Food has always played an important role in our cultural and social lifestyle. The depiction of food in art spans cultures and all of human history. Aesthetic representations of food make art accessible and intimate, reminding us of communal connectedness.
Western art popularized the depiction of food. Dutch and Flemish masters of the 17th century painted lavish and lavish still lifes with food and drink such as exotic herbs, fruits, fowl and shellfish. Other notable artists included some in the American pop art movement who were interested in mass culture. Artists like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Wayne Thiebaud focused on easily accessible production line items such as hamburgers, cakes, sodas, and coffee.
Taiwanese-American artist Stephane H. Shih uses staple foods and beverages from households in both East and West to explore diasporic nostalgia and the material lineages of migration and colonization. Her work creates a statement about consumption and its culture of abundance, drawing attention to the influence cultures can have on each other.
Shih’s latest exhibition open on Sundays, in Harkawik in New York City, features 30 newly crafted ceramic sculptures resembling street signs, shop signs, food and beverages. These ceramics depict a time and place in New York City where two communities lived and worked side by side. Though the community had its differences, the symbiotic relationships helped shape perspectives and menus.
Phillip Edward Spradley: Can you tell us something about the genesis of the title of your exhibition, Open on Sundays?
Stephanie H. Shih: At the turn of the century, Chinese and Jewish immigrants shared the densely populated Lower East Side. As the two largest non-Christian congregations in New York, they were among the only shopkeepers open on Sundays when the rest of the city observed the Sabbath. Their proximity and occasional cultural similarities provided a springboard for the two communities to overlap and interact.
PES: The research and procurement of archive material is the linchpin of your work. They often look for classic and traditional packaging to highlight a product’s time and place. What information or story did you come across in your research for your current exhibition that impressed you?
SHS: I loved learning about Bernstein-on-Essex, the first kosher Chinese restaurant – colloquially called Schmulke Bernstein’s, although it was actually owned by his son Solomon. When it opened in 1959, otherwise kosher Jewish families were already eating at Chinese restaurants, calling it “safe Treyf.” (The logic was that if you couldn’t easily identify the little bits of meat in your spring rolls or dumplings, then who could say it wasn’t kosher?) The restaurant closed in the early ’90s after Sol died, but there’s always there are still many people in the city who remember growing up with their families.
PES: You have highlighted items imported into the West from the East, such as sesame oil, and also Western products that have a place in Eastern cuisine, such as Spam. What considerations went into deciding to focus on these relationships between the common household?
SHS: With so much talk online about what qualifies as “authentic” food within a given immigrant cuisine (Chinese/Korean/Mexican/etc.), I think it’s important to remember that all cuisines are externally influences were influenced. Rejecting culinary evolution — or, dare I say the F-word, “fusion” — is an attempt to freeze a culture in time and declare that all influences that came before you are authentic, but all influences that come after you are not authentic. Banh mi is a product of French colonialism, and yet no one would say banh mi isn’t authentically Vietnamese.
PES: As a New Yorker, whether you grew up here or flew here, regardless of race, color or religion, there is a shared nostalgia and sense of community. Many people have an association with Chinatown and Chinese cuisine. What would you like to convey to your audience about the tradition of these common pantry items and their impact on our understanding of a culture?
SHS: Just like I’d love for people to stop fighting the battle over authenticity, I don’t care how people use soy sauce. Use it the way you want! Using it differently than me or other Asians doesn’t mean you misunderstand or disrespect a kitchen. It is simply part of the evolution of culture and cuisine that is inevitable and perhaps even beneficial.
PES: The diaspora culture and the homeland culture are slightly at odds with each other, fusion vs. traditional. How do you think this might affect intergenerational relationships within families, e.g. B. Parents with a migration background and children of the first and second generation?
SHS: While immigrants tend to conform—they finally chose to come here, and they want to fit in—your second-generation American children often hunt for differentiation, an acknowledgment of their duality. Can the first and second generation ever endure such opposing views on identity? Maybe not. And maybe that’s okay. But at least there will always be a crack in understanding.
PES: Your work invites an audience into your home, especially your kitchen. The intimate domestic life has been a worthy source of inspiration for artists and has fascinated viewers wishing to peer into familiar and unfamiliar spaces. How do you see the common practices of eating and supporting socio-economic policies in our society?
SHS: Everyone needs to eat, and there’s an undeniable power to that. Food holds incredible potential for how people treat each other. But a lot depends on what we eat and who we eat it with, and that can be pretty telling.
PES: Continuing the conversation between art, food and activism, what foods do you pay attention to?
SHS: There is an incredibly rich story embedded in San Francisco Chinatown, the oldest Chinese enclave in the United States, which I have begun researching for my next series – but that is all I can say for now.
STEPHANIE H.SHIH OPEN ON SUNDAYS – to August 6, 2022 Harkawik
MY SWEETIE HAS NO POCKMARKS – August 25, 2022 – May 14, 2023
Syracuse University Art Museum
Philip Edward Spradley
Phillip Edward Spradley is a cultural producer and content creator based in New York City. Phillip studied art and art history at the Pratt Institute, New York University and Georgetown University. He works in public programs, institutional partnerships and community engagement with a focus on visual and performing arts. @phillipespradley_