June 27th, 2015 Session Hosted by Soraya Chaar in Paris, France

11700586_128674707466279_2261790624311764195_oThe Paris installation of the Eat&Crit project took place in the welcoming apartment of the host extraordinaire  Soraya Chaar. The last installation of the Singapore-France Festival, the event was supported by the Institut Francais and the National Heritage Board of Singapore. The evening of warm and insightful conversations about art and food, meticulously planned by Michelle Lim and Elissa Cousseran since last year, started by with a round of informal introductions.  The event brought together people from various avenues of food and art.

11703448_128672234133193_2665539317658745270_oThere were altogether three presentations, the first by Ka Fai Choy, a Berlin-based artist from Singapore, who is currently exploring the relationship between technology, the brain and movement, followed by San Weng Sit, a Singaporean artist living in Los Angeles who is fascinated by the connection between body and nation. Finally, there was Stéphanie Sagot, the artistic director of La Cuisine, Centre d’Art et de Design, in Nègrepelisse, France, who was joined by French artist Emma Dusong who was currently in residency and exhibiting at La Cuisine. Among the guests were artists, art historians and other people working in the creative sphere. Most of the present guests had had a chance to meet each other during the previous evening at the dinner hosted by Daniel and Zhanara Gallegos in their AirBnB apartment in a different part of the 17th arrondissement.

Photo by Noit ZakayThe subject of belonging–being from Singapore- was one of the persistent threads going through the evening. Ka Fai launched his presentation by showing a project on the Lan Fang Republic (https://lanfangchronicles.wordpress.com/lan-fang-republic/), a Chinese community founded in the 18th century in the West Borneo. Although the republic no longer exists, the memories of it among the local people offer a focal point to reflect on the present and future of Singapore, the fiftieth anniversary of which is being currently celebrated.  11703232_128675560799527_7601337580480110596_oSan’s work also addressed the question of Chineseness and the multiplicities that make it difficult to pin down to any single narrative. In her film-in-progress, she traces the various interpretations of the Butterfly Lovers–LIang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai–a famous Chinese legend about a woman cross-dressed as a man.

11540887_128672727466477_6545728377763272550_oThis theme was also expressed by the Singaporean artist Hui-Kiang Seng who works and lives in Paris by making the exquisite rendang rice dumplings (“zongzi”) with gold leaf. The rendang filling was beef stewed in coconut milk, ginger and other spices. Zongzi is also based on a another famous Chinese legend about the patriotic Chinese poet Qu Yuan.  Hui-Kiang decided to make the Zongzi partly in commemoration of “Duanwu” (Double Fifth) Festival which was the previous weekend. Before serving the beautiful constellation of individually-bamboo-leaf wrapped steamed dumplings sprinkled by finely grated coconut, Hui-Kang handed out print-outs of her recipe and explained that they were her own special version. The zongzi combined different traditions inherent in Singapore, Chinese and Indonesian Javanese cuisine. The dumplings had a complex flavor that combined both sweet and savory tastes as well as both crumbly and glutinous textures.

11713787_128674657466284_408990491623681302_oThe host, Soraya, who also grew up in Southeast Asia, curated the dinner around ginger and/or coconut– the flavors of the regional cuisine– and prepared mango shrimp and ginger ceviche. She also generously shared the saucisson, the hand-made sausages prepared by her family in the countryside, and homemade coconut madeleines. The madeleines- tea cookies- were Soraya’s experiment using coconut flour. Another addition to the meal was a spicy chicken and potato curry cooked in coconut milk – a joint effort between Michelle and Daniel.

Eat and Crit Photo

Although food is the central element of Eat&Crit, Stéphanie, the last presenter of the evening, offered a very different perspective on the subject. As part of the artistic duo La Cellule, she produced projects that explore various ideologies of gender and labor inherent in the realm of food industry through several performances and installations. As the director of La Cuisine, Stéphanie has also hosted various projects that used food in order to interrogate some core assumptions about social politics. Stéphanie emphasized that although La Cuisine has a kitchen that artists in residence are welcome to use but they don’t require artists to do projects that involve food. A particularly controversial installation was to serve a paté made in the shape of human body parts such as a toe, hand, belly button or ear as hors d’oeuvres at the reception. The project thus disturbed the ideas about food as a happy and convivial medium that connects people and creates communities. In fact, one effect of this project was that it raised tensions about the place of contemporary art in rural/suburban settings and the role of government support. La Cuisine’s projects also raise self-reflexive questions about the position of such an experimental art center in Nègrepelisse, a small community in southern France.

