The kale-hued sign outside the storefront in Manhattan’s Chinatown read “sg” — an instantly recognizable shorthand for Sweetgreen, the eco-chic chain known for its salads and cereal bowls. But during its opening hours for two weeks in July, anyone who tried to buy food there came away empty-handed.
The small space at 16B Orchard Street houses the gallery Chinatown soupthat the artist Alexander If transformed into a simulation of a Sweetgreen outpost from July 12–24. Replica communal benches and a shelf displaying compostable bowls were visible behind the glass front, which featured compelling decals with the chain’s motto and instructions for placing online orders. A sign on a wall advertised the company’s core values, ranging from “Win, Win Win” to “Live the Sweet Life”.
Yes, who installed soft green (2022) as part of his residency at Chinatown Soup, says one of his goals was to examine the racial hierarchies evident in the literal white space of Sweetgreen, where people of color, largely, primarily serve white customers at a breakneck pace. “I still don’t mind going there myself, but the more I go, the weirder it gets because I watch the juxtaposition between staff and clientele, and there’s an avoidance of eye contact between them. “, says Si. “That uncomfortable feeling of awkwardness drove my research into the company and my research into how everything is designed.”
Born in China, Si studied in Toronto before moving to New York in 2019; he lives on East Broadway, a stone’s throw from Chinatown Soup. His interest in peeling Sweetgreen’s gaze to critique pervasive power dynamics stems, in part, from this history of migration. “I’ve always had this kind of American dream, and there’s this level of companies – Sweetgreen, Juice Press, SoulCycle, Warby Parker – this group of brands, for me in the early 2010s, signaled a type of Americanness, to be able to blend in,” he said. “I go in, and I feel a little high class, and a little white, too.
This appeal, he adds, speaks to the advertising success of these cult-status brands, whose minimalist aesthetic echoes a particular type of luxury. “The reason I chose Sweetgreen is because I feel like they are cutting edge in terms of marketing and brand identity.”
Handcrafting each object in the gallery was his way of trying to understand this phenomenon, Si says, likening the process to his method of learning English by copying sentences over and over. “For me, repetition is a way of trying to learn about a different culture.” The installation was also his attempt to “reclaim” this corporate environment. “It’s not a space designed for people of color, and I try to fit into the space by bringing my work into it. I can feel the work of the staff who are mostly invisible and who actually built these structures. »
These dynamics were highlighted in a duration performance held at the opening of the exhibition, in which the performers re-enacted “The sweet speech”, a team gathering that takes place every morning in real Sweetgreen locations. Si and six others, wearing Sweetgreen uniforms, launched in a call and a response: a “manager” shouted “Sweet!” and the rest shouted “Green!” for 20 minutes, their increasing exhaustion exaggerating the monotonous team-building exercise and effectively dramatizing the burnout.
As part of her research, Si interviewed Sweetgreen employees and spent hours wandering around various Sweetgreen locations. It also housed screens showing video documentation of the chain’s interiors in its benches. While he received no communication from the company, his co-founder Nicolas Jammet started following him on Instagram. “I don’t know how to calculate that,” Si said.
The project also drew a mix of responses from the public. Some visitors who walked in during the show’s setup were excited about Sweetgreen’s arrival in the neighborhood; a handful even asked about job opportunities. One person said they were going to create a community thread to protest the new company. And every day, nearly twenty people came in to ask for salads.
Meanwhile, Si noticed a little inquiry coming from the handful of Chinese neighbors who walked in. Si says. “It just made sense when I was planning the show to make it [in Chinatown]…I’ve seen how the neighborhood – Dimes Square, Orchard, Canal – has become the hippest, ‘undiscovered’ alternative spot.
Jan Lee, a third-generation Chinatown resident, said gothamist that the installation dwelt too much on gentrification by “white American businesses,” explaining that the proliferation of liquor licenses poses a greater threat to the region. But Si says he wanted to focus on this type of business because “it represents something that is even scary for these predominantly white people who have moved into the neighborhood. It makes it less hip, and it creates such terror.
“This is a comment about whiteness,” adds Si. “I want to make it as white as possible because it symbolizes what these newcomers basically do, but they just don’t do it in that kind of corporate identity, of white-white-white way, like Sweetgreen.They do it in a more seedy, vintage French restaurant way.
soft green reflects Si’s broader interest in examining surreal moments in mainstream American culture and reframing them through replication. His previous projects to understand Britney (born in 1981) (2021), consisting of a receipt printer that generated documents illustrating the mass of publicly available information about Britney Spears, and Self-help (2021), which filled a small free library with feminist self-help books to embody the “gas lamp, guardian, patroness” same. His next project, set to open at Spaces Gallery in Cleveland in March 2023, will draw on his research into Amazon fulfillment centers.
“That’s the guideline of my practice — finding those moments that I personally find strange as an Asian American immigrant in this country, but looking at them more critically,” Si says. [works] are almost investigative journalism, trying to figure out or trying to make America think differently. I think all of these things are things that most Americans take for granted – they don’t think twice about it… but there are deeper issues there.