Also important to this project is the supplementing of organic experience with mass media. While watching Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, etc., I am learning what being Vietnamese means in the American cultural context. The constructed jungle elements in Miss Vietnam, which were artificial bamboo and jungle-like house plants, spoke to the cultural piecemealing of identity that has contributed to the formation of my sense of self. I am consistently intrigued by societal norm and subversive messaging backed by commercial forces, which comes into my work in different ways. In Miss Vietnam, the emphasis on the Asian grocery store/Asian candies offers commercial goods as entrypoint to identity. I like the irony and dark humor of seeking of authenticity via commercial mass-produced goods, and I wonder if others have had this experience as well.

Your works have a very material quality to them, and it looks like you enjoy exploring materiality in what you make. Am I right in saying that? How does your ceramic background filter into your current practice?

Definitely, I have a strong interest in materiality — the cultural meanings and personal associations materials inherently carry. When I use a material like Strawberry Pocky in my artwork, I know many people will recognize this and bring their own associations to the work. I’m interested in how different materials can be coded differently from person to person. Additionally, I have been incorporating scented elements into my projects for the past few years because I am fascinated by scent’s insidious nature and its ability to imprint memory on people. In this way, I am imprinting my work into the amygdala of my viewers, creating a space for myself that will be involuntarily and immediately triggered if they encounter the same scent again in their lifetime.

Ceramics is my first love and always will be. I learned so much from ceramic materials and techniques, from a strong material sense to 3D composition. I feel that ceramics instilled a strong material sensibility at the foundation of my practice, which I am grateful for. I am still very active in the ceramic studio, incorporating ceramic elements into all of my recent projects. I hope that my future work can incorporate elements of ceramic sculpture, sensorial experiences, installation elements, and performative activation. I’ve got some things cooking in the studio now that have me reinterpreting how each of these elements can function and how much preexisting association can be utilized.

Marsha Mack (b. 1987, San Rafael, CA) holds an MFA and a Certificate of Advanced Study in Women's and Gender Studies from Syracuse University, and a BFA from San Francisco State University. Marsha is currently a ceramics instructor at Foothills Park and Recreation District (Littleton, CO), the Associate Director of David B. Smith Gallery (Denver, CO), and is an artist in residence at RedLine Contemporary Art Center (Denver, CO).