Food as Ritual and Art

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post by Anh-Thuy Nguyn, Assistant Professor of Art at Rogers State University.

nguyen_choppedsugarcaneAs long as I can recall, every member of my family always had to gather around the table for lunches and dinners. My father and my mother alternated who would cook for us from scratch, since it was expensive to purchase anything from cans. My older sister and I were expected to help by washing the vegetables, making a pot of rice, or preparing utensils.

If my mother came home late from work at a nearby market, we all had to wait for her. When she could not be home, she would send a messenger (a real person) to alert us her absence. My father or my older sister always saved a portion of our meal for my mom, which included rice, a bowl of soup, fresh greens, a savory dish (often with meat or fish), and some fish sauce. These dishes’ portions were set aside before we ate our meals. It was disrespectful to save left-over food for a member who was not present at the dinning table.

nguyen_ricedrawingThe communal aspect of preparing and sharing food with others has been an important part of our family’s tradition and of our larger Vietnamese tradition, regardless of the individual’s wish to be included or not. I never asked my parents if they wanted to be together for meals or if they just wanted to be around us, their children. I believe this act of being together at daily meals somehow developed itself into an integral part of me being Vietnamese, being a daughter, being a wife, being a cook, and being an artist.

In the humanities seminar, I bring with me a bag of food memories and creative projects inspired by these memories of food. So far, my knowledge of food has been expanded to include the tensions between local food/local identity and the global food chain as well as the social dynamics of food (in ancient and contemporary cultures, in mainstream cultures and indigenous cultures.) I have learned how changes in our food industry and our agriculture have been controlled by big corporations and how our cultural connections and ethnic identity are collated with food memories. What we eat and how we eat not only built the “I” inside each of us but also contribute to our environments and values. We are the individuals we choose to be; yet, we are also collectives in a food chain, affecting being affected by others.

nguyen_thuyriceperformanceArtists, like myself, who are interested in food and relational aesthetics (an art practice coined by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in 1998), find ways to construct a social circumstance (particularly food related activities) for our viewers to interact with the experiences. These experiences are considered art. Argentinean-born Thai artist Rikrit Tiravanija started to serve PadThai in a kitchen set up at a gallery in New York as early as 1992. He claimed the communal experience of cooking and eating were the art objects themselves. In my personal creative work, I claim the communal experience of preparing food and sharing it ritually with my viewers is art. I am looking forward to creating more creative projects inspired by the new gateway that the seminar has revealed.