food in the arts


PING, Huang Yong / ARTISTS 1900 onwards/ MAIN ART original lfff site
film and food

literature and food

music and food
photography and food
Huang Yong Ping
Annotations 3: Frequencies -...
Indigestible object (1992) The Doomsday (1997) Fibreglass bowls & food stuffs  
Huang Yong Ping
in conversation with Rohini Malik and Gavin Jantjes
Fondation Cartier, Paris, 8 March 1997.
Translation by Hou Hanru.

RM You have been living in Paris for seven years why did you decide to leave China and come to Paris?

HYP It was not a decision, but I was invited to participate in the exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre in 1989

RM And you then decided to stay ?

HYP I received more invitations to work in France, to participate in exhibitions, give lectures, and I also received a grant for one year. There were also invitations to work elsewhere in Europe.

GJ For Europeans you may be seen as representing the Chinese nation, do you want to be seen as its representative?

HYP There is something positive and negative in this. I never refuse to be considered a Chinese artist, and Chinese is the only language that I speak, but I always have to say that I do not represent China. How can one person represent so many different peoples and cultures?

GJ Could you to tell me a little bit about the herd of animals you've created for your exhibition here at the Fondation Cartier.

HYP For the last few years I have been working with animals, mostly insects, live insects. On this occasion I've made a model of an animal rather than using living things. Also this animal is my creation, its my own creature. Using animals is a symbolic or metaphoric way of dealing with society or reality. The work is about the reality in which we live today rather than animals themselves.

GJ The human relationship to animals is about us using them, both as food and as tools, how do you use animals?

HYP It's a very interesting question actually. When we talk about the relationship between man and animals usually we just say man uses animals, man is superior to animals, period. But my way of using animals is taken from Chinese mythology in which man and animals are mixed together, using each other. They eat each other to form a kind of food chain. Man is actually not superior to animals, rather both are on the same level and open to the same danger. Man is threatened by animals and animals are threatened by man, so they face the same dangers.

GJ In Europe we have what's called "Mad Cow's Disease". Is this work about viral infection and the transmittance of diseases between man and animal?

HYP Of course you could say that. However my work is a transformation of the situation, here cows eat sheep, sheep eat man and man eats cows. There's a cyclic game in progress.

GJ The cow is quite monstrous, in scale and appearance and the sheep are almost mythical, ethereal.

HYP I created three levels of height in the work to symbolise this. You have the height for man which is lower than two metres, then the sheep which are a little bit higher than two metres and the cow is more than five metres high. The measurement symbolises the situation. But this work is realised by man and for man as a visitor to the work, it's not made for sheep!

GJ The cow has four horns instead of two and very long ears. It echoes the pre-historic, like an animal from "Jurassic Park". Is there something mythological about the cow or does it refer to an ancient past, or even science fiction perhaps?

HYP I always make work in reference to something, for example to Chinese culture, and this time I refer to a famous mythological book called "Shan Hai Jing". This book describes a cow, a strange kind of animal called a "Zhu Huai", which translates to means a hybrid pig. This cow/pig has four horns, pig's ears, human eyes and makes the sound of a baby. I picked up on the four horns and the pig's ears. This animal eats man of course, and this myth also mentions sheep which eat man. The sheep which eat man usually have four horns, but in my piece the sheep have no horns. This work is entitled "The peril of sheep", but actually when you look at sheep they are not that violent, so it raises the question, is this the peril of sheep, the peril of cows or the peril of man? It invites discussion.

GJ You've mentioned that your work very often has a connection to a social subject or some kind of social issue. The issue in question is food. You've made a work in the "Parisien(ne)s" exhibition for Camden Arts Centre in London entitled "Da Xian", "The Doomsday". It uses a traditional Chinese porcelain rice bowl, enlarged to an enormous scale. In these rice bowls you have placed contemporary foodstuffs all dated with the expiry date of July 1997. Could you tell us about this work?

