Beijingers are famed for their obsession with food, but with all the food so readily available in the capital it’s easy to forget the complex production and distribution chains involved. Contemporary art, however, has done much to draw attention to this complex trajectory from the farm to the table. At the beginning of the year, Rikrit Tiravanija was in Beijing with a solo show at Tang Contemporary. The preparation of food for the public has become a trademark of Tiravanija’s work and has played a pivotal role in the development of Relational Aesthetics in the late ‘90s through it's transgression of social and institutional divisions. In this iteration, Tiravanija set up a stall providing the Chinese breakfast of doufu nao (豆腐脑) to the public.
What might be called responses to this historical precedent have recently began to pop up in Beijing. One example is the communal food-making and meals organised by Elaine W. Ho as part of the HomeShop project. The most recent food-based activity organised by HomeShop took place in September as part of NO+CH Open Studio Camp for which custom designed “bags-cum-picnic-mats” and a mobile tower of Baozi were produced. The focus is not so much on the food in these cases as the fact that the projects “outline other forms of social space.”
In cooperation with Japanese artist Emi Uemura, Elaine has also presented the more conceptual food-based activity "Chain-letter Dinner," which took place as part of the “also Space2” curated by Reinaart Vanhoe in May at C-Space Gallery. Chain-Letter Dinner used crowd-sourced recipes to create impromptu meals in the Gallery’s kitchen by and for whoever happened to be present.
Uemura’s observation that “…in front of food people are very open and have discussions,” has served as a fertile ground for her work. Bento Delivery (made in collaboration with Vitamin Creative Space), delivered home-made Bento boxes to office workers in the CBD to draw attention to the food delivery systems that normally go unremarked when we pop out of the office at lunchtime to grab a bite to eat.
When Vitamin’s the shop relocated to a rather stark Ai Weiwei-designed building in Beijing’s Caochangdi, Emi created the Mobile Container Garden which grew vegetables in wheeled styrofoam boxes, thereby allowing this splintered garden to temporarily occupy parts of the site. From this work (literally) grew the Calendar Restaurant, “a restaurant that only opens when the products grow in Mobile Garden.”
On November 27th, at Studio-X, Emi is organising the second of her "Country Fairs" bringing together artists, farmers and community activists to sell produce and discuss the issues around their work. For Emi “this Fair is for people to share opinions about local organic produce and discover ways to support local farmers.” Another initiative, “Bake Shop,” organised by Arrow Factory, has been taking place every weekend for the last month at their hutong storefront space. The tiny space is usually only viewable from the street, but for this event it was thrown open to the public with “artisan home baking enthusiasts purvey[ing] their handmade cakes, pies, cookies, cupcakes, breads and coffee.”
One of the founders of the Arrow Factory, Rania Ho suggests “…this is an experiment, in part to see what happens when a space which is completely non-commercial appears to become a shop. Our space has always been a reaction and commentary on the environment, the people who live in the area and who inform what we see and buy there.”
In their various ways, all these projects serve to create what Emi Uemura calls a “platform … to explore the relations of individuals, different social groups and networks with the intention of mixing them together.” And as Elaine W. Ho says, in many cases they “…are not artworks at all, but simply being aesthetically interested to understand/instigate naturally engaged exchanges, or ways of coming together and being together.”
Country Fair (Emi Uemura): 27 Nov, Saturday at Studio-X
Market starts: 10:00–16:00
Round-table talk and map-making : 13:00–15:00
Address: A103, 46 Fangjia Hutong, Andingmen Inner Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100007 China
Contact: +86 10 6402 8682
HomeShop (Elaine W. Ho, Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga, Twist Qu and Xiao Ouyang)
Address: Xiaojingchang Hutong 6, off Guloudong Dajie, Beijing, 100009 China
Arrow Factory (Rania Ho, Pauline Yao, Wang Wei)
Address: 38 Jianchang Hutong, off Guozijian Jie, Beijing, 100007 China
-- Edward Sanderson