Nov 15 2016

Thanksgiving in Tin Wan: A Performance by Olivia Chow

by Henrietta Wilson

OLIVIA CHOWThanksgiving in Tin Wan, 2016, performative work at Mur Nomade, Hong Kong. Courtesy Mur Nomade. 

In the work of Hong Kong artist Olivia Chow, maximum preparation and minimal involvement allow her subtle take on relational aesthetics—the interactive art form in which the audience’s involvement is key—to unfold. In a planned performance piece Thanksgiving in Tin Wan on October 8, Chow invited some 30 guests to Mur Nomade gallery to share a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner complete with basted turkey and trimmings, alongside Chinese cuisine. Recreating this cultural spectacle with a local twist, the artist’s self-described “culturally-mashed” food acted as an installation, the meal as a performance and the shared nature as dialogue, revealing Chow’s interest across various aspects of art-making, as both an artist and curator herself. Established by Amandine Hervey in 2012, Mur Nomade was a natural fit for the performance; beyond the gallery space itself, an open area featured a foyer, kitchen, dining table and lounge room. 

As guests sauntered in, local artists and curators chatted animatedly on couches, before which Chow’s family photos were spread across a coffee table whilst a football game played on the television—perhaps an unlikely choice of entertainment for this group. Chow later explained that the recording of the 2007 Grey Cup final, in which the Saskatchewan Roughriders beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was an ode to both her father and their home province of Saskatchewan, as one of its proudest moments in sporting history.

Guests meeting before dinner. Courtesy Mur Nomade, Hong Kong. 

On the other side of the room, adjacent to the lounge, the artist was hard at work in the kitchen. Timid guests mingled around a long, white table with place settings; acquaintances exchanged pleasantries, and strangers introduced themselves to each other. The evening’s assistants suggested we help ourselves to drinks and make ourselves at home, dissolving the awkwardness of being in a new environment. 

Beyond the kitchen was a small room, the only space segregated from the evening’s setup. A television showed Preparing a Thanksgiving Turkey(2016), a bird’s-eye view recording of a sink in which the artist and her aunt, in an off-site kitchen, took turns cleaning, preparing and marinating the turkey for the evening’s meal. The video shifted our focus from the ongoing conversations to the hands of Chow and her aunt. The artist was keen to highlight the impossibility of preparing such a large bird in most of Hong Kong’s notoriously small kitchens. 

OLIVIA CHOWThanksgiving in Tin Wan, 2016 performative work at Mur Nomade, Hong Kong. Courtesy Mur Nomade. 

OLIVIA CHOWThanksgiving in Tin Wan, 2016 performative work at Mur Nomade, Hong Kong. Courtesy Mur Nomade. 

The artist’s family photos decorated the space at Mur Nomade, 2016. Photo by Henrietta Wilson for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Something sweet to end the evening. Photo by Henrietta Wilson for ArtAsiaPacific. 

With an estimated 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong, many of whom hold dual citizenship, the difficulty Chow faced in preparing this traditional meal speaks more widely of Hong Kong’s mass emigration following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and in anticipation of the transfer of the port city’s sovereignty to the Chinese government in 1997. First and second-generation expatriates who return to Hong Kong often face difficulties in assimilation, as many bring multicultural identities, experiences and tastes. What was once a norm may now be seen as an oddity, and yet there is an increasing fascination and sensationalization of imported traditions, like Thanksgiving.

Once the bird was carved and the guests found their seats (with just a few resigned to the couches), salads, stuffing, gravy, vegetables and plates of turkey were served on large plates to be shared around the table. Hervey introduced Chow, and then the feast commenced, with plates of food passed around as spatters of conversation took place in English, French, Cantonese and Mandarin.

When Chow was growing up in Canada, her father sought to maintain the family’s Chinese traditions, particularly through food, which now inspires her practice—the evening’s menu featured Chinese soup made by her grandparents. During the meal, the artist suggested that our diets reveal cultural backgrounds, but the enticement of delicious food prevented guests from discussing any big ideas of cross-cultural exchange. Soon, sated guests stepped away from the table, moving to nearby couches for post-dinner chitchat or leaving the art space to head home. The television now showed footage that panned across the neat lines of a marching band. The video had looped back to the beginning, ready to replay the triumphant win. The performance was a deeply personal display of the artist’s sense of bicultural experiences, but was also accessible, engaging and full of sensory pleasures.

Chow has previously investigated the act of eating as a form of “cultural consumption” in work such as How Do You Eat Your Hotdog (2011), a video showing how three individuals ingest a “traditional American” hotdog. She also curated a food-based exhibition titled “Gastrosophy” (2014), at Jackson Power in Edmonton, Canada. In Mur Nomade, the artist’s hand was immediately apparent, in both Preparing a Thanksgiving Turkey and the food upon the table; her gentle persona and hands-off approach allowed guests to naturally cohabit the space and relate to one another. In a subtle way, Chow’s guests for the evening were introduced to deeper issues of a cross-Pacific exchange, the difficulties of negotiating identity and maintaining tradition. In Mur Nomade, we were focused on one another, person to person, with gentle reminders of the themes in the evening’s performance. This brings to mind a melancholic statement by Nicolas Bourriaud, the critic and curator who coined the term “relational aesthetics”: “It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbors in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows.”

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