The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food
The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food
text by Jo Hsiao
The destiny of a people depends on its food and its regime. Cereals create artistic peoples. It was aqua vitae that decimated the Indian races. I consider Russia to be an aristocracy sustained by alcohol. Who is to say if the abuse of chocolate did not play a role in the downfall of the Spanish nation?
---Honoré de Balzac, Traité des excitants modernes ("Treatise on Modern Stimulants")
In Part 1 of his “Treatise on Food and Money” in the Book of Han, the scholar of the Eastern Han dynasty Ban Gu (32-92 BCE) proposed that a sufficient food supply was necessary for a peaceful populace. The relationship between food and humankind can be traced back to prehistoric times. In cave paintings we discover the images of animals, representing humanity’s most primal desire for food. Human beings used their own power to satisfy their own needs, extracting sustenance from the storehouse of nature. Not only people, but all life forms seek to reproduce and multiply using the food they absorb. But as humankind has progressed to a higher level, food too has evolved from the desire for simple satiation to become the ability to transform reality through thought. Food has become visible, smellable, tastable, palpable, and can even offer access to the heart. Food has risen above the purely material level to become a marriage of idea and feeling, and it reveals to us a greater power of expression: It is food, and it is something beyond food. Food begins with the sense of taste, but it does not end there. When thought serves as a go-between, it builds a bridge between humankind and food, and forms a multifarious relationship composed of psychology, physiology, sense of self, class, faith and values. People create food, and food has a social function: in this world founded on the cornerstone of culture, food is culture, and culture is the sum of many different customs, systems, thoughts, ethical teachings, rituals and human activities.
In Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin wrote that banquets should be held on the New Year and birthdays, when celebrating promotion to high office, admiring flowers or reciting poetry, on outings, when welcoming or bidding farewell to guests, at weddings and funerals. The banquets at Daguan Park were emblematic of the affluence and harmony of the upper class in the early Qing dynasty, and they also intimated the untamable desires hidden in the human heart. Ultimately, the decadence of Daguan Park served as an allegory for the entire age, demonstrating that “feasting is tantamount to delighting in calamity.” When Balzac spoke of food, he pondered the relationship between people and food, its impact on human productivity and its ability to change human vitality. He felt that culinary habits expressed the special character of each age. Be it grains, alcohol or chocolate, he emphasized the social and material nature of food, particularly its expression in daily life and its entanglement with the human consciousness.
The renowned 17th-century Dutch still life painter Pieter Claesz (1597-1661) often made food the subjects of his works. Meat pies, bread, lemons, olives, nuts, fruit and wine served up a sensorial feast both visual and olfactory. Yet Claesz intentionally employed simple colors and subdued lighting to portray the sumptuousness of food. Here, a superfluity of victuals embodied a symbolic image lying between the material and spiritual worlds: signifying the transitory state of matter while implying the ineradicable state of the spirit. In Claesz’s paintings food took on the meaning of deviating from the two worlds by suppressing the senses. Basket of Fruit is a work by the Italian baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). This painting did not portray lush vegetation at the height of bloom, but rather a basket of fruit on the verge of decay. With drooping clusters of grapes, a bug-bitten apple and withered leaves, Caravaggio presented us with an animated, immediate reality. His basket of fruit forces us to confront the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.
Food has always been an active participant in the human world. Food has its own unique language. It is visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactile. It conveys and corresponds, either directly or metaphorically, striking straight at the subtlest of ideas through the human senses. Through the channel of human thought, it allows us to resonate with all our senses, taking us through a limit-experience, a spiritual awakening. The magical power of food lies in the complexity of images it possesses, and these multiple images are its greatest area of abundance. “The Testimony of Food” attempts to practice the language, thought and symbols of food, and even to create or intuit a unique drama from it. “The Testimony of Food” explores the many facets of cuisine, from its forms to its text. It endows food with a theatrical role, allowing food to be viewed as a performer, and allowing the viewer to ponder the metadrama that food acts out. And standing on such a foundation of ideas, this exhibition not only explores the technical level of food, its forms and aesthetic expressions, but also ruminates on and revisits humankind’s must fundamental desires, embarking on the ultimate pursuit of the cerebral/visceral, the rational/irrational in human life.