Rather than the typical duo dynamics of presenter-audience, this evening was truly a communal effort as everyone participated in one way or another. Jim helped with establishing the most impressive projecting station for the size of the apartment and the time of the day, Noit took the most compelling photographs of the event. Aminatou and San kindly served as videographers. Michelle, Bénédicte and Zhanara moderated the discussions after each presentation.

10644735_128670814133335_3881867778678598703_oThe conversation spurred by the presentations involved the questions of how Asian art was (re)represented and consumed; the ways in which technology and creativity intersect; and, of course, the politics of art. These issues fulfilled the hope of the organizers to make Eat&Crit a place for in-process discussions. That is, rather than a venue where artists simply do show-and tell, they would bring open problems to the table and involve the audience in their creative thinking, so that discussions would be conducive to both developing the work(s) and maybe possible future collaborations.

We look forward to the next rendition of this project, perhaps in Italy or Cuba!

-Zhanara Nauruzbayeva


On October 27, 2012 Eat & Crit hosted by the Asia Art Archive in America


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Aesthetics of Nostalgia

On October 27, Eat and Crit assembled one last time (at least for the time being) under the leadership of Michelle – our curatorial director and connective glue. Without an idea of the havoc and destruction that was about to arrive in New York in the form of Hurricane Sandy and disrupt all of our lives, the group settled into Jane Debevoise’s (Chair of Asia Art Archive and host of the session) spacious brownstone in Brooklyn Heights for another thought provoking andstomach satisfying session of Eat and Crit.

 The evening seemed to center around the theme of nostalgia – not only with respect to the works discussed. Many of the participants were repeat attendees from the first incarnation of Eat and Crit over a year ago. Perhaps on a more personal note, plates piled high with dumplings, brought back memories of many nights in Beijing spent in ragtag dumpling shops and artists’ studios where I began my interactions with the art world.

 The first work discussed was Wang Bo’s first feature length “film essay” entitled “China Concerto” (2012). The film essay was composed largely of a montage of footage filmed by Wang in and around his hometown of Chongqing with TV news footage interspersed. The images were accompanied by voiceover, spoken in the first-person, in English, by a non-Chinese yet also non-native English speaker. The voiceover resembled a meditative travelogue of a visitor trying to process and put into context the images the narrator encountered in China. According to Wang Bo, the choice of narrator was an effort on his part to distance his own self with that of the narrator and a desire to break down the barrier between documentary filmmaker as “insider” and viewer as “outsider.” Yet, in spite of this, the film felt intensely personal. Many of us picked up on the references to Bo Xilai, the recently toppled party leader of Chongqing, and the leftist crime-fighting campaigns that he organized whipping the city up into a frenzy. The film was a reminder of the role that public spectacle still plays in China today. Spectacle of a less devious nature was also sprinkled throughout the film with several shots of retirees performing their uniquely Chinese combination of dance-exercise in public squares and parks.

 We paused the discussion to head back downstairs for a second round of dinner and dessert. We were lucky enough to have Maxim, a friend of Daniel and Zhanara , who prepared for us wedding plov – a jambalaya-like Uzbek rice pilaf. The rice dish, which Maxim had spent hours earlier in the day working on was a magnificent pot of tasty goodness. Each grain of rice was discernible and packed with the flavor of the beef, carrots, vegetables, and spices which it had cooked with for hours. While normally cooked in a large clay pot, in true Brooklyn Heights fashion, Le Creuset would have to do. Dessert included a fabulous caramel almond apple tart and Lee Lee’s world-famous Harlem rugelach which I’d like to think Michelle brought just for me.