HYP Of course you can't actually separate this work from the context of England in 1997. We all know of the relationship between Hong Kong and Britain in 1997. I tried to bring a number of issues together. The food plays the role of a reminder. It reminds us of limitations. Food is not like earth or wood which can last for a long time, it always has a limit. It reflects human history or society. Everything has a limit in history, society and in life. I had to create a relationship between these issues through an image, and the image here is the bowl. The bowls and the images on the bowls are very important. Actually, the bowls are not the traditional Chinese bowls. I have chosen porcelain bowls made by the "oriental" East India Company. The motifs on the bowls are theirs, done in a traditional style. What is interesting is that in these images you have a lot of flags of the colonisers. Interesting also is that my enlarged bowls actually look like hemispheres of the earth. It gives the impression of the earth wrapped in all these flags. These images reflect the imagination at the height of colonialism in the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century. I tried to connect these things, making a series of stepping stones, from the food to the bowls to the flags, they're all linked together.

GJ This idea of the colonial flag wrapping the world is a very intriguing notion. The images on the bowls represent the coloniser pretending to be elsewhere. It could also be read as a form of packaging, a wrapping of the world, in the same way as the foodstuffs inside the bowl are wrapped and dated. The objects on the inside date the end of a colonial situation in 1997. The images on the outside of the bowls date high colonialism. Both have marked limitations, both come to an end.

HYP I think your interpretation is a good supplement to my work. My work has such a radiative way of transmitting its message. Its a very good reaction to the piece.

GJ There are three bowls and I wonder why that number, why not one or two. ?

HYP The bowl is a public image which belongs to everyone. Everybody is entitled to a bowl of rice, it doesn't belong to one person. So there's a big difference between one and three. Three suggests a plural number.

GJ Another reaction that I have to "The peril of sheep" is also connected to colonialism. The spread of mad cow disease from sheep to cow to man, talks about the movement of things and here it's not only across species but across territory. Mad cow disease is claimed to have its origins in England because of the mad way the English fed their animals. It's now spreading, possibly across the whole of Europe. This notion of movement, of infection, resides in both "The Doomsday" bowls and the "The Peril of Sheep".

HYP It's the same kind of displacement as my own life, I'm Chinese and I'm living here, I'm showing in England and also in France so its the same kind of movement.

GJ You are an artist "at home" here in Paris, France yet away from home. Do you locate yourself geographically where you work? Is the place you feel most at home in art, rather than in a geographical location?

HYP This is a complex subject. I always emphasise that you bring your earth and water with you wherever you go. When you have a home, a stable home somewhere, you don't have to move. The question of location doesn't arise. But when you start moving around, become displaced or a migrant, the question of home is raised. Then you have to consider what is your earth, what is your water. So actually when you travel you don't have a home but you need a home, and there are two kinds of homes which I can now imagine, a mobile home and a fixed one.

RM In the creation of many of your works there appears to have been a crossing of borders, both in terms of physically moving from place to place, but also more conceptually in terms of ideas. I wonder if, perhaps, you could talk about this in relation to specific works, and also more generally as a way of approaching your creative practice as a form of "crossing over"

HYP There is a physical border between countries. But there is also a more personal border of our selves. The question is how to go beyond the limit of ourselves, beyond our own borders. These two kinds of borders very often overlap: when you cross the border to another country, at the same time you feel you are going beyond your own self, beyond your own borders.

RM Do you perhaps see yourself as a form of 'bridge' and your work also as a 'bridge' between and across borders ?

HYP The image of the bridge is a beautiful metaphor. On the bridge you have two points, two ends. Normally we think a person should have only one standpoint, but when you become a bridge you have to have two. This is also a kind of explanation for the concept of crossing the border of the self: as one person, you should have many standpoints. Between these two points, there is one that is more stable, your original personality and another point which is less stable, floating. This bridge is always dangerous.

RM Dangerous, but at the same time doesn't it suggest new possibilities?

