The poetic form of food and drink

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am

MY mouth was watering as I took the lift to the Goethe-Institut's exhibition entitled Foodscape II, a combination of poetry and photography that was sending this food lover's pulse racing in anticipation of indulgent, sensuous interpretations of food and drink.

After all, I had read some of Leung Ping-kwan's poetry before: '. . . In the morning, a bowl of white yoghurt swimming with Papayas Mangoes Bananas . . .' (Breakfast In Soho) or '. . . The mild-mannered carrot and passionate pepper are tangling. If you don't like sweet florets go for the bitter chilli . . .' (Green Salad).

But, in fact, this visual and literary marriage of poetry and food was presented on a deeper and more abstract level than I had anticipated. No bright colours or pictures of plump pears.

Hong Kong-based artist and designer Lee Ka-sing and poet Leung collaborated on the project. Both use food as a starting block to explore issues such as cultural identity, social history and current affairs of Chinese people.

The show is an ongoing cultural project. Foodscape I was exhibited in Vancouver in 1997. More images and poems are included in Hong Kong's Foodscape II and the artists plan to expand the themes for phase III for Macau's Arts Festival in February 1999.

'We wanted to use food to connect cities and culture. Food is very close to Chinese people,' said Leung, who also writes under the pen name of 'Ye-si'.

Leung explained that he had written the poems first, then Lee interpreted them into pictures. Leung compared the process to jazz music where a musician plays one part, then another takes the melody off in another direction.

Lee, an established photographer, who co-founded the OP fotogallery in Central, said his technique could be described as 'multilayering', created by layering images then photographing them.

For the Vancouver exhibition the final images were digitally created, but for Hong Kong, they were printed from a negative to give a more photographic quality, he said.

A good example of their visual and literary synergy is the poem Eggplants, about the effects of immigration in the Chinese community in Canada.

'Different generations of the family will come together for dinner, which is very important as it is part of their cultural heritage,' Leung said.

Eggplants is like a conversation between two immigrants of Asian descent about how to cook the vegetable: '. . . Did you cook it first, leave it to cool and dress with sesame oil? . . .'.

It also documents the changes: '. . . Their tongues slowly getting used to foreign seasonings/Like many of their generation, everyone began to drift away . . .'.

The visual image to accompany the poem expands the themes of families living apart: a photograph of a postcard from Lee's daughter sent to her father from the United States, Chinese and English writing, and a classical drawing of an eggplant by 18th century Chinese artist Jin Nong.

One of the most interesting interpretations is of the poem Breakfast In Soho. Leung was staying with friends - artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong - in Soho, New York.

In the poem, over a breakfast of fruit and yoghurt, an artist remembers the fruit trees in her village. '. . . The painter, away from home for twenty years, saw in her mind/Fruit trees in home village/ Brother's mouth yellow with mango splotches/Bananas ripening and then rotting . . .' To accompany it, Lee explores the other side of immigration - the people left behind. His work is called Mum Says: Come Home For Dinner Tonight. The stark black-and-white image is of a child looking out of a half-open window with bolts of lightning, arrows and grids of dots.

A poem entitled Onion plays on the Chinese word for onion - 'foreign vegetable' - and explores attitudes to foreigners. '. . . One layer on top of another, not all ordinary things are the same . . . You and I indeed are different . . .' The corresponding image is of concentric circles with drawings of classical Chinese people. The photo uses layers like an onion, and looks like a chopping board.

It helped to have Leung there to explain the ideas and evolution of the 18 pairs of work on display; he did agree some accompanying notes might be helpful, especially for those who do not read Chinese.

One of the artists' favourite works is Pun Choi On New Year's Eve. It recalls an evening they shared a basin of pun choi - traditional food eaten on festive occasions in the New Territories, with many kinds of meat, seafood and vegetables all in one bowl - at a party in a Tang ancestral hall on December 31, 1996.

The poem, which begins: 'A piece of turnip turns up from under chunks of meat./Don't ask me about 97. I've answered that question often enough . . .' centres on hopes and fears for the year about to begin.

The images convey an atmosphere of celebration: the traditional Chinese phoenix rising from the ashes, a map and fireworks.

For next year's exhibition in Macau, both artists hope to develop the themes of colonialism in Asia and Europe through food.

'We've had fun creating them and don't want to stop now,' Leung said, agreeing there was plenty of scope for third and perhaps even fourth helpings.

Foodscape II, until May 26. Goethe Gallery, Goethe-Institut Hong Kong. Monday to Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 2-6pm.