 The second artwork of the evening was “Brighton Beach Memory Exchange” (2012) – an interactive performance piece by Artpologist collaborators (and long-time Eat and Crit participants) Daniel and Zhanara. The piece is an ethnographic exploration of the Russian-speaking community in New York City and in particular Brighton Beach. Artpologist set up shop on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk one day earlier this year and operated a “memory exchange.” In exchange for a small painting, passers-by on the boardwalk were asked to record a memory on video. The paintings, which depicted objects and iconic film images from the Soviet era served not only as a currency of exchange but also as a memory spark – drawing up memories of the participant’s pre-New York life in the Soviet Union. The idea of giving something in exchange for a memory is a very interesting one – one that highlights the “utility” of participant-subjects in ethnographic art projects like the Brighton Beach Memory Exchange but at the same time recognizes the value of such utility and its deserving to be compensated. The memories shed light on the experience of coming to New York as an immigrant and subsequently crafting an individual existence within the big city and making it one’s own. A wide spectrum of the immigrant experience was on display. While most seemed content with the life they had created in New York, not everything was rosy, “I hate America – everything is for sale!” one woman said straight into the camera. Interestingly and fittingly for Eat and Crit, many of the memories centered around food – memories of barren shelves in Russia with nothing but vodka and bread contrasted with the variety of New York.

 On a closing note I’d like to extend an enormous personal “Thank You” to Michelle our persistent and encouraging leader for creating Eat and Crit and more impressively making sure that it was not (and will not be) a one-shot deal. Michelle – you are dearly missed in New York and we look forward to your return!

-Henri Benaim

July 28, 2012 Session hosted by Ji Ye Kim and Pam Arnette in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

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I was invited to the fourth Eat and Crit which took place at Ji Ye Kim and Pam Arnette’s apartment in Brooklyn. I arrived late but ready to start. I began by filling my plate with many delicious summer things of many different colors, in particular Michelle’s pickles: cauliflowers, asparagus, and carrots… I will tell you later which one is my favorite but let’s get to know the artists first.

 Daniel Johnson: The return to craftsmanship in digital work? A dancer, specialist in French literature, and now a digital artist, Daniel made a long lasting impression on me and, I believe, on the entire audience. He showed a series of his most inspired works that was soon to be featured in a solo exhibition at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Daniel began with a vivid series of paintings that were made after photographs taken in the Alhambra gardens in Grenada. The flowers and water fountains seemed to move under the liquid Mediterranean light. As the artist noted, thesepaintings retained a strong dimension of memory. Although they had been painted from photographs, the strength of the artist’s remembrance of these gardens was highly palpable.

From 2007 onwards, Daniel discovered digital painting and its incredible capacity for continuous strokes. He was thrilled that there was no need to refill his brush. To him, this new method suddenly made the idea of traditional painting extremely boring. He showed us colorful abstract experiments, where the mix of bright colors played a major role. The artist emphasized how much he enjoyed using a tool where one could actually back track on the brush strokes. (At this time, I suddenly thought that, at Eat and Crit, the selection of artists somehow always matches the host apartment … the lights and the food served creating altogether a very harmonious atmosphere.)

The second series of Daniel Johnson’s digital drawings depicted ancient tiles and a very unusual blend of geometric and organic designs. Some were based on existing Moroccan drawings of tile patterns, and eventually incorporated up to five layers of paintings. The audience at turn compared them to motifs in batik textiles or the stained glass of churches, with regard to the incredible translucent quality of the drawings. Their kaleidoscopic nature also recalled the graphic styles of the late 50’s and early 60’s, with a certain African twist to it. (Actually, to me, they looked like they could be the stained glass windows of a cathedral in a futuristic cartoon.)

As we watched Daniel presenting his works, the drawings grew more beautiful one after the other. In some of them, the use of stunning fluorescent color variations really revived the experience of ancient designs!

Amanda Russhell Wallace: Amanda presented two conceptual works that spoke to the changes and continuity in the perception of African American women’s identity. The first video is beautifully shot in monochrome. There is a voice-over reading of passages from the book Kindred by Octavia Butler as the viewer watches a woman all dressed in black and white, moving around or sleeping. The video also alludes to the fact that alternating between short natural hair and straightened hair among women today seems to serve as a metaphor for this idea of back and forth. ‘’We never know if the choice of hair style is just a fashion trend or a deeper sign of identity status’’.

The second video also, had large monochromatic panels. The left side of the screen was red and the right side was green. There was text on each side: “I don’t want to lie in a field of black” on the red side, and “I don’t want to go to bed in a house painted with white blood.” On the green side. The texts referred to certain practices during times of slavery of having the lighter skinned slaves as housemaids and the darker skinned slaves as field workers. Violently refusing to privilege either side, the artist made colors blend to eventually blur until the last frame faded to a screen of light grey.