Food Theatre Scripts:
Scene 1: Faith
Sharing food is the most ancient form of social interaction in human history. In Latin America, devout Catholics take food and pray together on pilgrimage. In Taiwan temples always prepare a bountiful supply of victuals during major festivals, for the sustenance of worshippers. Here, food makes people’s faith fuller and more substantial. Food gives cohesion to a gathering, allowing people’s mutually interflowing feelings of intimacy to take deep root. Expressed at the psychological level, the experience of breaking bread together through the vehicle of religion awakens the spiritual dimension of humankind’s survival instinct, activating the deepest strata of the human soul. In the contemporary age, eating has become a form of intellectual faith, from vegetarianism to cucina povera (“cuisine of the poor”). Through food, we may consciously criticize and reflect on the environment and society, and thus gain fresh perspective.
Scene 2: Desire
Consumed, absorbed, broken down and digested, food fulfills our physiological needs, and also replenishes the energy the body has expended. Yet unrestrained overeating is a human attempt to fulfill our own unbounded desires, compelling our rapacious psyches to expand without check and overwhelm our physiological functions. Desire is like the roots of a plant, buried deep in the earth and hidden out of sight, continuously growing to maintain the plant’s life. According to rhizome theory, desires are the subconscious expressions of the deepest regions of the human soul. They ceaselessly grow, endowed with form, so that we may rely on them for our survival. In this way, overeating represents an archetype of human desire. It alters our lives, leading to entirely new likenesses.
Scene 3: Culture
In some sense, food is built on a system of lineage and inheritance; as a result, it possesses the qualities of culture. These qualities are of a spiritual rather than a material nature, and they become habitual behavior when passed on from one generation to the next. For example, the documentary “Noodle Road” produced by KBS of Korea attempted to answer the question, “Where did noodles first appear?” Many archeologists believe that Xinjiang, the starting point of the Silk Road that connected East and West, was the cradle of the noodle. According to Chinese historical data, the earliest noodles can be traced back to the Eastern Han dynasty about 1900 years ago. Noodles have become an inseparable part of Chinese people’s dining habits. Because their shape is “long and thin” (a homonym for “longevity”), noodles are also considered symbols of long life. And so it has become a tradition to eat noodles to celebrate one’s birthday. Further up north in Korea, noodles are sacraments of worship. In the ceremonies of Southeast Asia, they symbolize happiness. No matter what meaning it takes, once food is accepted, it forms no ideological divide. Whatever antagonisms may exists in a society surrounding religion or ethics, food explores the foundation hidden beneath thoughts, and dining traditions become a part of the cultural inheritance.
Scene 4: Memory
Food is a kind of memory. Food is a return to life. Taste is not merely the physiological triggering of our taste buds to select food, but is also driven by certain powerful feelings, manifested at a certain distance. Memory becomes whole and takes on meaning only when food joins the spectrum of elements in the mnemonic palette. Like a crystalline structure, memory gains emotional specificity when augmented by the tastes of food, wakening our feelings, be they piquant or muted, joyful or painful.
Scene 5: Relationship
Food, family and faith are the values that sustain humankind, and over time they grow into “tradition.” In both East and West, traditions do not disappear, but persist through change. In a family, the dining table is the place where family members bond, and the auguries of new relations may be witnessed. In Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and some Southeast Asian countries, people use food to symbolically commemorate ancestors or venerate gods. Food builds connections between family members. People interact with gods and ghosts through food too. From the perspective of contemporary psychology, food creates power relationships among people, and between people and spirits. This bespeaks the spiritual difference between man and animal. Therefore, food illustrates something exceedingly complex: the simultaneous coexistence of love and hate, respect and disdain in the same rite.
