Sitting in the waiting area of Telok Ayer Arts Club, I am served delicately brewed tea, by artist collective The Picnic, in a tiny ceramic cup. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that my clumsy fingers are in the mood for sabotage. I end up spilling some on my jacket, and sheepishly trying to hide the stain, which feels like dropping a fork in a fine dining restaurant and waiting for a dreaded clang that never comes. As if on cue, a staff member asks if I take alcohol. I nod a little too enthusiastically, even for a Friday night. Then we are summoned into the dining area for a slew of surprises.
Thankfully, Advanced Dining, despite being billed as a “mind-boggling, seven course menu of authentic local flavour combinations” turns out to be a celebration of food’s simple pleasures, in the most unexpected ways.
Arts Manager Anmari Van Nieuwenhove says the Singapore Tourism Board pitched the idea for the Singapore Food Festival from their first day of operations last October.
“The last piece of the puzzle that fell into place was probably a few months back when the Arts Club decided to take a more local stance on its culinary direction— which we will reveal in full once we hit our one-year-mark in October —and the moment Bertram, Aiwei and Wangxiang met for the first meeting, they’ve been fast friends since and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Over the course of the dinner-performance, food is distilled into rituals - religious in its own right, communal by default and inevitably individual.
It is within these frameworks that the artists and head chef, Bertram Leong stretch, knead and marinate the concepts of flavour, ceremony and time. Nothing is what it seems. Fish and curry are served as balls precariously stacked atop each other; appropriate utensils come and go and never come back; cocktails are served in a spray bottle (which several of us, confused, promptly unscrewed and did shots from).
The odd arrangements force strangers into uncomfortable silence, then giggles and eventually conversation - all while the artists do their best to stay stoic and mercurial. It is hilarious in the best ways, exacerbated by the way diners were sat: heads popping through white curtains, reminiscent of babies in oversized bibs, like kids discovering new playthings. Perhaps this is where the experience soars highest - it is spiritual, insofar as the whole concept is excessive and necessarily so; the lengths at which it goes to to hold our attention is telling (there is a no picture, no handphone rule).
In an age of instant gratification, it reflects on the way communities are formed and hampered from forming, by going back to the basics - food, and its evolving role in bringing people together.
B-SIDE catches artist-duo The Picnic (Aiwei Foo, Wangxian Tan) for a quick chat about the work.
What do you love about working with each other?
We share a lot of common beliefs on the notion of life in general. I guess that makes things work a little easier for us. Though two of us are of different characters, when we recognise these differences, it allows us to work together in harmony.
Tell us about your favourite food memory.
AW: My Finnish breakfast in Helsinki. Nothing fancy, but always a piece of rye bread/crackers with avocado and sometimes with a few slices of raw/smoked salmon. I will also have my yoghurt with oat. I had these same things without fail everyday for about two years. Breakfast is my favourite meal, I enjoy breakfast itself and also the quietness in the morning, especially really early mornings when no one was up yet. It feels as if you’re the only human being left in this world. Those early mornings in Finland always felt dark. The quietness was intense.
WX: My friends and I once went hiking in the mountain called Fansipan, in Vietnam. It was our very first hike but the thing was we didn’t really do much research about it and neither did we think it could be such a tedious hike. When we were halfway through it, we discarded our water as our bags were too heavy and the cold made us weary. When we reached the checkpoint in the evening, we were given hot noodles in the styrofoam bowls. Ahh…that was the best food that I ever had and I felt so grateful for every bite of it.
Food can bridge communities, and yet be equally divisive elsewhere. What is it about food that gives it such immense power?
Food is cultural, historical and geographical. We can assimilate ourselves with these diversities and respect the differences, and yet undeniably they are bound to be different from our very own culture. We think that food is a language of its own, the language that is not to be spoken and yet most people can relate to the act of eating as one of the human’s most fundamental needs.
A project like this has many moving parts. In what ways has putting this together challenged and enriched your creative process?
We were not only thinking from the artists’ perspectives but also from the angles of the chefs, planners and whoever was involved. Sometimes technical issues have to be overcome with practicality and yet we tried to “rationalise” them with our artistic approach. And indeed, though everyone has different views and rationales to what they believe in, we managed to achieve a mutual understanding of the goal and message of this project.
Advanced Dining is designed as a 'solitary yet communal' experience for diners. Would you say that experience extends to yourself, as creators who are also part of the experience?
As certain interactions are bound to happen, whether they are subtle or not, and if they should happen among the diners, between the diners and us, or between the artists. There are many layers of interventions and they cause certain reactions to each other. It is perhaps like a ritual- you make multiple visits to the site but each time you receive new revelations of how the space choose to unveil itself to you. This process establishes a connection between us and the site.
There was a moment during our dinner where several of us cheekily used our tableware to keep a dish 'balanced' even after we had finished the food. Were the quirky food presentations set up to encourage and provide room for responses like this?
We were very glad to see the diners responded to us. It was a silent communication and also an improvisation that we thought had lifted the barrier between the artists and the audience. We love spontaneity!
There's a huge focus at Advanced Dining on being in the moment. For example, mobile phone usage was strongly discouraged. How can food keep us present in a world full of distractions?
When you decide to wholeheartedly enjoy what is in front of you, you are in the very moment. That might be a split second of non-thinking, too short of a moment that you might not be even aware of.
As creatives, the work can often be challenging physically and mentally. In light of the growing conversation on self-care, how do you refresh, unwind and recharge?
We have a long session of tea together.
AW: I get back to the things I left unattended- some books and music that can bring me faraway, on a short retreat with myself.
WX: Yes, tea will always be nice after any exhaustive event. I suppose the work we do are somehow part of us, a natural process and that itself is sort of a retreat.