Then we had a long discussion about the technical aspects and the gradient effects in the video. Since this second piece was a work-in-progress, participants suggested various ways of improving the effects such as adjusting the type fonts, etc.

We took a break after that and voted for the best pickles. Among the mushrooms, onions, asparagus, and all, my favorite was the carrots – sweet, sour, and tangy with a kick at the end – sooo good. Bravo Michelle! Tim Eastman: ‘’Barricades close the streets but open a window’’ Tim presented 24 photo images of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in NYC, focusing on the role of the police during that period. The fact that the police appeared to be on the opposite side of the people really struck Tim. Violence displayed against people stands out in his pictures.

The idea of context and times were much debated. As the photographs were in black and white, some in the audience felt they evoked an earlier era and merited comparison to other social movements in history, especially in America. I remember I voted for the carrots as the best pickles of the evening but which one won, after all, Michelle? I felt totally among all my favorite elements at this Eat and Crit: Images, thoughts and treats.

— Elisa Cousseran

May 5th, 2012 Session hosted by Masami Adachi and Chris Taylor in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

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Three presentations were given by  Mikhail Zheleznikov,  Federico Grandicelli, and Hong Wan Tham

Masami and Chris hosted the most recent Eat&Crit in Brooklyn.

Masami Adachi made Japanese style beef curry from her family recipe.

As I write this entry from home in the California Bay Area, I think back fondly of the Eat and Crit Session I attended in Brooklyn last May. Nothing beats the comfort of a delicious, home-cooked meal, great company, and the pleasure of viewing original works of art with the artists. Having presented my research at the last Eat and Crit Session, I was eager to attend this one hosted by Masami Adachi.

The wonderful aroma of beef curry stew welcomed me as I entered their cozy home. Using her family’s recipe, Masami uniquely combined beef, curry, carrots, onions and chocolate to craft a finely textured, wonderfully subtle dish. Slow-cooked overnight, this finely-seasoned stew was a feast for the senses. Refreshingly delicate salad combined with baked cauliflower, and white asparagus provided a light counterbalance to the robust flavor of this hearty stew. A sumptuous array of appetizers that included gyoza, a cheese platter, and prosciutto rounded out the delectable menu.

Our first presenter of the evening, Mikhail Zheleznikov, treated us to the world premiere of his twenty-minute documentary film of St. Petersburg. Visually poetic, the film captured the scenic vistas of the public courtyards of his native city. Following the filmmaker’s gaze through darkened, winding corridors and alleyways, we caught a glimpse of St. Petersburg’s hauntingly breathtaking beauty. Spaces, both public and private, converged into courtyards that bore the triumphs, as well as scars, of the city’s majestic history and tumultuous political past. The scenes evoked the passage of time, with day merging into night, and characters gracefully entering and exiting these civic stages as if on cue. The narrator’s off-camera voice, disembodied and omniscient, intermittently roused us from the dreamlike reverie of this cinematic journey.

Upon its completion, the lights returned signaling the start of the question-and-answer session. Questions were raised about the conception and production of his film, the rise of documentary filmmaking in Russia, and how this compared to practices in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Moreover, how are public and private spaces shaped by a community and transformed over time? Such questions prompted reflections from the group about how appropriation of public spaces differs among cultures. As Mikhail’s future projects were discussed, we learned that he was currently collaborating with Daniel Gallegos on a fascinating project about Russian immigrants in New York filmed on location at Brighton Beach and other parts of New York City. Titled, “My America,” the exhibition was held in the Museum of the Moving Image from May 24, 2012 to June 7, 2012.

After taking a short break to get second helpings of food, wine, and treats, we quickly settled down to listen to Hong Wan Tham. Currently working on his dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University, Hong Wan’s work is derived in part from his experiences living in Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States. His interest in pedagogy, history, and cultural identity inspire his artwork which is comprised mostly of sculpture/installation, drawing, and painting.

Hong Wan’s first image—a collage of his hometown in Malaysia—depicted lush, verdant mountains towering over a small town situated next to a winding river. The ethereal mist and clouds, balanced by the monumentality of the surrounding mountains, presented an idyllic setting more suited to a brush painting than reality. It also metaphorically encapsulated his ongoing reflection of his roots and cultural identity.

