Xiaofei Mo (XM): Thank you everyone for coming, and a special thanks to Nathalie Angles, the director of Residency Unlimited, who together with Asian Cultural Council (ACC), has helped bring Ise here today. For this collaboration we are very grateful. This has been quite an unusual event. The whole team of Asia Art Archive has been cooking with Ise and Stephanie, another ACC grantee, this entire afternoon! For the record, Ise is an artist, not a chef [laughter] and today he will introduce three of his recent projects. These three projects and tonight’s dinner are interconnected and in different ways trace the history of Malaysia through stories, rumors, objects, and symbols, and most importantly, through food. It is important to point out that in Malaysia, Ise also runs a long-term collaborative project called the Parking Project which has become an amazing hub for exchange dialogue and friendship.
Roslisham Ismail (RI): Thank you Xiaofei. Thank you Jane. Since everybody is hungry, and we’re hungry too, we’ll make this presentation really short. Today we are going to eat the blue rice, which is based on a recipe from my Grandma. Blue rice was also part of my project for the Asia Pacific Triennial which was a cookbook. What you’ll eat today is a recipe from this cookbook. But before we go to the cookbook, I’ll briefly introduce some of my other projects because my work is always interconnected.
The first project I’d like to talk about is from 2010-2011 and was presented at Singapore Biennale. It is called Secret Affair. I am a very curious person, especially about people’s lives. I like looking at people on the street, and when I do, I am curious about all sorts of things, like what they wear and how they act, etc. When Facebook started in 2008, I was suddenly able to look into a lot of people’s lives. In Malaysia everybody wants to show off, so I declared myself a Facebook Investigator. I started spending a lot of my time looking into other people’s lives. I also started to think about how everybody in this world exists in a bubble. In this room [tonight] we are in a bubble, and when we leave, we’ll go to another bubble. That’s what I think about when I look into other people’s worlds.
When the curators of the Singapore Biennale approached me to ask me what I had in my mind, I said I’d really like to observe people. They then challenged me and said, ‘Why don’t you do it for the Singapore Biennale?’ In Singapore people are not really open or friendly, so this was a big challenge. From start to finish the project took one and a half years, during which time I went to Singapore and started hanging with people, spending time at food courts, and talking randomly with people. Then friends started to suggest some contacts. At first I didn’t know what I should do, but I came to the conclusion that people need energy and they get energy from food. So I decided to do research about kitchens, but doing research about kitchens was a bit daunting. It was such a huge subject. Then one day I woke up in my house and looked at the refrigerator and thought, ‘this is the secret box of the family.’ In Asia it would be very rude to go to someone’s house and open their fridge. That might not be the case here [in the U.S.], but there you cannot touch other people’s refrigerators. It was then that I realized I wanted to work with refrigerators and I told that to the Biennale directors. They replied, ‘there’s no way people will allow you to go to their house and into their fridge,’ but they let me try.
So that’s how I started. I started to try to convince people and ended up with six families who were willing to work with me. Some rejected me. In fact, it was very courageous for these six families because they didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I visited them every month and the process was really long. For example, I met one of the people really randomly, and after talking for a bit, I asked him about his behavior when he’s shopping, and he replied that I would have to ask his wife. This then became a negotiation, even a flirtation, to get his phone number from him. But finally I got the phone number, and I had to wait until he contacted me. He finally contacted me, but he requested that he and his wife meet me outside. Then after talking for a few months, he said, ‘you should come to our house.’ So I went to their house and had dinner and waited until they offered to show me the fridge! So that was how it went, and of course there were six families that I had to deal with. So it was a very hard negotiation. That’s what I was doing for a whole year, trying to become friends with these people.
The directors of the Biennale still didn’t believe in what I was doing and asked if I wanted to take photographs of these people’s fridges. But I said I wanted to create a real fridge, with real food from real people. They thought it wouldn’t be possible, but I asked them to give me a chance. And I’m lucky that these six families were willing to hang out and go to dinner with me, and we have now become really good friends. Even now we are still connected. So after a while they started to take photos of their fridges, and in the last part of my project, I told them that I would give them money, about $200 for each family (according to my research that’s about a week’s worth of grocery shopping for each family) and I asked them to go shopping as they would normally do.
