Monday, 22 June 2015

Tastes Surrealists

In Summer, 2015, I made my way back to George Owell and Ernest Hemmingway's Catalonia. It had been two years since I was last in northern Spain, and I was excited to renew old friendships in the town of Figueres. It was in Hotel Duran that I was made aware of an exciting gastronomic initiative, Tastets Surrealists.

Beneath an impossibly blue Spanish sky, breezes which swept the heat from the Summer solstice and shadows that seemed to comprehend just where to fall, the Figueres Sunday demonstrated what Sunday's were always meant to be about; ease.

Set back, inland, from the more infamous beaches of the Costa Brava, Figueres is all those tourist traps are not - elegant, stately, somewhat gentile and, ultimately, a place to sit, rest and write. There is a creative ambience in Figueres. An unmistakable air which nurtured Salvador Dali, perhaps its most famous son, and attracted numerous artists and writers over the years, including Catalonia's most renown writer Joseph Pla (Joseph Pla i Casadevall), who has a park named after him (Plaça Joseph Pla).

In its third year, Tastets Surrealists (Figueres), was a month long culinary initiative in which twenty six local restaurants participated to demonstrate an on-going gastronomic connection to Salvador Dali, and the Surrealist movement. During the first outing, the initiative had featured only fifteen restaurants, of varying quality. Times have changed, and more people have come round to the sheer brilliance of the idea of mock Surrealist food. 

In a bid to out do the success of Tapas in Barcelona, the more northern town of Figueres has developed a unique gastronomic alternative. Overseen by Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí (the Dali Foundation), authentic connections to Salvador Dali and Surrealism have been ensured in the construction of a range of dishes for Tastets Surrealists. Over three years, the success of those events had brought more interest from both customers and restaurants, so much so that in 2015 the event excelled beyond all expectation.

Dali linked Hotel Duran continued to participate in Tastets Surrealists. The hotel began entertaining Catalans as a restaurant from 1910, while the original building dates back to a coach house in 1855. The present owner, Lluis Duran Jnr, met Salvador Dali when he was very young, as his father, Lluis Duran Snr. was a close friend and school mate of the Surrealist. Dali had dined in Hotel Duran since his school days, brought by his father, and had met Lluis Duran Snr. there. Some years later, while living in Port Lligat as a young artist, Dali would visit Figueres on Thursdays, market day. Hotel Duran became the meeting place for Dali and his friends, to save them the exhaustingly winding road mountain trip, to Port Lligat.

In 2015 Hotel Duran was offering six intriguing tastes in the Tastets Surrealists series, to tease and tantalise the gastronome's palate. It began with La metamorfosi de la cirera i les seves microesferes (The metamorphosis of the cherry and its microspheres) which was constructed of iced Kir Royal with cherry pearls, followed by La sardina que va ser testimoni de l'Odissea d'Ulisses (Sardines who witnessed the Odyssey of Ulysses) which is Tartare of tomato, marinated sardine, basil oil; L'all tendre que enrampa una gamba (The garlic shrimp than a cramp), Crunchy young garlic, tail of shrimp, Romesco sauce; El cistell de pa que no és de pa (The basket of bread is not bread), Crunchy wafer of parmesan, quail egg and potato foam; Construcció tova de vedella amb ceba dolça i vi espès (Soft Construction of beef with sweet onion and thick wine), Succulent beef, onion jam, wine toffee; La morfologia del bigoti i l'espectre de les verdures en capes (The morphology of the moustache and the spectrum of layered vegetables); Millefeuilles of vegetables with creamy yogurt source and moustache of glazed flatbread, with Cervesa Inedit / Inedit beer. Hotel Duran's current manager, Ramon Duran (great grandson of the founder), recommended a light white wine with the six tastes, perhaps followed by a dessert such as their Creme Brûlée ice cream which, indeed, has to be eaten to be believed. I ate, I believed.

