Hong Kong's Phoebe Man talks about her edible art

Artist's works bear political and social messages that some may find unpalatable

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 April, 2015, 5:38pm

Phoebe Man Ching-ying likes to ignite the senses with her art - taste included. The conceptual artist, curator and teacher - "I also like to refer to myself as a communicator" - can add edible sculptures to her list of multimedia talents. "I believe everything can be art," says the Hong Kong-born artist.

Guests had a taste of Man's work at the opening of the "ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese" exhibition last month at Duddell's in Central. Curated by Gregor Muir, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Alia al-Senussi and Abdullah al-Turki, it is the first time that the London-based organisation, known for its support of radical art, has staged an exhibition in the city.

An impressive crowd gathered at the art-cum-restaurant space, and as the launch wound up, Man happily handed out pieces of her "art", saying: "You can eat it or smash it if you like." And while a video by Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, also part of the show, played in the background, it was the marshmallow- and Smartie-covered chocolate cakes that kept the crowd most happy, the slices providing a perfect partner for the morning champagne and wine. It was the start of Art Basel after all.

But for anyone pro-Beijing, Man's sweet creations might have left a sour taste. On each of the four cakes was written, in icing, a political message that would make Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's blood pressure rise dangerously high. "Hong Kong is China's direct-controlled municipality," read one. "The Sino-British Joint Declaration is void," said another. And: "1,200 people represent us to nominate chief executive candidates."

Man's decision to use cakes was not a random one. During the Occupy Central protests last year, demonstrators would often sing Happy Birthday to You to drown out any opposition. With this in mind, Man adopted the birthday cake theme and even handed out pieces to demonstrators, photographing them as they tucked in.

"The birthday song comes with birthday cake. When the protesters during the umbrella movement faced unreasonable complaints and insults from some people, they would sing the birthday song in return, hoping to resolve grievances and turn the angry scenes into a blessing," says Man, a co-founder of the Para/Site Art Space in Quarry Bay. "Instead of celebratory phrases, my works - called 'birthday cakes' - are statements that instead cause controversy. For example, 'The Sino-British Joint Declaration is void' and 'Hong Kong is China's direct-controlled municipality'. Are these a blessing or a curse? Delicious or hard to eat?"

It's Man's strong political messages that make her cake art a perfect fit for "Hong Kongese", which runs until June 22. The exhibition looks at the evolving nature of Hong Kong, using a variety of media ranging from photography to painting and sculpture.

I wish society would not just focus on the art market. A healthy art ecology is also very important

Among the 20 artists on show are New York's Michele Abeles, mainland artists Zhu Jinshi and Zhang Enli, Brit Haroon Mirza, Tokyo-born Shinro Ohtake and South Korea's Koo Jeong-a. And it's not surprising that the ICA - known for challenging perceived notions about culture - chose Man to be part of the impressive line-up.

"I want my work to be a platform, to allow the public to have more discussions on taboo subjects, so that people can have better understanding of these subjects," she says.

One of her early series of works, entitled Sanitary Napkins (1995-97), examined the social and cultural perception of women in Hong Kong, including the issue of menstruation. Using sanitary napkins as her main medium, she commented on the common view of menstruation as a dirty phenomenon. To make her point, she composed flower-shaped elements with sanitary napkins and egg shells, creating an aesthetic interpretation of the concepts of menstruation.

Man's ability to tackle such subjects - often considered politically or socially sensitive - has created her reputation both at home and abroad. She has shown extensively in international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Shanghai Biennale and the Gwangju Biennale as well as the European Media Art Festival. In 1998 Marie Claire magazine selected her as one of the 10 "Smart Women of the 21st Century". The sanitary napkin flowers installations and her video work Rati were popular.

While many wax lyrical about the city's evolving arts landscape, Man has a more cynical view. "Hong Kong is a pragmatic society that doesn't support art as much as it should," she says.

"The resources are heavily focused on the administrative sector, and not on the arts or, sadly, on the artists. The emphasis is on showing the artwork, but not so much on the production of art, art criticism or other vital elements needed for art.

"It is good that Art Basel has drawn society's attention to art in the city, but I wish society would not just focus on the art market and art products. I think a healthy art ecology is also very important, one that includes freedom of expression and creation."

Those worried that Man's work might have been reduced to nothing more than a few crumbs will be happy that large prints of the four cakes hang on the walls at Duddell's.