Several of his early works explored his identification with Chinese and Malaysian culture. A pivotal work in his career, “The Long Walk Home,” was an installation of burning lanterns carefully placed upon the ground. Performed at the Pratt Institute, the work enabled him to explore his personal identification with the Chinese culture. Another piece, “A=11, B=23, C=2,” (in reference to bell-curve grading) generated stimulating discussion about the challenges of assessment in education particularly among Asian societies, such as Singapore, where Hong Wan once taught. His use of found objects for this piece (mostly comprised of clay pieces left over from his students’ works) reflects his penchant for serendipity and the “accidental” discoveries encountered during the creative process. For Hong Wan, his work is intentionally open-ended allowing the viewer to come to his own interpretation.

The arrival of a wonderfully rich, rum-laced pound cake, Tirimisu, and fruit signaled that it was time to indulge in dessert, refill our wine glasses, exchange thoughts and comments, and admire Masami and Chris’s impressive collection of art and cacti.

Federico Grandicelli, our final presenter, gave us a fascinating glimpse of his photographic oeuvre inspired by his graduate school training in physics, chemistry, and biology. His manipulation of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fire, and uncanny sense of timing helps create photographs that are subtle and eloquent in composition. Mini landscapes emerge amid a sea of hazy colors, crisp contours, luminous patterns, and familiar geometric shapes. This effect sparked interest in the unique impression that one was viewing a macrocosm and microcosm. In his series, “Cognitive Dissonance,” Federico returned to his scientific background to recreate what he saw in the labs during his years in college and graduate school. Inspired by the rich tonalities of music, his prints are more painterly in execution than traditionally photographic— the kinetic movements of the artist’s brush were indelibly suspended on film. Color, form, material, and performance were captured in the space of these 4 x 5” prints. This concept of “interior dichotomy” (the state of being split apart or conflicted) powerfully resonates in his work. His use of the negative side of Polaroid paper reminded me of the unique negative impressions left behind among 15th century woodblock prints.

Like Mikhail and Hong Wan, Federico also created a series in tribute to his Italian hometown. Poignant and lyrical, these photographs fascinated me—I reflected upon how all of us from the group traveled so far from home but were united by our common interest in food, art, and unique life experiences in New York. As the convivial evening wound to a close, we slowly made our way home—bellies full, imaginations stirred by the wonderful works of art that we had just seen, and awakened by a renewed faith in the strength, creativity, and vibrancy of the contemporary art scene.

Postscript: Michelle and I later attended the opening of Daniel and Mikhail’s exhibition, “My America,” at the Museum of the Moving Image. As Daniel and Zhanara’s BBQ sizzled on the portable grill next to a vintage Russian car in the museum’s courtyard, visitors freely mingled and viewed their visually and conceptually stunning video installations and drawings. What an impressive success!

-Karen Hung

February 11th, 2012 Session Hosted by Zhanara Nauruzbayeva and Daniel Gallegos in Upper West Side, New York

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Stepping out from the dark, wintry chill of a New York February into Zhanara and Daniel’s apartment, my nose sprang back to life in a very good way.In the way only possible through the combination of a warm apartment and the sizzling perfume of skirt steak about to leave the cast iron skillet. Cold, hungry, thirsty, and tired, I was surrounded by strange and familiar faces. I made quick work of names, assisted by a measure of Tempranillo, and it was time to get down to business: Eat. Further fortification came by way of a hearty minestrone soup and crusty bread, the latter laid out among beautiful cheeses to be consummated over the long evening. Oh, for a small gathering of people who embrace the joys of food, art, conversation and, dare I venture, a portion of quirkiness. I held on to that thought, and found myself done with two portions of (very tasty) Russian potato salad.