We followed them as they shopped and shot footage of their hands picking things up at the supermarket. We didn’t get permission from the supermarkets to film there; we just went in and filmed. We intended to install six fridges — six real fridges — in the museum. After one and a half years the families had become like family and they were now quite relaxed. They asked me, ‘after we finish shopping, what will you do with all the things that we bought?’ I told them that I had installed six fridges and that these fridges would represent each of them, and that I would put what they bought into their individual fridges. But one of the families said no. I was confused why they would say no to this last part of the project. But then this family explained, ‘this is our fridge; we know how we want to put things in it.’ I didn’t want to push too hard, so I asked them if they would like to come to the exhibition space [and help me install]. But we then had another issue, because when the media started to publicize [my project], all the [consumer] brands wanted to sponsor it. I didn’t want this. In my mind the fridge was supposed to be a blank canvas; it was not about what was inside. So we decided to pick [products] from the same brand.
I picked this photo because many people questioned me about my practice. For me this image represents a similar process. Painters 100 years ago also went to the market to buy vegetables and put them in a still life painting. For me it was the same. I went to the market and put the food on display. It’s just another way of working.
When the families came into the space, and started to install their own fridges, the curator was like ‘I can’t believe this.’ If I had installed the fridges by myself, it would have been my own pattern, but when the families installed the food by themselves, it really changed things. Everyone’s was different. For example, one fridge was almost empty. It only had 5 items in it, so some audience members thought this was a poor family. But actually this was the richest family, because $200 for them is nothing. They would buy the finest duck meat for $60. They are really high end and they really cook. That’s why they bought these [few] prime products.
Another one of the families crossed the border to Malaysia twice a week to do their shopping and to do this they had to exchange currencies. My friends, who were all artists at the Biennale, and I had to help them with this, because when you return to Singapore, you can’t bring in things like mangoes or cooking oil. So I had to go to Malaysia and help this family smuggle these things back into Singapore.
For the show I installed six fridges and on each fridge was one LCD screen, showing the hands picking up the items while shopping. I didn’t tell visitors to the Biennale not to open the fridge. I tried to test the audience to see how they would react. I was super scared, because the other artists [in the Biennale] presented big installations and I just had refrigerators! I also designed a menu book. It was very low-tech, black and white, and inside was an article about my project. I also asked the families to give me their family recipes, and I put them in the book as well. We then gave the book away.
When the Biennale opened, some visitors just saw my pieces as monumental sculptures, but I waited and after a while some curious people did indeed start opening the fridges. That was the successful part for me: getting the audience to participate in your work without telling them that this is a participatory project, without asking the visitors to interact with the work. Touching works in a museum is taboo. But when they broke the taboo and opened the fridges, they went crazy and touched and analyzed all their contents!
Because I come from a very conventional school, I felt I wanted to sign my work, so what I did was I designed a fridge magnet as my signature. I told the [people working at the] Biennale that there were extra magnets, so [not to] tell people not to take one. Let people do it! So people kept stealing the fridge magnets, but I got a report that people were respectful with the food. For me that was really successful.
And there was yet another unexpected outcome. Because of the food, a chef from Singapore came to me and said he’d like to collaborate but didn’t know how. So I showed him the six recipes I had received from the families and he went crazy. He investigated all of the fridges and designed some dishes. Every three weeks (the Biennale was open for three months) we designed a new dish using one of the families’ recipes. The chef then made flyers and stuck the recipe on the fridge with the magnet. Each dish was inspired by one fridge (one family) and was offered for sale in his restaurant. Half of the profits from each plate sold went to the protection of poor people. I never imagined that my work could do that!
