Singapore contemporary artist Justin Lee‘s practice is inextricably linked with the Chinese character “囍”, commonly translated to mean “Double Happiness”. A practising artist since 1996, his first solo exhibition in 2003 was titled Double Happiness, a Fantasy in Red. “Double Happiness” is a ligature, comprising the Chinese character 喜, meaning joy or happiness, repeated twice. The twin characters are compressed to assume the shape of a standard Chinese character (much as an actual Chinese character often consists of two or more individual words) and is read polysyllabically as 双喜 (shuāngxǐ). The Double Happiness “囍” symbol, usually rendered in red, is often used on traditional decorative items associated with weddings.
Lee’s incorporation of the Double Happiness symbol as a motif in his artworks, which are imbued with a pop art sensibility, represents his perspective on life in modern-day Singapore, a highly globalised city. “Western culture has dominated Singapore since the day it declared its independence in 1965 … In my works, the Chinese character[s] ‘Double Happiness’ have been redefined to mean a mixed marriage between Chinese and Western culture. Modernisation and globalisation have spawned this new and rojak (mixed) relationship. To me, ‘Double Happiness’ is the combination of two elements mutually attracted to one another, but with different individual traits. Besides the marriage of human beings, it could also refer to conjoining of any found objects, images, or even the environment in our lives. In this process of transformation, a new form of happiness is produced, manifested outwardly in the economy, the commercial world and the proliferation of material goods …” (Justin Lee‘s artist statement).
While Lee has been seeking to double our happiness through the marriage of Chinese and Western cultures in his artistic practice for quite some time now, he recently took his explorations in a bold new direction when he was invited to collaborate with an exciting young Singaporean chef, Ace Tan to create an experience that blends the sensory experiences of food and art. Lee confessed to some trepidation prior to embarking on this project – he had no idea what to expect, how such a collaboration might work and little knowledge of the fine dining industry. Chef Ace, however, who had come up with this novel idea in the first place, was optimistic – “To me, food relates to art in many ways … it’s … very interesting to get a different perspective on approaches to food, on how you view it. Cooking well is making your craft, and I enjoy making food that has not been seen nor done before. That’s the art part of it. And on the flip side, for the artists … [this] is an exciting opportunity and a new way for people to access their art.”
Despite Lee’s fears about what to expect from this new and very different kind of collaboration, he found that he and Tan were able to establish an easy rapport from the start. As they began to talk and share memories, histories and experiences, he realised that they actually had a lot in common. Most importantly, perhaps, the ways in which they think about and approach their respective creative endeavours – art and cooking – were remarkably similar. The result of their culinary and artistic collaborative journey is a unique dining experience at Stellar at 1-Altitude, the first of a series which chef Ace Tan has dubbed AISA (Art Invokes Senses (and) Appetite).
I was delighted to be invited to spend an evening at Stellar at 1-Altitude (located on the 62nd floor of One Raffles Place, it commands a spectacular view of the business district and the Marina Bay area) and to sample this artistic and gastronomic experience for myself.
From their conversations about their memories, experiences and inspirations, Lee and Tan eventually extracted 8 words or elements, as they call them, which served as prompts for their creative experimentation. Tan created 8 dishes that responded to the prompts and Lee created 8 prints as his response to them.
Justin Lee’s menu comprises eight printed cards, with specially designed motifs in his uniquely artistic style, some of which incorporate the Double Happiness character he is known for. When arranged together, the eight cards form a hexagonal shape, calling to mind the ubiquitous Eight Treasures tray (八宝盒) used to serve sweet treats, seeds and nuts during Chinese New Year. The menu enables diners to engage visually with each element of the meal and every dinner guest will get to take home one of Justin’s specially designed menus as a memento of the meal.
And what about the food, you ask? Known for his in-depth research into the history of Asian food, Chef Ace Tan weaves influences, flavours and ingredients from different parts of Asia – particularly East Asia (he returned not too long ago from a year-long stint as executive sous chef at Michelin-listed Flowerchild Restaurant in Seoul) – into unique new dishes he refers to as Progressive Asian Cuisine. Each of the dishes in this special menu responds to one of the 8 elements or prompts and evokes a personal memory or experience.
All in all, AISA lives up to its promise to provide an experience that is a feast for the senses, delighting both the palate and the eye.
You can enjoy the special menu created by Chef Ace Tan in collaboration with artist Justin Lee at Stellar@1-Altitude from now till 3 October 2021. Reservations for AISA can be made via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or via WhatsApp to +65 8879 8765.
And coming up next in the AISA series, chef Ace Tan collaborates with abstract artist Andy Yang!