HYP For me, the notion of danger is not negative, but positive - it creates the possibility to open up something else.

GJ. There's also the belief that because we have this mobility to move from place to place, the artist functions more and more like a "passeur", like a ferryman transporting the audience or public from one idea to another, from one cultural experience to another. Do you feel that you are acting like a "passeur"?

HYP Yes of course there is this dimension of transporting things, but every work is a reaction to the specific context of a different place. Its not a simple act of transferring a thing from one place to another. Every new location requires a new reaction to its specific context.

GJ In another piece, which you made at the Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie in Paris you constructed a bridge with live snakes and turtles on either side and there was no way that they could cross this bridge because of its steep curve. Yet the work addressed the idea of two locations, of different ideas and identities, and harboured the possibility of bridging those disparities. The viewer is invited to think laterally about location and difference.

HYP Of course the animals cannot go across the bridge but the bridge exists to suggest a spatial communication. This link exists to create a space for communication between the two parts even though people can't cross. Of course complete comprehension is impossible, but communication as a misunderstanding or half understanding, is a way of communication as well.

GJ Communication between worlds is something that arises very often in your practice. Your early piece, now some ten or more years old, "The history of modern art and the history of Chinese art washed two minutes in a washing machine", has as its central feature the bringing together of two dynamic worlds.

HYP I made a series of works washing books, essentially to reveal my lack of trust in absolute communication through language. The fact that people rely on languages for communication more than anything else, I want to show a suspicious attitude towards this. This was the main concern of this kind of work.

GJ The notion therefore of an "internationalism" as it is spoken about in the West is a notion one should treat with a lot of suspicion. Is this what you're saying?

HYP This suspicion is not only focused on art, but basically on the economic and political dimension of so-called 'internationalism'. You will find that international companies, or even the United Nations, create a number of illusions. This doesn't mean that we should deny internationalism in favour of nationalism. Nationalism is even more dangerous than internationalism, but on the other hand there is perhaps always a kind of nationalist motivation behind claims for internationalism. I think we should do something about that and not to be too naive. For me, internationalism can't be separated from two things: anthropology and the history of colonisation. Anthropology and anthropologists could only have been produced and invented in the West. That was the situation in the past, now things are changing. In the reality of today, we have to look at the relationship between internationalism and international enterprise. I think internationalism is basically a Western notion, and we have to be very careful when using it. When we're dealing with internationalism in art we should try to consider it in this context. Internationalism is a utopian idea. Utopia is very important in art. We all wish to realise a new internationalism, but how to do this in reality is another question.

GJ The process of washing or cleansing, the wiping away of a notion of history, cancelling a notion of identity and culture and replacing it with some alternative fragmented internationalism, does this not allude to brainwashing?

HYP The action of washing has various implications and meanings. Yet what should be emphasised is that the reason I'm washing is not to clean but to make dirty. The notion of "dirty" internationalism is always good and "clean" internationalism is always bad.

GJ In other words a thorough mixing; an engagement which is not about cleansing and making pure, logical and transparent, but something which is quite mixed, confused or incoherent.

HYP Because such a dirty confusion creates a distance from your subjectivity.

GJ There's another piece which addresses the notion of movement, food and time. "The Indigestible Object" was made with rice in three states, raw, cooked and in the process of decomposition. Hou Hanru wrote about this work as an "entropy"1, your art and the art world in a state of continuous re-emergence and change. In this piece we recognise the flow of time. In a number of your works there's a time sequence that makes one aware of transformation and change.

HYP It's always very important to include process in the reading of the works, to understand the works as a process rather than a an art object. It's like a book that one has to think about and work one's way through, one can think of it as a passage. The image of 'passage' is quite similar to that of the bridge, a transformation from one point to another. In such a process there is a limit, a determination. The process determines the kind of transformation which should take place between those two points.

GJ You move to a place, make work, transform site-specific spaces. As viewers we visit the sites of your work, we move, we change our consciousness. Process is therefore also an important part of how the work is received.

