Grace Sydney Pham: Woman's Work

Grace is a self-taught photographer and installation artist who translates figurative and idiomatic language into visual and tactical works, a means of escapism from the anxieties and stressors entailed by being a female Asian American physician-scientist in training. She explores the themes of reproductive freedom and biotechnology, distortions of conventional gender roles, youth and vanity, and Asian fetishization while simultaneously being “othered” in contemporary America. Grace achieves the transmogrification of past trauma into surreal, escapist fantasy with the use of a consistent pastel color palette, apparel and props sourced from thrift and dollar stores, and self-portraits that alternate between obscuring her face and baring nearly all, while avoiding the use of explicit nudity or deliberate sexuality. Her two greatest influences are Cindy Sherman and horror cinema.


RR: Grace! Welcome back! How have you been? What have you been up to?

GSP: Raul! Thank you! I've been well, and increasingly antsy as I prepare for medical residency applications and finally graduating from UNTHSC after 7 long years. I'm deciding whether I want to complete a research-track psychiatry residency, or a combined medicine and psychiatry program, but I definitely want to get the best training possible as an aspiring mental healthcare provider. My time is split between medical school rotations, duties as a member of 500X Gallery in Dallas, TX, and personal photo work. Somewhere between all of that, I'm writing my PhD dissertation, which focuses on interactions between the nervous and immune systems and how they impact hypertension in the autoimmune disease systemic lupus erythematosus. It sounds like a huge undertaking (and it kind of is), but the good thing is that two chapters of the dissertation have already been published as original research articles, and I've drafted the rest of it.

RR: Wow, that’s quite incredible. Has it been hard to find work/life balance between your profession and artistic practice?

Exhibition postcard Cake News

Exhibition postcard Cake News

GSP: Yes and no, depending on the rotation I'm on. During January and February of this year, I was completing my internal medicine rotation at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, where we only had 4 days off each month. I didn't produce much new work during these months, but I was able to install and be present for the opening reception of my two-person show with Emmar Grant, Cake News, at 500X which ran from January 12th to February 10th.

I'm currently on a urology rotation, which has done more to help me understand the male psyche than anything else I've experienced. I've been watching penile prosthesis surgeries, prostate resections, and adult circumcisions. Each evening, I've been at work on a new photo series that is decidedly the opposite of what I witness throughout daytime hours, titled Woman's Work, which combines both domestic and deviant visual references in order to subvert past and present expectations of femininity.

Ultimately, I think that the procedures I witness and the conversations I have in the healthcare setting do end up influencing the photos I take, as well as the music I write. During my obstetrics and gynecology rotation, I delivered several placentas, which resulted in me crafting large, papier-mache placenta sculptures with umbilical cords for my first solo exhibition at 500X, Let's Eat Baby! I recorded a post-punk album, Candy Hospital, over my three-week winter break that was inspired by time spent on my pediatrics rotation.

Tip toe tea time

These Folds

RR: Wait, you write music too? Care to share a link?

GSP: I've had crackpot dreams of becoming a (locally-)famous musician since I was 18! In my junior year of college, I started a 13-piece Arcade Fire cover band and we performed several songs from their debut album, Funeral. Afterwards, we continued to play and record together on Saturday mornings, and I'd issue different songwriting prompts. The craziest one was when I had the group come up with a 12 tone sequence that we improvised on for at least ten minutes. After college, I really wanted to move to Austin, TX, in order to write string parts and perform as a touring violinist for as many bands as I could join. Leave it to your parents to talk you down to reality, eh?

Music led me to photography. I started meeting up with Fort Worth film and digital photographer Viktor Villanueva back in 2016 in order to play music together. We then wrote an LP's worth of songs together under the joint moniker Candy Stripes with him on guitar writing the chord progressions and riffs, and me writing vocal melodies, lyrics, and string arrangements. At the same time, Viktor was doing a lot of photo work, and I could sense that photography was nearer and dearer to him than music. So I asked him to start teaching me photography in February 2017, and he showed me how to use my first crop sensor DLSR, and how to set up studio lighting. In the two years that I have been taking photos, I've made way more progress than I ever have with music. I wonder what my life trajectory would have been like, had I started at a much younger age.