One of the other twenty six outstanding restaurants, curiously on Avenue Salvador Dali, which had featured Tastets Surrealists, was Txot's Sidreria, their speciality - Catalonian cider. Txot's Sidreria’s sequence of Tastets Surrealists began with Cava a L'andalusa (The Andalusian Cava) a clear, champagne like gazpacho soup in a fluted glass. It was made from ripe tomato, cucumber, garlic, onion, pepper, bread, water and salt, and had that fizz of the Spanish Champagne known as Cava. It was my first venture into Tastets Surrealists. I was apprehensive, not knowing just what I was being offered. Tentatively I smelled the glass. Tomatoes. It was the Catalan cold soup, gazpacho, but so light and fizzing and barely recognisable as such. It was a most impressive start to the sequence. Next came the black slate platter with Mirada ibérica (Look Ibérica), with two very surreal eyeballs constructed of melon, Iberian ham, onion, bread, sugar and lemon. At first it was a little daunting, reminding me of Dali and Brunuel's film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) but a lot of fun to eat. Cornetto de false maduixa (Cornetto of false strawberry) was made from salt-cod brandade, piquillo peppers and wafer, with the strawberry looking like blood; Els Crustacea Posen ous? 0 bombes? (The Crustacea lays eggs? 0 bombs?) featuring an anarchist type bomb skewered by a stick containing a prawn, king prawns, potato, flour and olive oil. Txot's burguesa amb foiermigues (translated as Txot's bourgeois with foiermigues), was a mini beef hamburger with foie and false ants (black sesame seeds), and, as a dessert Músic d'esponja amb garnatxa de l'Empordà (Musician sponge Grenache Empordà), featuring a foam of Grenache wine, cream and egg and soft bread made from flour and dried fruits. It was a tantalising end to a small, yet fascinating degustation menu. Seeing and tasting those small surrealistic bites could not have been more apt than in the setting of Dali's Figueres, the town where he was born, and died. I look forward to seeing what the restaurants can come up with next year.

The local event literature mentions that a total of 26 establishments were inspired by the surreality of Salvador Dali, and that they presented their ingenious food interpretations along with a local beer, suggesting that "Figueres is working hard to recover its gastronomic expression and it is doing so for the third year running by means of an up-to-date proposal: tapas or tastets." The event took place from the 11th of June to the 11th of July, 2015, and was partially sponsored by Inèdit beer. Menus of the six tastes ranged from 12.00 to 18.00.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Faustian temptations

I think that we all understand, in our own way, that some galleryists seem to gather in glans, schools or shivers (like the Sharks they are) where auctions and money is concerned. The mere whiff of an underpriced Artwork, be it a Jeff Koons, Vincent Van Gogh or Andy Warhol sends these predators into paroxysms of bloodlust, forever seeking the Golden Goose, or is that gilded painting. 

Mixing with Ministers and publishers has the very same effect on others, the lesser, but no less nasty, beasts of prey, for they sniff the rare air of privilege, plump themselves up and let it all go to their vacuous, greasy haired, heads. These wannabe galleryists, who frequently have little knowledge of Art, do nothing for the cause of Art, but wheeler deal in auctions, or brokerages, to line their own pockets, frequently at the expense of Artists and creatives.

One must beware of their assumed friendliness. Potential predators spy their prey and beam benevolence. They spend some time testing the water. After a waiting while, they offer a partnership. You will have apprehensions, instincts niggling, but beams of bonhomie overcome those apprehensions, you are hooked, reeled in ready for the slaughter.

Montebanks, sharks and bilkers abjure paperwork, for they understand that paper trails may lead to their downfall, forgetting that emails and Facebook messages too have their own trails. Verbal agreements made, and hands shaken mean nothing to these charlatans, for they are merely words in the air or sweat on a palm, with no more significance for them than that. They rant about signatures on paper, paper proof of verbal contracts that they have no intention of honouring. Commitments are not worth the paper they are not written on. Repayment of debts incurred for their enterprises are scorned, denied. These false men would rather play the Sophist and twist words to their own ends, and profit. Your work undertaken yields no wherewithal, despite entreaties, debts remain unrecovered, friendship broken, for what, mere narcissism and their yen for filthy lucre.