HYP It was a very important aspect of '"Indigestible Object". What actually happened is that people had to enter the tunnel with all these different states of the rice on the floor, it altered their perception totally. It looked like you're walking through someone's intestine. We've mentioned food and language in this discussion and actually for me food and language are two basic aspects of culture itself, its food and language which decide what culture we have.

GJ Absolutely. Just as any description of taste can never be perfect, taste for each individual is different, and therefore the translation for each individual is one remove from the absolute. We may all agree that something is salty, but some of us may like saltiness and others may not. Translation is a very important factor in interpretation and consciousness.
I think it was Franz Fanon who said "To speak a language is to assume a culture"2 , that's one idea I want to hold onto. The other idea is that food seems to be the last terrain in which we hold onto a traditional sense of identity. We talk about eating "authentic" food. There are specific cuisines which have a particular taste and this remains the last anchorage we have when we are swamped by notions of globalism. In which everything is supposed to taste the same.

HYP If you identify with the language of a new place that's one thing but if you also accept totally the way of eating, and the food, of another culture, it means you identify completely with this culture. You have changed your identity. That is true.

GJ I am what I eat?!

HYP What is surprising is that in the past the colonisers created schools and education in the colonies, they tried to make the other people assimilate to their culture through language and education, but what is surprising is that nobody ever mentioned that we should assimilate the food. So you can see Chinese, Indian or French restaurants, whatever, all maintaining their own speciality and this is a very surprising phenomenon.

GJ Yes, the other surprising phenomenon, if we're talking about a notion of globalism changing our lives, is that we're inferring that when French, German or Dutch people go out and eat Chinese, they are in fact not only consuming but they are also assuming notions of a cultural otherness.

HYP But there's an interesting difference. You accept the food but it doesn't influence your way of thinking, so you can digest it. But when you accept a new language it influences your way of thinking, your culture, it's another story. You have to distinguish between these two things.

RM I am interested in the role "chance" plays in the realisation of your work, and how this relates to the Western notion of the artist as a visionary and autonomous creator. For a number of works you used the 'Yi Ching' as a way of determining how to proceed.

HYP I've always been very suspicious of the role or status of the artist as an autonomous creator who creates something from nothing. By resorting to the notion of chance, one can have access to enlightenment. It also has to do with my own cultural background. In China, the individuality is not so important. In terms of philosophy, traditional Chinese philosophers never said "I say", but always said "our ancestors said". It is a way of accessing reality. This is the reason I use the 'Yi Ching'.

RM Through your interest in various philosophies, Daoism and Zen Buddhism, as well as Western philosophers from Wittgenstein to Foucault and Derrida, has there been some sort of cross-over and dialogue in your understanding and interpretation of these different ideas and perspectives?

HYP We have to know that when we look at something new, we are looking at something that already exists in reality. When you are reading something so-called 'foreign', it is something which already exists in your own culture, in your self. I can't read any foreign language, so I only have access through translation, which is sometimes very fragmented. But it is not so important whether it is a fragment or the entire translation. What is important is that it reminds me of what already exists in my own culture.

GJ We never translate fully even though we may assume to get everything across, there will always be different nuances of meaning. Looking at a four-horned cow, my translation will be different to somebody who understands Chinese mythology, who can actually tell where the four-horned cow with the pig's ears and the human eyes comes from. Do you have a problem with the impossibility of translation or do you see its potential?

HYP Even every time I try to translate my own work it's different.

1 Hou Hanru "Entropy, Chinese artists, Western Art Institutions, a new internationalism" §87/88 Global Visions - towards a new internationalism in the visual arts, ed. Jean Fisher, Kala Press, London, 1994

2 Franz Fanon "Black Skin White Masks" §13 trans by Charles Lam Markmann Granada Publishing 1970

Huang Yong Ping in dialogue with Gavin Jantjes. 1998  copyright: INIVA 2003


  Eating and Drinking in China