In November of last year, I started thinking about why it was that I couldn't seem to write songs completely on my own. So I set out to rectify that, and recorded a rock album in December, "Candy Hospital," which was loosely inspired by my pediatrics rotation. It's super lo-fi, but I am happy about having pushed through and continuing to record a cohesive album. You can hear the whole thing on bandcamp. I have made 75 cents total from this album! But I don't do any of this for the money. Why would I be in medical school?

Last month, my creative partner Emmar Grant shot and put together a music video for an indie pop song I recorded a few years ago, Can't Fight It. I never thought I could succeed as an indie pop artist because I wasn't pretty or ABG (Asian Baby Girl) enough, but the success of Asian American musicians like Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, and yaeji prompted me to set those notions aside. I'm not going to succeed in music, not because I'm not pretty enough, but because music is so much more of a time sink and a crapshoot. I had a conversation with Jordan Richardson (Son of Stan) last week where we both agreed that a career in music is a total grind. It is so difficult to get people to even listen to your music, and it seems that the only way to get people invested in original music is to somehow get them to see you perform it live. Live shows are so much work. Touring is so much work. Getting vinyl pressed is obnoxiously expensive. Even worse than that is the expectation that you should like (or at least pretend to like) music by other local musicians, even when it's egregiously bad and you can't. So, I'm never going to make music with any serious ambitions in mind, and you can watch the video for Can't Fight It here.

Blood Bouquet

A gift

RR: We featured your work back in 2017 and you have continued to produce new work consistently. How has your artistic practice developed the last 2 year?

GSP: 2 years ago, I started out almost exclusively taking self portraits. Looking back at my DRP feature, I'm really grateful that I've matured a bit since! The tone of the series in that feature, I'm Married To My Work and I Want a Divorce, was kind of whiny, but I'm still happy with the imagery of it. Over the past two years, I've also shot many street and still life photos. Since joining 500X in May 2018, I've tried my hand at sculpture, as well as watercolor and acrylic painting. I also got tired of matting and framing photo prints, so I built LED-illuminated lightboxes that I displayed large (3"x4" and 4"x6") photo transparencies upon.

“Lets Eat Baby!” at 500x Gallery in Dallas, TX

Being in a cooperative gallery setting with artists who work in other media has been very inspiring and also very humbling; everyone at 500X is insanely talented and you learn so much about what gallery visitors respond to at each show! Before I started taking photos, I was a classically-trained musician (piano, violin, electric guitar) and vocalist. I composed a track to accompany a projection mapping piece for Cake News, me and Emmar Grant's show at 500X. The upcoming 2019-2020 season may be my final year at 500X, depending on where I end up for residency, so I definitely want to try more and more new techniques. My final solo show at 500X will involve large-scale installations, projections, and newly composed music.

I've definitely become more self-conscious of the subject matter in my work, to the point of self-censorship. A photo series I shot in the latter half of 2017 about reproductive coercion ended up angering some people. A still life inspired by Andres Serrano's photograph Immersion was also publicly decried. It's not that I'm scared of upsetting people, but that I am still a student in the medical field, which is traditionally very conservative and heteronormative. It's conflicting because part of me wants to become the next Ai Weiwei, but my overriding judgment dictates that I must present as a "safe" candidate for medical residency programs, since I value the privilege of treating mental illness as superior to provoking thought and reconsideration of social constructs. Don't get me wrong; I do long for complete artistic freedom. Maybe it'll be mine in a decade. 

Blow baskets

Fertility failures swept away

Even with the self-censorship, there's still plenty for me to work with. For instance, I've never successfully shot on film before. I've destroyed every roll of film I've touched (accidentally, of course), or accidentally overexposed (which is how I found out that my Mamiya C220's shutter lags). This past Christmas, I received some Cinestill 800T film, both 35mm and 120mm, which I'm determined not to destroy. I set a sniper bid on eBay for a different medium format film camera, so hopefully I win the auction and get to take some stunning images on Cinestill!

RR: Your work walks a fine line between domesticity, reproduction, sexuality, performance and humor within all of it. What is your stance on Women artists being able to discuss these topics, all of which essentially revolve around the female body, in this manner? 

GSP: I am totally okay with women (really, any) artists using female bodies or the likeness of the female body in subversive art. Photographer Juno Calypso achieves this most successfully, posing in her own photographs as the vapid female persona Joyce, and she is probably my most favorite contemporary lens-based artist. She and other internationally-based female photographers featured in the anthology Girl on Girl are all exemplars of feminist photographic art that employs sexual and humorous aspects. Same goes for any artist using male bodies. I have photographed male bodies but the opportunity comes up less frequently. For me, personally, I use myself as a model simply because my schedule is unpredictable, sometimes demanding, and I just happen to be there (not to mention, infinitely patient).

