Four hands and bare arms reach to pinch and stretch mantou dough or rest on the surface of a kneading board––shadows permanently cast by the artist and her mother onto the smooth wood in laser-engraved forms. They mingle with our own shadows as we bend over the board to read the words printed onto the buns (which, though deceptively real, rounded and seemingly heavy to the hand, eerily are made of ceramic): motherly, helpful, 放松, 温馨, welcoming, energetic, 有趣. On a nearby kneading board, the porcelain dough is wrapped around wrinkled red dates, slightly fragrant, but only slightly.
Yilu Xing, Family Dough: 1. Kneading 2. Pulling 3. Shaping 4. Rolling Laster engraved wood, ceramics, flour.
“Eat to Open” 吃得开 is a meditation on the slow, steady, pleasures of hot tofu, homestyle eggplant with garlic sauce, Henan pan-fried noodles, dumplings full of shrimp. These pleasures are not about the artist’s joy (开心 “opening the heart” in Chinese) in eating, though, or exploratory research into Chinese cuisine in Canada, or not only about those things. If so, the exhibition would create a growling hole in the beholder’s appetite, a sense of being kept at a distance from all that food. Instead, a mood of generosity drifts through the exhibition; a mood of being filled with the artist’s careful attention.
It might be put down to the mandarin oranges she invites you to take away from the plastic case beneath her abstract prints of the fruit; the delicate warmth of the watercolours on dozens of pages of graph paper documenting the meals she made and ate each day; or the invitation to visitors to print responses to questions (what is your comfort food?) on the sheets of warm white paper covering the walls.
But I think that’s perceiving the exhibition too literally, too fleetingly. There’s a challenge Xing takes on in that moments of gustatory pleasure are hard to think about––to feel––in a critically complex way. Then, too, generosity is hard to talk about without turning to overworked words like “comfort,” “abundance” or “hospitality.” The Chinese comes closer to something meaningful, dafang 大方 denoting a kind of encompassing spaciousness to giving. This exhibition does attempt to make that complexity material. Acknowledging the basic need for food, it is not, however, about food-for-food’s sake.
Take, for instance, the series of twenty-nine snapshots of the artist by her sister. All the photographs are the same size, taken from the same distance, showing Yilu standing at restaurant fronts in Montréal, mostly Asian, and mostly on Rue Sainte-Catherine, over the course of the summer month that she lived in the city. She holds a receipt beneath her chin in each. The pose is an attempt at transparency about the transactions to buy her meals, made even more transparent in the gallery by the receipts stuck behind each photo. (Though restaurant owners gave her free food because they liked her, she says). Which is to say, the photographs along with the receipts keep intact the drive to care for what matters within social spaces in which our anticipations and desires are structured by homogenizing forces of capitalism, and they reveal those spaces for the performance of a more authentic and nourishing kind of human connection, whether it’s an exchange between sisters, being handed a bowl of mutton soup, or cultural engagement.
The painted food journal is similarly documented. To one side, a wad of receipts for the groceries used to make each meal are pressed down over a nailhead, like something you’d see in practically any mom-and-pop restaurant in China. Her mother paid for the groceries. After Xing purchased ingredients and made a meal, she would text an image of it to her mother.
In some important aspects, then, the principle of generosity embodied in the artwork is founded on family dynamics centred on endearment and feelings of closeness. Yet in the case of making and eating food, it echoes. It possesses a cultural resonance. In her artist’s statement Yilu Xing points out that,
From the linguistic aspects, “to eat” is given various emotional colours by Chinese people. Being sought after and getting benefits are “eat fragrant or sweet” in the Chinese literal meaning; being left out is “eat the closed door;” being in hardship is “eat bitter;” being popular among people is “eat the open;” suffering losses is “eat loss;” and landing oneself in serious troubles is “can’t finish eating, take it away.” “To eat” is omnipresent in the daily life of Chinese people, not only limited to edibles.
The video Heirloom (from mother) speaks to the connections between generosity and “eating” those emotional flavours of everyday acts, predicaments, and situations. Through the camera lens we see the artist’s hands––we can identify them only because of their slight clumsiness as they follow and imitate her mother’s hands making vegetable-filled buns. Yilu’s fingers are wayward, and her bun ends up slightly misshapen and sticky, but her mother’s hands keep moving in a slow choreography, showing her how to push the dough into shape. The generosity lies in the patience and sharing the space for rolling out the dough; the unhurried making of the food, the warm anticipation of a family meal brings it into focus.
The exhibition is on view at the University of Alberta FAB Gallery
November 22-December 17, 2022
Photographs courtesy of the artist.