Taste and Flavor

Haeju Kim (Independent Curator)

About two years ago, I first heard of Minja Gu’s idea for this work. She talked about her interest in images printed on food packaging, as well as the cooking processes to represent those pictures. Gu made dishes that faithfully embodied the images on famous food packages, and conceived a restaurant as an exhibition format. During the process, she attended cooking classes and prepared for the test to obtain a cooking certificate in Korean cuisine. From the series of preparation and research—including her studies in the cooking school to get the certificate—to the realization of this exhibition, all procedures are the chapters that constitute this artwork, and it took her two whole years to make this exhibition. The artist was already planning this work since her stay in New York in 2011. This was triggered by her encounter with unfamiliar ingredients at a market in the city, where various cultures coexist, and while wondering how to cook them she began to take particular interest in the images of food on the packaging. Food is related to the process of accepting an unfamiliar culture. Tasting is a firsthand experience in which one physically accepts another culture. What Gu started to feel unfamiliar with, however, was not the new ingredients in New York, but the images of food on the instant-food packages in Korean markets, such as ramen, cooked rice, soy sauce, noodles, and retort curry. Gu realized that familiar things begin to appear strange when she carefully observed the packages; thus she ventured to make a different cultural experience by representing the food images while tracing its unfamiliarity.

While learning the basic skills in cooking classes, the artist conducted thorough research on food that was common in markets. An extensive chronology of the changes in the Korean food market was recorded, although it was not introduced in the exhibition. Among the food, best-selling products, food with well-known packaging, and products that portrayed changes in Korean food culture were selected for representation. Curry was Korea’s first retort product, and dried laver came to have its standardized form after a major company entered the business in the 1980s. Smaller firms filed a petition to block these larger firms from entering the industry. Likewise, a large company dominated the noodle market where small noodle companies overflowed before. Also, during their occupation the Japanese influenced the broth for the noodles by using an anchovy or katsuobushi base. The invention of cooked rice brought about a tremendous transformation in Korean food culture (rice is now a daily prepared staple food for Koreans).

An image of a boiled tofu dish was on the soy sauce bottle, an image of gimbap (Korean roll) was on dried laver, and a Spanish canapé was on Spam. Two versions exist for ramen, as the package changed while preparing the exhibition: one is in a white bowl while the other is in a black bowl, and the placement of garnish in each image is also slightly different. After the selection of food, Gu studied the arrangements in detail. She calculated the size of the carrots and potatoes in the curry according to the proportion of the bowl. To make the exact shape of jeon (Korean pancake) to match the image on the jeon mix package, she even ordered a mold from a foundry. Dishes were custom-made to bear an almost identical shape as the image, after undergoing a number of mistakes, and similar looking leaves were found, which were to be placed beside the dish as ornaments. Making every single dish on the nine menus requires extensive time and detailed work. Potatoes have to be cut around the edges in six different ways respectively, and beef has to be retouched on the top, while incorporating the side that touches the bottom. One also has to consider the country of origin of each ingredient labeled on the package, and should study what sauce to mix and apply, in order to create the same color as the example. These examples were installed on the wall of the exhibition space, half resembling art, and half resembling menu items in restaurants. Neat, delicious looking pictures on food packages were translated into pictures in an exhibition space. Additionally, for four times during the course of the exhibition, a demonstration of the process, as well as tasting were available by making a reservation.

All of these procedures require effort, time, and skill that are not necessary in regular cooking. Food images on the packages are obviously not for eating purposes but for looking, or to be more specific, for selling. A proverb says, “what looks good tastes good.” This food however, does not always follow the principle. Food that was made for packaging image actually possesses an inedible taste and texture. This food meets artistic practice, for it is a product of design in which the form is designed and paint is applied in order for it to look tasty. Within the history of art, painters and sculptors have dedicated immense time on representation. If they had the Idea, God, absolute beauty and detailed reality as objects for representation, Gu re-presents images on food packages. This series of processes can be seen as an allegory for the tradition of representation. If art virtually described reality, the artist retrieves the virtuality of an image into the real.

