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From Palate to Palette: A Story of Art and Food

The entire island-city of Singapore seems to be caught up in Kusama-fever, since the opening of the National Gallery‘s blockbuster exhibition, Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow last Friday (read our take on the top 5 must-sees from the show, here), with snaking lines of visitors waiting to get into the galleries. If there’s one other thing that Singaporeans can reliably be counted on to wait in line for, it’s food! We were hardly surprised, therefore, to learn that a couple of the F&B outlets at the NGS have also rolled out their very own Kusama-inspired dishes and drinks to mark the occasion.

Gallery & Co‘s menu offerings take inspiration from the artist’s ubiquitous polka-dot motif, utilising various circular-shaped ingredients such as coconut, shimeji mushrooms, fregola, bubble tea and dragonfruit balls to evoke Kusama’s art in culinary form. One of our favourites, a delightful coconut and mango-flavoured dessert, above, takes the shape of Kusama’s iconic pumpkins. Very clever and kawaii indeed, we thought!

Not to be outdone, restaurant and bar Aura has also come up with a Kusama-inspired cocktail and a  high-tea menu of savoury snacks and sweet pastries inspired by the bold colours, unique forms and peculiarity of Kusama’s works. The cocktail, specially created in conjunction with the exhibition, is a colourful blend of Japanese whiskey, Amaretto DiSaronno and blood orange liqueur. Delicious.

Aura’s Kusama-inspired cocktail, Rainbow Palette (photograph courtesy of Aura)
The Yayoi Kusama High Tea at Aura. Image courtesy of Aura.

Nibbling on all this art-inspired food led me to consider the increasing tendency, nowadays, to conflate food with art. Is the restaurant the new theater, concert hall or art gallery? Is a chef an artist and is food the new art? After all, food, like art, engages the senses and the chef, in a restaurant, is essentially creating a multi-sensory experience for diners. When a world-famous and universally acclaimed chef like Ferran Adria of El Bulli is invited to participate in Documenta, the survey of contemporary art that takes place once every five years in Kassel, Germany (you can read an account of it here) can it  not be argued that food has replaced, or, at the very least, joined art, as high culture?

Catalan chef Ferran Adria outside his famous restaurant, El Bulli (via BBC)

William Deresiewicz, in a 2012 New York Times article, notes that “foodism”, as he calls it, shares many of the sociological characteristics of culture – it is expensive, it requires knowledge and connoisseurship, it is a badge of membership in the higher classes, “a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, and an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression.” Yet, he argues and finally concludes, food is not art – while Proust, on the madeleine, is art; the madeleine itself is not art. “A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.”

I can already hear the fiery rejoinders from many a food-obsessed Singaporean for whom food is, if not art, then virtually a religion, at whose altar many of us worship! Whichever side of the fence you are on, there is no doubt that food has always played a hugely important role in art-making and in art itself.

This goes all the way back to the Stone Age cave painters who used vegetable juice and animal fats as ingredients in their paints and the ancient Egyptians who carved pictographs of crops and bread in their hieroglyphs, the witty and whimsical fruit-and-vegetable-faces of Giuseppe Arcimboldo‘s portraits and Paul Cezanne‘s vivid still-life renderings of apples and oranges. (As an aside, do check out Sydney-based art historian, Megan Fizell’s very cool, creative and educational blog, Feasting on Art, where she creates and features recipes inspired by artworks involving food, like Cezanne’s Still Life with a Plate of Cherries, 1885 – 87 and Van Gogh’s Still-Life with Mackerels, Lemons and Tomatoes, 1886).

Moving beyond mere mimetic representations of food in art, food, as well as the implements for cooking and preparing food,  are often used by artists as raw material for art-making. The motivation is to amplify the substance, materiality and sensory qualities of food in order to evoke a certain feeling or to convey meaning. The late Thai contemporary artist Montien Boonma, for example, incorporated aromatic spices and herbs in his installations to immerse viewers in a meditative, devotional and spiritual experience through their sense of smell. Montien, a devout Buddhist, used herbs because herbs, and healing practices, have long been associated with Buddhism and with Buddhist monks, who frequently cared for the sick.

Many other artists, both in Asia and in the West, use food as artistic medium. See, for example, the picture, above, of an installation by Chinese artist Gu Dexin, who often uses apples, bananas and even meat in his work, allowing them to rot over time in the gallery space, in order to explore notions of permanence and decay.

Gu Dexin, September 2nd 2006 Installation. 10 tons of apples, steamroller, variable dimensions. (Photograph from Galleria Continua)

Food is so much associated with the everyday within a particular cultural context that it is also often used by artists as a trope of identity and difference. In this 2015 work, by artist Bibiana Lee, entitled Some of my Favourite Things, the artist, who has led a peripatetic life and lived in various countries, felt that her own identity had become an amalgam of various cultures. For her, the different foods that she has tasted and enjoyed are reflections of the traditions and cultures that they originated from. This installation, comprising white porcelain plates and bowls with the names and descriptions of foods as diverse as rhubarb pie, scones with clotted cream, kaya toast and nasi briyani inscribed on them, are an exploration of the artist’s personal identity through food.

But artists using edible substances as medium or as symbols of identity and cultural difference is not the same as declaring that the act of cooking, preparing a meal or sharing food is art. The line between food and art becomes really blurred when artists enter the kitchen and cook and serve food, which viewers then consume in an act of participatory art-making often referred to as relational aesthetics.

Several Southeast Asian artists have become associated with works of performance art involving the act of preparing and consuming food, including Dutch-born Indonesian resident artist Mella Jaarsma, whose 1998 performance piece, Pribumi (described previously here) featured stir-fried frog legs or swikee, which was cooked and served to passers-by; Thai contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who has famously cooked and served pad thai as well as Thai green curry and rice to gallery visitors; and Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail, or Ise, whose Langkasuka Cooking Project, commissioned as part of the 7th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, included a participatory cooking performance. Both Rirkrit and Ise’s works even included the production of cookbooks!

U is the proud owner of Rirkrit’s cookbook

Usha and I got to participate in one such performance piece in Jogjakarta last year, by Singapore’s own Amanda Heng, Let’s Chat, in which she invited the audience to sit and chat with her at a table while drinking tea and cleaning bean sprouts, or taugeh. The aim was to encourage the audience to rediscover the simpler joys of kampong (Malay for “village”) life and examine the costs of material progress in Singapore.

Ultimately, in my view, the projects mentioned above are art first, and food second. We don’t really care how Rirkrit’s pad thai, Mella Jaarsma’s swikee or Ise’s nasi gunung taste; the food is merely the means to creating a social and relational work of art.

Intrigued and keen to take part in a participative performance work that involves the conviviality of cooking and eating together, with all the camaraderie and simpatico that it brings? We’re happy to oblige! This year’s Singapore International Festival of the Arts includes a participatory encounter, O.P.E.N. Kitchens, in which you can visit a private home in  Singapore and cook and eat with your host, sharing stories and making friends. You can sign up here.


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