Spin these plates

The Plunge

Much more so than contemporary photography, feminism, and the "Girl Gaze" movement, my work is the result of suffering from crippling social anxiety that went untreated until I was 25. I had difficulty meeting and interacting with peers, and so I have over 20 years of observations and social voyeurism pent up in my brain. Pre-treatment, no one would have described me as humorous or sexual in the slightest. Over the past two years, I’ve been developing a form of psychotherapy, “alter ego therapy,” which is basically what it sounds like, constructing an alternative persona in order to triumph over outward manifestations of anxiety and strengthen one’s self-esteem and resolve. Many of the photos that I've taken are a pictorial representation of my alter ego, "Suzy," who is self-assured, clever, and audacious. Over time, I've become more confident in my daily, professional interactions, but I'm still very much a mild-mannered nerd. 

Viet Commerce

RR: Could you go into your work, Lets Eat Baby. What does these constructed stills of food filled with plastic babies mean? Is it a metaphor for something else?

GSP: At the time of staging and taking these photos, I thought the resulting images were unsettling, especially after a labmate brought in a King’s Cake for Mardi Gras last year and didn’t insert the plastic baby because she thought it would scare people. I wanted to scare people after luring them in with pleasant pastel colors. For Let’s Eat Baby as a solo exhibition, I also made nearly 30 sculptures of parfaits with layers of “pudding” and plastic babies, which were the only pieces that sold. I left the message of the show up to interpretation, but after thinking back on it four months after showing this set of work at 500X, I decided that the motif of babies trapped in food was a metaphor for how capitalist societies, especially America, eat their young. The baby boomer generation basically ruined opportunities for millenials, then turned around and blamed us for being lazy, hedonistic, and unresourceful. I’m a millennial who got an English literature degree, which would have been enough for me to have a job after college decades ago, then kept going to school and is still in school for something completely unrelated. I would have been decently happy as a high school English teacher. 

RR: Has social medial played any kind of role in the exposure and or development of your work?

GSP: Social media functions as the equivalent of art graduate school for me, where I treat my posts as "assignments" and study photo books on my own time. I refused to have an Instagram until March 2017, because I thought only influencers and wannabe influencers used the platform. Anisha Yang, a Minneapolis-based illustrator who I befriended through Viktor, finally convinced me to start an Instagram, and continually recommended artists and accounts for me to follow. Following Ain't Bad Magazine on Instagram was the real turning point for me; their feed was the first photo collection that impressed me and convinced me to view photography as an art form. Did I mention that I didn't think photography was art until 2 years ago? Naively, I thought, "it's just pressing buttons."

Through Ain't Bad and other photography magazine Instagram accounts, I became obsessed with Juno Calpyso, Benoit Paille, Ben Thomas, Julia Fullerton-Batten, and the late Ren Hang. I also had the opportunity to become internet friends with contemporary feminist artists, such as Andre Veloux, who most notably creates intricate portraits of feminist icons using Legos; Taylor Yocom, a recent photography MFA graduate who completed an artist residency in Paris; and Jenny Riffle, a photographer and previous recipient of the Aaron Siskind fellowship.

Aside from Instagram, I've become internet friends with photographers from the r/photography on Reddit, as well as participated in several print swaps organized by that subreddit. r/analog, which is specifically for film photography, has also been a great source of inspiration and continues to motivate me to attempt film, despite past failures.

In short, social media has made artistic growth for me possible, by providing learning materials and mentor/colleague relationships that approximate what I imagine I would have had, had I attended art school. Social media was also how I learned about 500X Gallery, which is probably the closest real-life experience to graduate school in the arts that I'll ever have, except without the brutal critiques. 

RR: I can certainly attest to the brutal critiques. So PhD, Photography, Music, Sculpture. What can we expect from you next?

GSP: You can expect me to become the best psychiatrist I can possibly be! I've applied to several audition rotations for psychiatry residency programs, as well as a clinical research elective at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. I am especially excited to learn more about current forms of psychotherapy beyond cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. Assuming things go to plan, I'll be practicing independently in the year 2024!

RR: Thank you Grace!