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Food: The Artist’s Muse

From the Stone Age to modernity, artists everywhere have found a lasting and striking muse in food. We discover how food becomes an ingredient in the works of these artists and develop a renewed appetite for art.

Warhol and Campbell soup cans. Cézanne and post-Impressionist fruits. Vollon and butter. The list goes on. The art world’s appetite for immortalising food is, quite simply, formidable. And it is only natural, considering how no other entity manages to sustain our very existence. We consume it. We digest it. We contextualise it. Food can very easily induce nostalgia, arouse pleasure, and inspire dreams. It is a carrier of stories, an indelible pillar of culture and community. In Singapore, this has taken the form of a meaningful and diverse cuisine — from its luxurious rooftop speakeasies to Michelin-starred hawker stalls. In celebration of this particular form of gourmet, and the creative minds it has nourished, we recommend these exhibitions, running through Singapore Art Week, for a very local take on the culinary arts.

1. SOMETHING, SOMEWHERE, SOMEWHEN

Coffee Story (Image courtesy of Art Porters Gallery)

Yip Yew Chong is something of a Singaporean Banksy. His life-sized murals can be found on walls all across the island, including Chinatown, Tiong Bahru, and Woodlands. And this February marks his first solo exhibition at Art Porters Gallery. With over 19 triptychs, each a derivation of his myriad murals, Something, Somewhere, Somewhen evokes a poignant sense of nostalgia, and food is the driving force. ‘Coffee Story’ features kopi and roti; ‘Satay Club’ sees satay painted on real enamel plates; ‘Reunion Dinner’ shows a homely spread of char siew, braised vegetables, steamed marble goby, amongst others — all dishes from Yip’s childhood, memories, and travels. According to Yip, “I would like people to come and view the paintings and ponder how and why they look familiar.” Indeed, his work seems to somehow conjure the sounds of itinerant hawkers and smells of grandma’s cooking — pleasures of a simpler time, all perfectly preserved in paint.

For more information, visit artporters.com

2. HERESY OR CODSWALLOP

T17nEXP (Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery)

At first glance, Ashley Bickerton’s solo exhibition – with its pearl-inlaid frames and whimsical backgrounds – seems like a scene out of a fantasy. But its rude awakening – and, for viewers, the first hint at a deeper cultural commentary – is Bickerton’s assertion of himself in the form of a corpulent, alien-like, ‘blue man’. In ‘T17nEXP’, he is seen slouched on a chair, jade green beer bottle in hand, palming a sex worker, a woman with branded red skin, devil horns, and a hellish sensuality that seems to ooze from the canvas. More beer, along with an ashtray filled with cigarettes, dominate the table beside Bickerton. If the woman represents the hyper-exoticism present in tourist cultures like Singapore, then ‘blue man’ is an anti-hero, both partaker and critic of this exploitation. The beer bottles further embody the consumptive and indulgent nature of said culture, where just one drink, or cigarette, is far from enough. In his vision of Singapore, food and drink at large take on a darker and more modern connotation — emblematic of gluttony and debauchery.

For more information, visit gajahgallery.com

3. SINGAPO人

Food projection table (Image courtesy of SCCC)

Singapo, a permanent exhibition at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC), celebrates Chinese-Singaporean identity, a concept as complex as it is ever-changing. This is perhaps the most medium-rich of our picks, employing unexpected but delightfully immersive forms of art. Zone Three, in particular, aims to portray how interaction between different dialect groups among the first Chinese migrants led to uniquely Chinese-Singaporean dishes. Apart from the interactive kopi-making game, visitors will also delight in the food projection table, digital quizzes, and more. On the food wall in Zone Four, vivid pictures of chilli crab, Hokkien mee, bak kut teh, and Hainanese chicken rice hang on the walls, spotlighted by bright beams. Singapois at once informative and creative, guaranteed to turn the lot of us into food historians.

For more information, visit singaporeccc.org.sg

4. HOME, TRULY

(Image courtesy of National Museum of Singapore)

In an iconic collaboration, The National Museum of Singapore and The Straits Times – in honour of its 175th anniversary – present Home, Truly: Growing Up With Singapore, 1950s to the Present. With over 120 sources and five main themes, this is an intimate exploration of ‘Singaporeana’, a sort of collective national identity. And while art typically appeals to sight, Home, Truly takes on a different sense: smell. In a laudably inventive twist, curators of the exhibition partnered with a global perfumery; through processes of molecular gastronomy much too complicated to explain in full, they successfully recreated the smell of local dishes, including fish head curry and pandan. The food perfumes are then periodically dispersed throughout the gallery. So, step home; bask in the scent station; and reminisce on the meals of your day-to-day lives, shared with friends and strangers, proving that home may just be where the food is.

For more information, visit nhb.gov.sg

5. #NEVERBEFORESG

Dumpling Breakfast with Grandpa (Image courtesy of #NEVERBEFORESG)

It was Pablo Picasso who said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” And fashion designer and multi-disciplinary artist Yang Derong recognised this power; from it, #NEVERBEFORESG was born. The online exhibition is Singapore’s first and largest, containing 140 artworks that document the impact of COVID-19. In Chapter Three of the nine chapters, one can find the children’s book illustrator Lee Kow Fong’s work. ‘Pancake Monday’ reimagines hawker centres in vibrant watercolour – pastel hues of periwinkle and salmon – complete with the newly normal phenomenon of social distancing tape and face masks. In ‘Dumpling Breakfast with Grandpa’, Lee’s protagonist, Kiddo, who is the picture of youthful exuberance even behind a protective visor, sits before yet another hawker stall, devouring a dumpling alongside his family. Lee’s work is truly a cleanse for our souls, a reminder that, despite these trying times, there are still moments of joy to be found – likely in food.

For more information, visit neverbefore.sg

6. GEORGETTE CHEN: AT HOME IN THE WORLD

Vegetables and Claypot (Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore)

Georgette Chen joins a long line of artists in the delicate and wondrous rendering of food as still life. But don’t be fooled, Chen is not just another mimic of Van Gogh or Cézanne. The first-generation Singaporean artist – who has lived in Paris, New York, and Shanghai – marries Western training with Asian themes. Her list of still life paintings – with most dating around World War II, when Chen, placed under house arrest, turned to indoor objects – is extensive, from ‘Still Life with Tropical Fruits’ to ‘Mooncakes with Golden Pomelo’. But it is her ‘Vegetables and Claypot’ which best demonstrates the artist’s technique. The painting depicts a quiet arrangement of melons and gourds, unparalleled in the precision of texture and form. Even the palette, subtle earth tones over an undercurrent of dull cobalt, is trademark Chen. Years after her passing, At Home in the World is the first-ever museum retrospective of this globally acclaimed artist. And food, it seems, was critical in developing the immaculate brushwork and harmonious composition for which she is known.

For more information, visit nationalgallery.sg

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Claire Quan

Editorial Intern

Small in stature, large in appetite. Likely to be found loitering around secondhand bookstores, frequenting dance studios, and petting other people's dogs. Dislikes complete sentences.

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