Artwork bridges the cultural divide with hundreds of spoons

posted on January 24, 2014

By Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

Surrey exhibition uses takeout food as metaphor for cultural exchange between China and Canada

By Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

Surrey exhibition uses takeout food as metaphor for cultural exchange between China and Canada

Art made from hundreds of ceramic Chinese soup spoons is one of the works in an exhibition that uses the idea of fast food as a stand-in for recent cultural changes in China and among the Chinese diaspora around the world.

The work, called Bridge, is part of an exhibition called (Da Bao) (Takeout) opening Saturday at the Surrey Art Gallery.

The 738 white soup spoons are the kind most Vancouverites would use to eat won ton soup. But artist Xiaojing Yan has taken common utensils used in North American Chinese restaurants and given them new meaning.

She’s hung them in the shape of a bridge built by the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty before the country’s Communist Revolution in 1949.

The piece is called Bridge because it not only symbolizes the bridge between the old and new regimes in China. It’s also a reference to the artist herself as a bridge between the China she was born in and the Canada where she lives now.

“I started to explore my relationship to mainstream North American culture as an outside observer or as an active participant,” she wrote about her work, “sometimes struggling with the sense of being perennially suspended between cultures and trying to reconcile the two divergent cultural traditions I find myself in.”

Dabao is Mandarin for takeout food. It’s being used as a metaphor for cultural transference and what happens when artists from one culture travel to another and make art out of their experiences, said Doug Lewis, co-curator of the exhibition with Shannon Anderson.

“My idea was to bring together Chinese artists who have travelled abroad and their interpretation of the West with other artists — some who are second and third generation Canadian — who have spent time in China and been there long enough to say: ‘That’s not what I thought,’” he said in an interview.

One of the artists that illustrates the multicultural mix of origins and approaches is Laurens Tan. He was born in the Netherlands to Chinese parents, learned Dutch as his first language, went to an Anglo Chinese school in Singapore and grew up in Australia.

In 2006, he returned to China to live in Beijing and learn a language he couldn’t speak and a culture he didn’t know. He now splits his time between Beijing and Las Vegas.

One of his works in the exhibition is called DanSheng (Birth). Coloured bright Chinese red, the work is in the shape of a traditional three-wheel bicycle, which is still a common form of transportation in China. The bike’s seat and most of the frame have been replaced with a big, oval-shaped egg. On top, where the egg has been sliced open like a boiled egg ready to eat are an army of tiny women. They’re arranged so they’re coming out of the egg to suggest they’re the driving force behind China’s recent economic growth.

Tan said when he spent time in China, he couldn’t help but notice the different gender roles of women and men. Seeing women mixing cement was as common as men cooking dinner, he said.

“I like to have my work interface with what Canadians or Americans understand about China,” he said in an interview in the gallery.

Tan said because he looks Chinese but isn’t of that culture, he feels like a translator or interpreter between two worlds.

“I don’t come as an authority on China,” he said. “I come as a person who has had seven years living there.

“Chinese curators have often placed my work in survey exhibitions because of this interpretation element. I don’t think like most Chinese artists in conceptual terms because I don’t speak the language. I sort of make a bridge — that’s how I see myself.”

(Da Bao)(Takeout) is at the Surrey Art Gallery to March 23.

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