That’s how this project started, and three years later I got a call from the Asian Pacific Triennial saying that they liked both of my previous books and wanted to do a new project with me. At that time, I was back in Kuala Lumpur, and I had started to feel quite fed up because all anyone was talking about was money. They were saying that ‘you’re not an artist because you’re not selling.’ So I decided that I wanted to go back to my hometown in the northeast coast of Malaysia, bordering Thailand, a most conventional place. When I told my friends that I wanted to return to my hometown, they thought I was committing artistic suicide, so I had to find a reason to go back there. The first reason was that my parents had passed away and my ancestral house was in really bad condition because no one had been maintaining it. I decided that I needed to take care of this house. I’m the only one of my siblings who’s not working, so I could go back. But I still needed to find another reason.
My grandmother’s sister, the youngest of that generation in the family, is a really good cook, so my second reason was to meet her and ask her to cook for me. For the first month that I was back [in my hometown] I began to think that what my friends had said was true, that I had committed career suicide. There was nothing there and I didn’t feel that I belonged. But I continued to hang out almost every day with my grandmother’s sister [I call her Grandma]. And everyday she cooked really good food. But from time to time, I would eat outside of her home, and it was then that I started to feel something weird. For example, what we’re eating today is the blue rice [dish] which comes from my hometown. However, [when I was eating outside my Grandma’s home], I realized that the color of the rice that was being sold in the restaurant and the color of the rice that my Grandmother cooked were totally different. It was then that I understood that the restaurant had started to use [artificial] food coloring. This did not seem right to me, because if that was happening in my hometown where the dish came from, it would be a disaster in the future. So I felt that I needed to do something. I realized I needed to learn how to cook, so I decided to ask my Grandma for lessons.
Of course, I wanted to document this process — her teaching me to cook, but I knew right away that I couldn’t bring my crew [into her home]. First of all, because they were far away in the capital, and secondly, because my Grandma would be freaked by all the cameras. So I asked a friend to send me a good camera so I could do the photographing myself. But on the date we set for a cooking lesson, in addition to photographing, I had to do a lot of other things, including chopping! And she was like a master chef, telling me ‘not like this, like this.’ She wasn’t my [sweet] Grandma anymore! [She was the boss!] But because I wanted to preserve her recipes, I had to take this kind of advice. I had to swallow all of her criticism. Then halfway through cooking the first recipe I realized that I didn’t understand anything that I had written down. It had all happened very fast and my handwriting was really bad. It was a disaster. So I got an idea. Because I’m a very visual person, I started to draw. For example, if she said four cloves of garlic, I would draw garlic, and if she said chop, I would draw a knife. And in the end, I had created a whole manuscript of illustrations. I documented the recipes this way. Then when I decided to make a cookbook, I encountered another problem. I had to find a copywriter, but when I found one and showed her the illustrations and asked her to come up with the text, we realized that the English language of cooking is different than normal language, so we needed to find an editor who had experience with cookbooks. I wanted my book to be used to actually cook, because if I only made an art book, the recipes wouldn’t get preserved. [By the way] I always carry only my digital scale so when the cooks show me the amounts they use, I can at least get a number to go with my illustration. It’s not perfect, but the number is there, rather simply saying one pinch [of this] or whatever.
Before we go downstairs to eat I want to explain a few more things. To research the cookbook, I worked in the area of Langkasuka that is an old kingdom between Malaysia and Thailand. The border was decided in 1909 by the British when area was divided. So for my project I had to cross the border to study with my Grandma, and then cross the border again to find [other] old people to teach me [other] recipes. However, this area in Thailand is a war zone. Some people who live there want independence, so there are bombings almost everyday. My crew was really scared to go there, but we had to in order to cook. So we hired a driver through Al Jazeera [the news network]. When he arrived with a lot of army equipment I realized that there must have been a misunderstanding. We were just going to find restaurants and houses to cook in. For his part, the driver was also confused. He didn’t understand why the hell we were doing this.
Upon crossing the border, we met this old lady who talked to me about the recipe [for something] called ‘Mountain Rice,’ which was invented during the war between Langkasuka and Siam. I asked my architect friend to calculate roughly the period that this lady was telling us about and he estimated it was about 350 years ago. This lady was very particular about spices, and when I asked her if I could draw her recipes, she was also very particular about the layout. She explained that the rice had to be in the middle, and half of a young coconut had to be put on the right, and a leaf had to be placed someplace else, etc. etc. It was like she was curating [my project]. This recipe had always been transmitted orally, but through drawing she began to see it as a visual image. That’s when we realized that she was talking about the war and that the food was being used as a map, because the coconut represented the coast, the leaf represented the jungle, and the rice represented the Langkasuka army’s position. And so we then understood that [in the past] when the locals met together, they would eat dinner and at the same time discuss their [war] strategies, and when they finished, there would be no trace left of the map. In this way they got both energy and a strategy for war from food!
