MICHAEL LIN, Cool and Sweet (detail), 2008, acrylic, canvas, bicycle, toys, cans of Illy coffee and electrical fan, dimensions variable. All photos by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific.

MING HSUEH LEE, Sugar Rings, 2015, mixed-media objects, d: 160 cm each. 

YUAN GOANG-MING, Prophecy, 2014, kinetic installation, 182 × 85 × 75 cm. 

The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food

Taipei Fine Arts Museum

There’s no missing Taipei Fine Arts Museum’s (TFAM) new exhibition about food. A pair of monumental sculptures of glossy donuts, slathered in bubble-gum pink glaze, seduce visitors at the entrance to “The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food.” Like so much of the stylized food imagery proliferating today—from advertisements to personal social-media accounts and blogs—Ming Hsueh Lee’s Sugar Rings (2015) exaggerates the attempts of so-called “food porn” to induce people’s desires.

Lee is among the 21 artists and collaborative projects brought together by curators Jo Hsiao and Boshin Chien to address the multifarious associations of food, from its physicality to its representation of political and cultural conditions. The exhibition’s main character—food—is organized into different segments, like scenes from a play, according to its individual contributions to “Faith,” “Desire,” “Culture,” “Memory,” “Relationship,” “Decadence,” “Knowledge” and “Consumption.”

Michael Lin’s two-part installation Cool and Sweet (2008) immediately catches the eye. On one side of a wall a large-scale diptych, featuring pink flowers on a silver background—using the artist’s signature floral motif, which is derived from traditional Taiwanese Hakka textiles—is propped up on two canisters of Illy coffee. In front of the painting is a vintage bicycle with a wooden rod affixed to it’s back wheel, suggestive of mobile vendors hawking their goods on the street. Colorful pinwheels attached to the rod spin fervently due to gusts of wind coming from a fan above, creating an impression of the bicycle being in motion. Adhered to the other side of the wall are snapshots from Lin’s 2008 interactive event at Taipei’s IT Park gallery, where a street vendor sold crème brûlée and other European desserts from a bicycle cart, the artist also treated each customer to a shot of espresso from Illy coffee beans. At TFAM, though the interactive component of this work was absent, the pictures of the bicycle—featured with a display case for peddling European treats, and installed before a backdrop of Taiwanese fabric—lays clear the cultural flux in food’s global journey.

WEI CHENG TUHappy Valentine’s Day—HAN DIN Chocolate (detail), 2015, site-specific installation, dimensions variable.

This transnational movement is evident not only in food but also in those who buy it. In Jun Yang’s single-channel video installation Coming Home–Daily Structure of Life (2014) the artist narrates his family history of immigrating from China to Vienna, where they would eventually open one of the city’s first Chinese restaurants. Throughout the 17-minute film, Yang describes childhood memories from the family restaurant, where personal and business life merged—an experience to which he attributes his growing ambivalence toward Chinese cuisine and newfound fascination with Western food. As the video plays underneath the museum’s classical Chinese ceiling, Yang’s voiceover supplements flashes of scenes showing different Chinese restaurants from Hollywood movies, such as Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Year of the Dragon (1985), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) and Rush Hour (1998). At the end of the video Yang mentions that he is now living alone and must cook for himself. He recalls the time he instinctively went to an Asian grocery store—a telling sign of how food is inextricably linked with identity and nostalgia.  

Around the corner, Jun Jieh Wang’s humorous installation, Little Mutton Dumplings for the Thirteenth Day (1994), comprises a series of fictitious infomercials selling recipes for decadent Chinese Imperial dishes, such as “Special Tiger’s Testicles Soup,” “Dragon, Phoenix, Wealth & Auspice Appetizer Plate” and “Braided Nest and Wild Chicken Meatballs.” (At only NT 399 [USD 13], they are a steal compared to the “original price” of NT 580 [USD 18]!). The printed material accompanying the looping advertisements delivers the hook: “Before, it was only the emperor’s family who had access to the food of the imperial household, but now, you only need our videos and our recipe to live like a god in your own home!” Like Lee’s Sugar Rings, which epitomizes our digitally savvy food-photography generation, Wang’s video series—created in the 1990s—also promotes a decadent lifestyle to its buyers.

WEI CHENG TUHappy Valentine’s Day—HAN DIN Chocolate (detail), 2015, site-specific installation, dimensions variable.

Wandering through the exhibition, a jarring sound of clashing dishes reverberate in the background. Entering the second gallery space, the source of the crash is not immediately apparent; instead, an elegantly set table greets visitors. Suddenly, the dishes clank together with a startlingly deafening crash. Yuan Goang-Ming’s kinetic installation, Prophecy (2014), hints that, while food has the potential to bring people together, it can also expose a relationship’s more tenuous undercurrents. Similarly deceiving was Wei Cheng Tu’s chocolate store, Happy Valentine’s Day—HAN DIN Chocolate (2015). Walking into Tu’s installation of heart-shaped balloons and pink wallpaper, one is immediately lured by the abundance of gift boxes, display cases and tiered stands brimming with chocolate. On closer inspection, each piece of chocolate is molded into a military weapon or soldier, a bittersweet reflection of the violent disputes in the world today.

Early in the exhibition, the curators summarized their view of food as being “full of magical power to awaken our bodies and minds.” At the close of “The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food” at TFAM, it is evident that food—the deep-rooted, universal connector—provides an effective entry point into cultural nuances and society at large. 

“The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food” is on view at Taipei Fine Arts Museum until May 3rd, 2015.

Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.