The fact that one cannot arrive at the same result as the image on the food package, even though he/she follows the recipe, is an obvious non-trick trick. Although Gu knows that the image is a good-looking fake made as an “example,” she follows it to the very end. In regards to the course of this work, that has no coerciveness yet is just being strict to herself, the question “Why don’t you prefer not to do it?” would be more appropriate than merely asking “Why do it?” Dedicating a considerable amount of time and energy in adjusting the angle of a single grain of rice with a pair of tweezers does not seem a mere exposé of the real behind the illusion of an image. Rather, this work can be viewed as an extension of the artist’s continuous inquiry on the issue of speed and practice, through the experience of labor. Gu focuses on the fact that one can spend infinite time on this kind of “endless work.” If we accept the accustomed notion that the image and the real are not identical, curry will be ready in three minutes, and cooked-rice will be done within a minute and a half. If we accept this, there is no disappointment, but once we start to question it, the problem expands to three hours, to six hours. One can even readily devote two years to do it. The time of the “instant” continues endlessly. Using time differently relates to questioning and doubting the external conditions and requirements that awakens me, makes me walk, work, fall asleep, as well as questioning the approach of convention, certification, and the proof it entails. Gu’s course of cooking and the tenacious usage of time seem to talk about all this. If this hectic Korean society runs at an average speed of a car, an ordinary person has an engine with the speed of a bicycle. Gu’s engine seems even slower than this. Yet, does the slow speed only portray a peaceful and calm world? Not a chance. The loss of a sense of speed by contrast revives the ability to doubt the familiar world. As the puppet show has the background slowing down and ultimately coming to a halt, what runs is not the car, but the picture in the frame. Gu has expressed a different sense of speed by copying an entire novel instead of just reading it , like in Thirty (2006), or has finished a marathon by walking the course for two days rather than running it , like in 42.195 (2006). Like Molloy, she continues the repetitive task of taking a stone out of her right pocket and putting it into her left. The question of speed is a question of the system, and contains a strong protest by stating “why can’t I do it this way?”

Another interesting aspect is that rather than temporarily playing a certain role or offering someone else this position, Gu herself continues the practice throughout an extensive time. Amongst the course of her lengthy process, the moment of exhibition is just one aspect. Particularly, the artist herself carries out these roles rather than taking an observer’s role when questioning the condition of individual life in a society, thus enhancing the intensity of her queries. In 2011, at Gyeonggi Creation Center located in Sungam-do, Gu created Winter-ing, which was a kimchi-making project (gimjang in Korean). She made kimchi by earning cabbage and sauce, in return for her labor in helping out local residents. This was an artwork as well as a labor in which Gu entirely contributed her effort and time. For The World of Job created in Taiwan in 2008, Gu documented the whole process of making a job-search advertisement, getting a job, and actually working there. Although silently accepting the administration of museums that apply their institutional way of working towards artists, Gu does not stand in the position of a mere by-stander or observer, but plans a structure or executes “becoming –.” For example, she opened a Public Hearing for Arranging Artist-Civil Servant Hiring Regulations (2013), and opened Minja Gu Art Fair (2013) in which she laid out her clothes, artwork, and collection of objects on a stand. Data—constructed through these experiences as well as enduring time— indifferently exposes the exact procedures of how events are made. Through works that are earnest yet not loaded, gentle yet solid, Gu defies—if not resists—conventions that omit individual differences favoring efficiency, with rules predetermined by the system. Through a continuous series of time and practices, with forms that are not blunt—although not sharp either—their firm layers precisely convey an authentic taste and flavor.

P.S. One food company that is famous for its “3-Minute Curry” as well as its yellow colored package uses the image of a well-known red roly-poly toy (Ottogi) as its corporate identity. While introducing its corporate identity as “a healthy child with a plump face licking his/her lips” on its website, Dharma’s portrait and his life are uploaded instead, asserting the origin of the Ottogi as the Dharma. To cite the webpage, the spirit of the Ottogi is: (1) Active not static. (2) Does not submit to foreign forces (3) Emphasizes action over words (4) Does not waste things. (5) Always neat and tidy (6) Never tumbles.