That’s when I decided that I needed to introduce this recipe to my friends in Kuala Lumpur. So I organized a cooking experience and brought my friends from the capital [Kuala Lumpur], and they all got really dressed up and arrived ready to eat. But I told them no, you have to work, to chop, and to help do everything. Afterwards they realized it was the most amazing dish ever. I put all the photos from this event in the introduction of my cookbook; the introduction chapter was written by my architect friend. We just included the photos but not the recipe, because the entire process was oral. I can’t say if the spices we used were completely correct, but it was the old way of cooking that I was trying to preserve.
When we launched the cookbook at the Triennial, I cooked one of the desserts. The project almost became a cooking show. In Australia I had to teach a chef three recipes, after which there was a contest. The dishes were then judged, and the banana dessert was chosen, which was lucky because it was the easiest. We decided to have the restaurant in the art museum serve the banana dish for the four months of the Biennale. But I told the curator that I wanted the dish to be a limited edition; only 30 plates could be served per day. I decide to do it like this just for fun, but after that, the restaurant had crazy queues for four months! People had to make a reservation weeks in advance to eat the dessert! Then people kept asking me to come back to Australia and cook for them, because they didn’t want to wait two weeks to eat the dessert!
I launched the cookbook four years ago which was a happy experience because it allowed me go all over and give talks, but I’ve started to become really fed up with the cookbook, because people began to think I’m a chef! I’m not a chef. I just did research and preserved some recipes. Recently I talked to my friend and we came up with a new term that makes me happier about my cookbook. We decided I’m doing hospitality PR. Actually I do like to cook and invite people to my apartment. When I come to new places like New York, it allows me to meet new people. About every two weeks I host dinners; I cook simple things and gather people. I like to listen when people talk during dinner which is a really nice experience. Rather than take photos at these dinners, I like sharing and learning from people.
JD: Thank you Ise. What a lovely presentation. You have made us all even hungrier than we were, so we all really look forward to the meal. Can you give us some instructions for what we should do when we get downstairs?
RI: Well, first of all, get a seat! [laughter] The food that we’re serving is called blue rice and the color is natural. It comes from a flower.
This rice is called Nasi kerabu in Malay, nasi meaning rice, and kerabu meaning salad. There are many components to this dish, not unlike bibimbap, the Korean dish. We’ll serve you one plate with rice and on this plate will be all the other ingredients. As I like to say, you have to destroy to get the glory, so you must mix all the ingredients together until it looks super messy. But the glory comes from the taste when it goes in your mouth! So now, let’s go and eat!
Images from Ise’s Nasi Kerabu Cooking Workshop at Asia Art Archive in America:
Image credit: All images courtesy of Asia Art Archive in America unless otherwise indicated.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise
Roslisham Ismail a.k.a. ‘Ise’ is a graduate of Mara University of Technology in Selangor, Malaysia. He is founder of Parking Project and co-founder of Sentap, a quarterly art publication in Malaysia. Selected exhibitions, biennial participation and residencies include: Residency Unlimited (2016) and Asian Cultural Council grantee, Archipel Secret show at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2015); 2014, residency and solo exhibition ‘Operation Bangkok’; Bangkok University Gallery, BUG; Asia Asian Art Biennale (Taiwan, 2013), and Scape 7 Public Art Biennale (Christchurch, New Zealand, 2013); Pacific Triennale APT (Brisbane, Australia, 2012); Singapore Biennale (2011); Asia Triennial Manchester (2011); Jakarta Biennale with Indonesian collaborative Ruangrupa (2009), 9th Istanbul Biennale (2005); and Artist-in-Residence at Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney (2006).
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.