We were quick to discover that steaks weren’t the only carved items of the night, as Karen, our first presenter, introduced us to German Renaissance wood sculpture. Hans Thoman, who was active in the early 16th century, was known for religious sculptures marked by curvilinear lines, attention to detail, and ornamental devices. Although few of his works have survived, a panel depicting the Virgin Mary displays the qualities that have come to define his work. What made this piece more interesting  was its source –an almost identical Italo-Byzantine print, which was in turn derived from a Byzantine icon. Repeated borrowings from earlier times are not unusual in the history of art, but in such close mirroring of figureand motifs – from the star and cartouched lettering on the Virgin’s shroud to the arcade pattern produced by the long tassels hanging from along the fringe – we see firsthand, and through the benefit of hindsight, the transmission and transformation of designs over time, space, and medium. The surviving altar figures and triptychs must have been a wonder to behold in the context of heightened religious devotion. Where painted, the palette of rich colors, combined with the brilliant embellishment of gold leaf, imbues these intricate works with a solemnity and glorious beauty meant to inspire adoration, faith, and godliness in the sacred spaces they were meant to inhabit. In sculptures left unpainted, the viewer’s senses are drawn to search out fine details and meanings among the contours and shadows amidst the warm tones of wood, unencumbered by polychromy. Regardless of one’s religious affiliation or knowledge of Renaissance art, these German works can quite easily be appreciated for their display of artistic skill and keen historical awareness.

We got into a bit of colorful eating when the 17 participants of this session partook of yusheng or lohei – a raw fish salad often eaten around Chinese New Year. Consisting of a host of ingredients, including sashimi (in our case, salmon), shredded turnip and carrot, preserved ginger, chopped peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, cinnamon powder, crackers, ground pepper, and more, this Singaporean/Malaysian invention is a semantic powerhouse of auspicious punning and a riot of flavors and textures to assault the taste buds. To “lohei” is literally to “pull up”, referring to the ceremonial and frenzied upward toss of ingredients executed with chopsticks, amidst the muttering of felicitous phrases for a good year ahead.

Suitably fed and hydrated, we trained our attention on San, who presented a photographic series of “Big Girls” in various poses and fashions staged in their homes in Singapore. The first slide was of a woman dressed in a red sheer nightgown with faux ermine trim, seated on a mattress with a toy Nutcracker – Christmas time? Set in a sparse room of light blue walls, a duo of bolero and dress in grey tones hangs from a stand in the corner –a cocktail party lined up for the evening? The grille-enforced windows reveal the bright tropical sun outside, a contrast to the emblems of nighttime staged in the room. Another slide, which I call “Christina in an LBD and dramatic emerald eye shadow reclining on her mother’s kitchen counter under a shelf of neatly arranged Corningware” (phew!), generated much discussion. From her vamped up look and sexualized posture to her rather awkward balancing act – some observed that it looked as if she was about to fall off the edge – this image elicited responses about the projection of sexual appeal, women’s space, power, and self-identity. In mapping out the issues of “fatness” in a flowchart, San’s work goes beyond a matter of visualization in physical forms. The discourse shaped by media and other external agents can lead to a sort of armchair evaluation by spectators and this series prods us to look from the perspective of the individuals – a face with a name – on whom the pejorative label is pinned. “Big Girls” appear to come in different shapes and sizes, which gives an inkling of how popular critique is internalized in varied, and distressing, ways. We live in a society that privileges a “slim” body over a “fat” body, but the example of “female force-feeding” in Mauritania inverts the rules and exposes the socio cultural constructions of beauty,health, and acceptance. The problem of obesity is often painted in large strokes implicating the institutions of media, healthcare, food industry, and capitalism, but these images also remind us that the issues of body image and self-perception are also personal struggles not easily seen by the eye or articulated in words.

I got the sense that this was a polite crowd. It was almost 11pm, dessert had yet to be served, and there were no mutinous protests, no cries of betrayal. But once the lights were turned back on, legs were stretched, nature calls answered, and the table reset with a chocolate-chip-and-pear cake (à la mode!), cookies, and a dark chocolate fudge cake cozying up to the cheese and grapes. Four hours into Eat & Crit, the conversation remained vibrant, made even more so with moving bodies powered by a delightful concoction of sweets.

