People in Hong Kong have a reputation for being passionate about food, so Food Matters, a new exhibition at Central’s Karin Weber Gallery, will have no trouble making itself relevant to a city that lives to eat. The gallery has commissioned eight Asian artists, five of them from Hong Kong, to explore their complex relationships with food. The artists have taken a variety of approaches to their work; some recount personal experiences, others conjure political statements. What they all share is a deeply felt and often intimate relationship with food.
One of the first works visitors will see is “Buy You An Ice-Cream After You Have Finished This” (2018) by 23-year-old artist Tse Chun-sing, who restages a childhood memory of his mother persuading him to eat bitter melon, a food he did not enjoy. An automatically rotating bitter-melon-shaped music box evokes the contrast between a tantalising ice cream and a bitter melon, symbolic of the bittersweet experience of growing up. Across the room, another work by Tse, “White Flag” also takes the form of a music box. This time, the artist has chopped the bitter melon into three small pieces, lined them up vertically through a manually rotating handle, and put a white flag on top, implying defeat in his battle to enjoy bitter melon.
Artist Wilson Shieh, who was born in 1970, shares a similar approach with Tse. In his delicate ink painting “Nap Sushi” (2018), Shieh depicts two hands that resemble Buddha’s palms, each holding an open roll of sushi. Inside each of the rolls is a chubby baby with squinting eyes and a piece of seasoned raw fish on his head. Sushi was an expensive type of food in Hong Kong when Shieh was growing up, and being able to afford it represented prosperity – same as the chubby baby, a traditional motif in Chinese New Year decorations. This work, like Shieh’s many other ink paintings, harbours a melancholic nostalgia for Hong Kong’s recent past.
Another artist of Shieh’s generation is Luke Ching, who was born in 1972. Ching is showing two installations in Food Matters, both touching on the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. In “Salivary Yours” (2018), Ching used some cups of Hong Kong tap water, which is drawn from the Dongjiang River in mainland China, and used a miniature freezer to turn it into an ice sculpture. Hong Kong began importing Dongjiang water from Guangdong in 1965, after years of water shortages, its reliance on this source has been controversial. Thanks to a long-term contract, Hong Kong buys more water than it needs and much of it is dumped. Alluding to the superstition that, by consuming someone’s food or water, one must obey them, Ching’s frozen sculpture seems to be an oblique metaphor for the Hong Kong-China relationship in recent years.
In “White Rabbit Candy” (2018), Ching pulls the white rabbit from the logo of China’s famous milk candy brand to make a model of astronaut Yang Liwei, the first Chinese person to go into space. White Rabbit candies were along those affected by the contaminated milk scandal of 2008; Ching uses these two potent symbols of contemporary China to reflect his ambivalence about the country’s progress.
Artist Lau Yat-wai, who was born in mainland China in 1985, presents “No Butter” (2018), a set of two porcelain pineapple buns, a classic Hong Kong treat that famously contains no pineapple. Lau used porcelain to make the bun, an implicit political statement; the bun is china but not China.
By comparison, Michelle Lee, the only female artist in this exhibition, is seemingly apolitical and more imaginative. Her research-based works unfold around a fictional “potato planet.” With a sketch, an electronic installation with a basket of real potatoes, along with a series of black-and-white potato portraits, Lee reveals multiple dimensions of this potato planet, from its shape, its size, its physical properties to its location in the universe, in a vivid and engaging manner. The references in her works are not directly related to Hong Kong, but from science and two critically acclaimed movies – The Turin Horse (2011) and The Pianist (2002), in which potatoes are depicted as physically sturdy, versatile and enduring in times of austerity.
The exhibition expands on Lee’s elevation of the humble potato with a wall of eight small photos, on which all of the participating artists write personal statements on top of their chosen type of food, which is not necessarily the same as those depicted in their artworks. Among these statements, there are a bowl of miso soup that can be both clear and tastefully mixed up, representing two different states of mind; long grain rice as a metaphor for a tall and slim child; pu’er tea that takes years to ferment and was appreciated by a beloved grandmother; an ice cream that appears delicate but withstands bitter cold; and bread that can be both cheap or sophisticated, depending on how it is combined with other ingredients.
All of this underlines one thing: food is never just food, especially in Hong Kong. More than just a necessity, it is an embodiment of collective memory and identity.
Photos: Di Liu or courtesy of Karine Weber Gallery
Food Matters runs at Karin Weber Gallery until January 12, 2019. Click here for more information.