An art exhibition that looks at food as a marker of identity, social class


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Something fishy is brewing in The Back Room KL space of the Zhongshan building in the capital. Pass by to feast your eyes on a work of art depicting different species of fish displayed on plates, overlooking a banquet dining facility that resembles the establishment of a Chinese restaurant banquet service with a Self-rotating Lazy Susan.

If you like your fish served lively, there is a video of fish dishes presented one by one, in the Eight immortals crossing the sea Banquet of all fish. He reinvents the naming convention of Chinese dishes and the aesthetics of veneer thanks to 3D animation.

To make it clear that this is a seafood destination, there are paintings depicting tools such as the crab cracker, shrimp peeler, and fish scaler, on the wall.

The entire device is an invitation to take a look at what Hoo Fan Chon, the contemporary artist behind this exhibition, describes as his lifelong obsession with fish.

Hoo, who grew up in Pulau Ketam (off the coast of Klang), has a special affinity with fish, which is a recurring motif in his work. Photo: Hoo Fan Chon

He grew up in Pulau Ketam, a fishing village off Klang in Selangor.

Hoo’s father was a fisherman before coming to KL to work as a mussel maker and Hoo notes that much of his knowledge about fish comes from him.

Unsurprisingly, his childhood revolved around eating fish, seafood, and banqueting services.

“My recollection of the banquet service and the experiences of eating fish has a lot to do with my late father. I remember how he told me the best way to cook and eat each fish. In my work Malaysian commercial (pelagic) marine fish, I try to imagine what he sees when he looks at the official fish map from the Department of Fisheries. Our understanding of the natural world is not always scientific, but sometimes informed by our cultural practice, or in this case, our gastronomic experiences, ”Hoo explains.

Hoo turns to Chinese food and dining culture in “The World is Your Restaurant,” an exhibition that features paintings, videos and art installations.  Photo: The back room KL Hoo turns to Chinese food and dining culture in “The World is Your Restaurant,” an exhibition that features paintings, videos and art installations. Photo: The back room KL

In The world is your restaurant exhibition, he even included a selection of photos from his family album, taken at banquet dinners, from weddings to company dinners and Chinese New Year reunion dinners.

“Fish, culturally, is associated with prosperity because the character meaning abundance (yu) is a homonym of the character meaning fish (yu). And, the type of fish that is served, the sumptuousness of the menu and the size of the banquet, are ways for some to assert their social status or achieve their class aspirations, ”he says.

This project also led him to examine the change in the culture of banquet meals from his youth until today.

From his online research of seafood preparation tools during the recent lockdown, he was amazed at the wide selection available on online shopping platforms.

Artwork by Hoo '# 3 Crab Cracker' (acrylic on canvas, 2021).  Photo: The back room KLArtwork by Hoo ‘# 3 Crab Cracker’ (acrylic on canvas, 2021). Photo: The back room KL

“These tools suggest not only the relationship of each culture with particular seafood, but also the migration of the seafood consumption experience from the social space (restaurants) to the domestic space,” he says. .

This is how his Seafood tools for sophisticated home chefs the series was born.

“In a way, this project allowed me to immerse myself and learn more about the culinary culture of the restaurant in KL, especially from the late 1980s and 90s, the visual presentation of the restaurant , aesthetics of dishes and cooking methods, as a way to rekindle my childhood experience as a child, ”he says.

The world is your restaurant Originally scheduled to take place in June this year at Wisma Central in Kuala Lumpur, but it has been postponed due to the pandemic and is now hosted by The Back Room KL.

Hoo's 'Commercial Marine Fish (Pelagic) Of Malaysia' (acrylic on poster, 2021).  Photo: The back room KLHoo’s ‘Commercial Marine Fish (Pelagic) Of Malaysia’ (acrylic on poster, 2021). Photo: The back room KL

This exhibition is produced jointly by the independent art space Mutual Aid Projects and The Back Room KL.

This is Hoo’s first solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. The British-trained artist is currently based in George Town, where he co-founded the artistic collective Run Amok Gallery.

His last exhibition was Biro Kaji Visual George Town in Penang, in December 2019.

“When I was invited by Eric Goh, the curator of this exhibition, to participate in Mutual Aid Projects, I didn’t really have a project in mind. It all started with a question from Eric: “Why are you so obsessed with fish? The fish has been a recurring motif in my artistic practice, from making a clip on tilapia to proposing to install a pair of mudskippers on top of the Komtar building, ”he shares.

Hoo's banquet dining setup at the “The World is Your Restaurant” exhibit at The Back Room KL.  Photo: The back room KLInstallation of Hoo’s banquet dining room at the “The World is Your Restaurant” exhibit at The Back Room KL. Photo: The back room KL

In conclusion, Hoo notes that the restaurant is a fascinating site of exploration, culturally and aesthetically, because it is not only a social space of conviviality but sometimes also to realize our class aspirations.

“The closures have also changed our perception of the convenience we previously enjoyed of being able to dine out. I hope that the public can identify with this exhibition through their personal dining experiences at the restaurant, ”he says.

If you want to take some of that fishy thing home with you, you can tapau (take out).

There are merchandise that was created just for this show: a 10 inch (25.4 cm) ceramic cutting plate that says, “The world is your restaurant”; T-shirt inspired by the uniform of the staff of the local restaurant; and posters with names of popular restaurant fish, a collaboration with the typography collective huruf.

The world is your restaurant airs at The Back Room KL, Zhongshan Building in KL until December 12.

More information here.

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