In stark contrast to the polychromatic images in the first two presentations, Wayne’s photographs of urban China, taken in 2008, are in black and white. Deliberately grainy with a few spots of chemical residue, they are reminiscent of the pictures printed in really old newspapers. Yet within the monochromatic shots are found layers upon layers of information. An image of a section of the Three Gorges Dam, shot from a high vantage point, appears to be a flowing stream; but as the eyes lock in on to the high-rise buildings perched precariously on the bank, one becomes aware of the haunting scale of the construction. In a strange way, the film noir quality of this work had me anticipating a Godzilla sighting amidst buildings transfixed by a raging waterway. These images are not meant to be viewed in quick succession, but to be slowly taken in, with each visual morsel macerated in the consciousness akin to Mindful Eating. Although snapped quickly, these photographs show sensitivity to both framing and detail, from the hustle and bustle at a street crossing to the amusing/disturbing disembodied hands grasping boards suspended in midair. A second group of slides shows installations of the photographer’s pictures laid out in chaotic fashion, some accompanied with phrases painted into the space. Several responses related to the materiality of the photographs, for they were not merely repositories of particular spatial and temporal moments; from the way the multitude of photographs was massed together, each constellation of words and things became physical constructions confronting the viewer. Then there were questions about how the installations should be presented – the location, the type of space, as actual installations or as photographs of photographs, the amount of accompanying narrative, the role and interactivity of audiences with the work. The multi-layered exchanges spurred by this presentation are a testament to the introspection that informs this work. In visiting Mainland China, the photographer’s Taiwanese-American identity forms the basis of his search for something deeper in the ancestral lands. This complex and enlightening exercise – incorporating histories, memories, personal experiences, self-identity, artistic practice, and more – characterizes the works-in-progress presented, as well as the analytical processes involved, in Eat & Crit sessions. What better place to give it voice for discussion than amongst an eclectic group of curious minds drawn together by artistic and gastronomical interests.

With the current goal of the organizers to keep the gatherings small while refreshing the participant list in each session, I wasn’t sure I’d be involved in the next Eat & Crit. So as the evening wound down, I wanted to prolong the moment in sips from a glass of Pinot Noir. Amongst friends, new and old, what’s the hurry, I thought, the cold outside wasn’t going to be leaving anytime soon.

-Han-Peng Ho

October 6th, 2011 session hosted by Michelle Lim and Weng San Sit in Harlem, New York

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Three presentations were given by Vivian Lee, Masami Adachi, and The Artpologist Collective.

It was late fall and already turning cold. San and I had been thinking about mussels. Well, more specifically, a steaming big pot of juicy mussels with lots of white wine, garlic, and fresh herbs. Noit, our food photographer friend, had also been showing us way too many pictures of her delicious cooking. One thing led to another, and we decided that it was time to get together friends whom we had been meaning to introduce to each other, to talk about ongoing projects. Daniel and Zhanara had just moved into our neighborhood a few months ago and we wanted to hear more about their collaborative, the Artpologist. Meanwhile, Vivian had just finished editing a video that she had been working on all summer in Singapore. And Masami had a lovely series of photo portraits to show… It was the first time we were hosting such a big group in our tiny apartment and we were not sure how we were going to fit more than 15 people into a space about the size of a parking lot. On the other hand, the weather was getting cold and the wonderful thing about tiny spaces is that any gathering automatically becomes “warm and cosy.” So we set up the projector, re-arranged the furniture the best we could, washed the mussels, set a big pot of chicken broth on the stove to boil, opened a bottle, and waited for our guests to arrive.

The first to ring the doorbell was Daniel and Zhanara who had baked the most delicious leek and anchovy tart – flaky, buttery, sweet and salty. It was so good that the last slice disappeared before all the guests had arrived. As they say, the early bird gets the …um… pie. Federico arrived soon after with loaves of crusty French bread, still warm from Whole Foods Market’ ovens – perfect for dipping into garlicky broth. In addition to Noit’s tasty homemade pasta, I put together a simple salad from the fresh tomatoes and basil I had bought in the farmers’ market earlier in the day. Of course, there was plenty of wine and beer, including a seasonal pumpkin ale that Federico had brought.

Daniel and Zhanara gave the first presentation, taking us through their recent projects: The Transformations of Space, The Borrowed Kazan and Diagnostics. Daniel and Zhanara had founded The Artpologist collaborative in 2007, with two other artists. Their first project was the Transformations of Space in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The Artpologist’s interest, according to them, was in combining artistic and anthropological methods to create what they describe as “social practice art engaged in the local community.” For Transformations of Space, they had spent some months in Almaty documenting the disappearing Soviet landscape, looking especially at the former artists’ studios and apartments that were being taken over by developers. These spaces were being converted into luxury apartments as a result of a real estate boom fuelled by oil money. As Daniel and Zhanara explained, these disappearing spaces were not just historically important but also served as an important cultural resource for contemporary artists in Kazakhstan. The Transformations of Space project concluded with an installation at The Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Almaty.

