Friday, February 11, 2011

Sunflowers, Tofu, Coke and Other Chinese Snacks as Art

Wang Guangyi, Coca Cola, !980s.
Chinese Pop Art in the familiar style of Chinese propaganda posters.

Ah Leon, Tofu Pallet, 2003 [ceramic]
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

TOFU: Beyond A Food Tradition

Chinese sculptor Ah Leon’s (b. China, 1953) artistic vision hovers between illusion and reality, between fine art and contemporary craft.

Created in a trompe l’oeil (“fool-the-eye”) style, Tofu Pallet is intended to deceive viewers into thinking it is made of wood and tofu (soybean curd) when it is actually made of finely carved pieces of stoneware and earthenware. A ceramicist trained in the tradition of Yixing wares, Ah Leon has adapted the convention of modeling works after natural objects such as bamboo and melons by incorporating an aesthetic derived from daily life and folk culture.

In traditional Asian food markets, tofu is freshly made and stored on wooden pallets; in emulating this method, Ah Leon lends his piece a local, everyday appeal. He has skillfully merged the “Western” technique of trompe l’oeil with subject matter that has meaning and resonance within his Chinese background, forming a unique way for art to be viewed across cultures and time.

Ai Weiwei (b.China, 1957) Sunflower Seeds: 500 kg sunflower seeds , each one made of porcelain.

This new work, “Sunflower Seeds,” is loaded with thoughts and associations. From a distance, it looks like a beach of gray shingle, or a Zen garden. If you wanted to be harsh you might compare it to a vast expense of grimy porridge spread across the vast floor of the Turbine Hall at The Tate Modern in London.

One is reminded here of the installations of the late Felix Gonzales-Torres, below: wrapped candy, 1991

So important was the symbolic [power of food that Chinese artisans made Ritual food containers (dui), during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771–256 B.C.), ca. 4th century B.C ChinaBronze inlaid with composition of bone black and lacquer; Diam. 8 1/4 in. (21 c

The Early Models: Ethnographic Art


Ritual food container (dui), Eastern Zhou dynasty (771–256 B.C.), ca. 4th century B.C.
Bronze inlaid with composition of bone black and lacquer; Diam. 8 1/4 in. (21 cm)
Purchase, Bequest of Dorothy Graham Bennett, 2006 (2006.117a,b)

Below: Sunflower Seeds (close-up)

As its title suggests, it is not intended as any of these things. The work consists of 100 million little monochrome porcelain replicas of sunflower seed husks. This humble item carries strong associations for Ai. The sunflower seed is a popular Chinese snack. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966- 76, Chairman Mao Zedong was represented as the Sun with the Chinese people as sunflowers turning their faces toward him.

Porcelain is named foor the Italian term for Cowrie shell, and in this country the term "china" refers to porcelain. Dishes made from this hard, glazed material are favored for food containers because they are easily sanitized.

In October 2010, Sunflower Seeds was installed at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, the work consists of one hundred million porcelain "seeds," each individually hand-painted in the town of Jingdezhen by 1,600 Chinese artisans, and scattered over a large area of the exhibition hall.[27] The artist was keen for visitors to walk across and roll in the work to experience and contemplate the essence of his comment on mass consumption, Chinese industry, famine and collective work. However, on 16 October, Tate Modern stopped people from walking on the exhibit due to health liability concerns over the porcelain dust [Wikipedia].

Above: Detail of a single, hand-crafted porcelain seed from "The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds." The installation on view at Tate Modern, London through May 2, 2011. Source: Tate Britain via Bloomberg


If you come across an old granny selling a kind of traditional Chinese snack-rice cake (in Chinese: ZongZi) somewhere in San Francisco or New York's Chinatown,be sure to stop. The rice cake is very good and authentic. Originally from mainland China. They are also traditional among the Vietnamese.

After the simple prep and the cooking comes the intricate job of tying the bamboo leaf with strips. Often they are used as gifts between neighbors on holidays. Visual folk art with nourishment.

The rice cake contains some smoked pork, peanuts, egg york, and red bean wrapped with sticky rice. There was no fat in the Zongzi. The peanuts are slightly fried before putting into the cake.


Chinese Vegetable Shop, San Francisco, ca 1890 (artist unknown)

1999 Kleinlein takeout box

Ray Kleinlein’s combination of trompe l’oeil (to deceive the eye) precision with his rich painterly, physical handling of paint yields works that are visually vital

Su Tong, Rice: An Novel, 2004

The author of Raise the Red Lantern (1993) has written another disturbing tale about the brutality of life in 1930s China. When floodwaters swamp the rice paddies of his small town, Five Dragons hops a freight train for the city rather than face death by starvation. He makes his way to a large rice emporium, where he agrees to work in exchange for food and soon insinuates himself into the owner's family. Continually snubbed, humiliated, and overworked, Five Dragons exacts a slow revenge over many years as he eventually marries both daughters, survives an assassination attempt by his father-in-law, and inherits the emporium.

Amy Tan

Kleinlein, Ray, “Chinese Take-Out Box (1999),

Film: Eat,Drink, Man, Woman [Yin she nan nu] 1994. Ang Lee, director

Eat Drink Man Woman stars the personable Sihung Lung as Chu, a master chef who is slowly losing his sense of taste, a disastrous loss for someone who has defined his life (as well as his livelihood) on the basis of his taste buds. Chu, whose wife passed away 16 years ago, cares for his 3 daughters by himself, but it’s unclear if they’re his charge or if he’s theirs.

Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest one, is trying to steal a friend’s boyfriend away; Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) the middle and Cosmo girl, is too busy for her family and, as it turns out, herself; and the oldest, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), has devoted so much of her life to caring for her father at the expense of her own life that it’s left her single. The family suffers a crisis of personal identity and convictions when outside love interferes in their separate lives. Can the family survive — or will it all fall apart like a house of cards?

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