Scene 6: Decadence
In his “Treatise on Modern Stimulants,” Honoré de Balzac considered the role of “tabac.” He wrote: “Humanity probably never dreamed what joy could be gained from being a chimney.” The poor would rather starve and smoke than receive food or coin. Here, “tabac” refers to hallucinogenic opium, derived from poppy seeds, or tobacco inhaled in hookahs. In different countries, they are given different names and forms. These elegant smoking devices may even approach the level of exquisite works of art. Smoke tinted with the scent of flowers swirls up slowly, pure and white. The entire process, from preparation to inhalation, is like a sacred ritual. When the smoke expands in the mouth and hits the brain, it’s like beautiful religious music leading us to fly across the sky. There, we no longer feel the weight of the mundane world. We soar toward a beautiful realm, perhaps to paradise. All of a sudden, it takes on concrete form. Except for hallucinations, nothing remains!
Scene 7: Knowledge
The French gastronome Brillat Savarin once declared that “dining habits reveal the character of a generation.” According to this idea, Balzac contended that tobacco decimated the Turks and the Dutch, chocolate might have caused the decline of Spain, and Russia was a tyranny built on alcohol (Traité des excitants modernes). Today, the World Health Organization suggests that 5-15 percent of our calorie intake should come from protein, 15-30 percent from fat, and 50-75 percent from cholesterol. Thanks to the advance of health science, experts adamantly admonish us what to eat, and what not to eat. In this era, a healthy diet has become a lifestyle guide. “Low fat,” “high fiber” and “organic” have become the biggest selling points. Vegetables are more popular than meat, and a glut of sugar and starch are verboten. We believe in the knowledge on which health and dietary experts insist, treating it as dogma for cultivating a healthy life. “Too much” and “not enough” determine the dining habits of our generation.
Scene 8: Consumption
Food causes war. In human history, there have been too many incidents of people fighting over food. The struggle between humanity and Mother Nature usually involves food as well. Today, a surfeit or dearth of food will lead to conflict – the war of market supply and demand, the war for corporate survival. Recently, the over-production of peaches has led to fierce demonstrations by farmers in Europe. The relationship between humanity, farming and nature has turned to a complex interconnection between technology, corporations and consumers. In the era of consumption, food is mass-produced by corporations. Planting the earth is the source of food for fewer and fewer of us, as food retreats farther and farther from our lives. We cannot force anyone to ponder the debate over food ethics, whether they are struggling to fill their bellies or yearning to delight their palates. According to the psychology of consumption, modern people cannot tolerate monotonous dining experiences; therefore, a kitchen rich in dining culture can never rival multinational corporations, with their unending pursuit of novelty.
The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food
Date: February 07 - May 03, 2015
Opening: 2015.02.06, 15:00PM
Venue: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Galleries 1A, 1B
Sponsor: Colorful Life
Curator by Jo Hsiao｜蕭淑文
Assistant Curator by Bohsin Chien｜簡伯勳
Organizer by Waverly Lee | 李瑋芬
Opening Performance by Yi Wei Keng | 耿一偉
張恩滿+半路咖啡Chang En Man +Halfway Café、王德瑜Wang Te Yu、黃博志Huang Po Chih、林其蔚Lin Chi Wei、陳慧嶠Chen Hui Chiao、廖堉安Liao Yu An、袁廣鳴Yuan Goang Ming、王董碩Wang Tung Shuo、郭文泰Craig Quintero、劉信佑Liu Hsin Yu、廖祈羽Liao Chi Yu、王俊傑Wang Jun Jieh、楊俊Yang Jun、林明弘Michael Lin、湯皇珍+謝東寧Tang Huang Chen + Hsieh Tung Ning、張暉明Chang Huei Ming、何采柔Joyce Ho、侯怡亭Hou I Ting、李明學Lee Ming Hsueh、涂維政Tu Wei Cheng、邵樂人Larry Shao
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