They next showed images from The Borrowed Kazan, a food and art project that took place in the city of Osh, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Collaborating with their friend, Chez Panisse chef Jerome, they set up a pop-up café in the heart of a grand old bazaar. As Daniel and Zhanara humorously related, while trying to demonstrate farm-to-table cooking in the pop-up café, they soon found that the locals were already well familiar with the ethos of eating fresh what had been locally produced. Actually, the local people were really more interested in getting a real American burger, a request that the artist-cooks finally acceded to on the café’s last day.

The last work that Daniel and Zhanara spoke about was Diagnostics, a two-year project where they explored how a local autoshop functioned within the socio-economic dynamics of a neighborhood community in Oakland, California and against the backdrop of the economic recession in the US. Along the way, they discovered that the autoshop’s owner Speed Pinckney and his mechanics were deeply interested in collecting and maintaining old-fashioned American cars from the mid-20th century. This brought in the issue(s) of the decline in American industrial crafts and the outsourcing of US auto industry jobs to other countries. At the end of the two –year project, Pinckney’s autoshop was converted into a gallery space where the Artpologist videos, photos, paintings, sculpture and music were shown. The audience had a lot of questions after these fascinating insights into community-based projects. Zhanara had a question for us as well: would we consider the Artpologist projects as art, and how did such works fit into the contemporary art world today? It was the perfect conversation starter during the break as we refreshed our plates and introduced new friends before settling down for Vivian’s presentation.

Vivian showed two videos based on her research on the memories and communities tied to the changing landscape of Sentosa, a small island off Singapore that had been developed into a tourist park. The first video, The Island of Sentosa: Pulau Blakang Mati (2010) was a gently humorous short piece in which a panoramic view of a beach cove is interrupted with splices of other visual narratives, pointing to the undercurrents and alternate histories that lie beneath Sentosa’s present existence as an idyllic tourist spot. The second video, Ok Jie Revisits Sentosa (2011-12), was a sequel of sorts based on interviews with Ah Jie, a quirky semi-retired cleaner working at Sentosa’s Images of Singapore, a tourist attraction/mini social-history museum. Most of the conversation had to be translated into subtitles as Ah Jie spoke in a mix of Teochew and Singlish (perhaps best described as a kind of creolized English spoken with a singsong accent.) Vivian was keen to get feedback, especially with regard to the use of translated subtitles. The challenge was to retain the local flavor of the conversation while enabling audience members who were not familiar with Singapore’s cultural context or Singlish to follow the story. This sparked a lively discussion about cultural translation, authenticity and the construction of heritage. We had a perfect test audience, with friends from many different countries present, from Italy, Japan, Israel, to Kazakhstan and Singapore.

It was time for dessert and another round of drinks. Everyone was nicely relaxed for Masami’s presentation as we passed around the grapes and cheese that Han Peng had brought. Masami specialized in editorial portraiture and travel work. She showed a series of portraits, of which my favorite was “Camilla.” In this work, a beautiful woman, her face ravaged by time, is reflected in a mirror while surrounded by objects on her dresser table that hint at a mysterious and romantic past. As Han Peng would later reminisce, Masami’s portraits evoked “complex, even contradictory, readings of the images by the audience.” We were intrigued to learn about her process, which involved getting to know her subjects well through long conversations before composing a rich tableau of personal effects and found objects. Masami gives careful consideration to the background in her photo compositions, often choosing locations that amplify the intended symbolism. Occasionally, she – or her subject – would choose a less familiar site that compelled unexpected and visually dramatic responses. There is a highly theatrical and performative aspect to Masami’s process, which can be partly attributed to her background in fashion photography. The results were psychologically complex works that were as much a reflection of the person being photographed as the one behind the camera.

By then, it was well past midnight. Although it seemed like the conversation had just begun, it was time to call it a night. Those who lived in Brooklyn had a long subway ride home. We basked in that warm afterglow that comes at the end of a deeply satisfying meal as we started to clean up and those who lived nearby stayed to help finish the wine.

Funnily, although more than half our guests that evening were photographers or artists working in photography and video, we had made no documentation of what would turn out to be the first in a year-long series of salons. We had such a good time that we forgot all about cameras (although there must have been at least ten of them in the room that evening.) But it really didn’t matter. As Hemingway wrote, our memories were a moveable feast that we would return to again and again.

-Michelle Lim