It is a hard lesson. The sharks swim, malevolent minnows scratch and scrape, each seeking a pure soul to take advantage of. Let them not. Beware those empty smiles, the Faustian temptations of brotherhood and glory, they are wraiths, poisons for your soul. Remain true only to yourself, hold your head high and renounce those Devils incarnate.

The pure heart, the creative soul needs not the corrupt galleryist or broker, let them sink back into the hellish morass from which they came, do not give them credence nor stature nor power over you. Listen not to their empty promises. Seek only the kind and grateful galleryist who empowers and enables, grows with the Artist or creative, not the cheat and the liar. It is a long journey, but be stalwart and true to your vision, and let your heart remain pure.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Kita the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia Art Exchange Project

Arrival at Cebu being met by Kita organiser Celso Pepito

In the Cebu mountains

At the artist Celso Pepito's home, enjoying a chat and ambience

with Maxine Xie Xian Xin at Qube Gallery, Cebu

With Dr. Rena Cristina P. Koa- Malaya, wife to H.E. J.Eduardo Malaya the Philippine Ambassador to Malaya 

With photographer Joseph Ong

With Radel Paredes

Talking about Malaysian art at Qube Gallery 

With Celso Pepito
Still talking at Qube

With sculptor Angeliko 'Jik' Villanueva

Journeying with Pei Yeou while listening to Robert Plant

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Stills from an interview with the Chinese artist Luo Qi and myself in Hangzhou, China, March 2015

Stills from an interview with the Chinese artist Luo Qi and myself in Hangzhou, China, March 2015

Friday, 10 April 2015

Play it again.............

After arrival at the hotel, the previous day, I had travelled out to Bras Basah, specifically to see the art book shops. And book shops there were, aplenty. Baasher Books being the more interesting, having a huge selection of books about design and art, but at what a price. All too expensive for me and my poor Malaysian Ringgit. 

Bras Basah was tucked around the back of Singapore's Museum of Art or SAM. This particular day I had intended to visit the new Singapore National Art Gallery, only to find that it would not be open until November. It was April. I didn't wait. So NAFA, or the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art, it was to be, instead. I had read that there was a very interesting exhibition of the works of the Mexican muralist - Diego Rivera happening there, and was very excited. I had taken a course on Latin American Art as part of my first ‘taught’ Master’s Degree, at the University of Essex, learning from Prof. Dawn Ades (CBE) and Dr. Valerie Fraser, and so my hopes were high.

Sad to say that NAFA was a blow out. Having walked a considerable distance along Bencoolen St. rife with noisy, dusty public works and Singapore's oppressive heat, to see the Diego Rivera exhibition, there was no curator present. There was no individual with any information about the exhibition. No one to give permission for photographs. Through a passing person with a Walkie talkie I asked the publicity dept. to contact me. She said they would, the following day. Of course they didn't. I never had a reply to the two business cards, I had left at NAFA. And no photographs, oh no you must not take photographs with your iPad. But why? NAFA is not selling postcards, and there is no catalogue. iPads use no flash, so will not injure the paintings. A grave disappointment. The gallery was empty, and no wonder why. Sorry Singapore but you can do much better than this. Lim Hak Tai would be turning in his grave if he knew.

I will then say nothing more about the Diego Rivera exhibition, as I have no intention to give free advertising to an institution that cannot be bothered to interact with gallery visitors. Such a pity.

And then, finally, it was on to SAM. The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) houses contemporary art, or is that Contemporary Art, I forget. Unfortunately, the day I attended many galleries were closed, and a troupe of school children were making their noisy way round. I had a brief discussion with a very pleasant Indian gallery attendant. We spoke about the display of some drawings, their buckling in the air conditioning, and if that was part of the display, or incidental. It seems that the buckling was due to the constant air conditioning, and not integral to the artworks. 

In another gallery I engaged a Chinese attendant. He wanted not answer my question about the incorrect use of the word collage on the exhibit's label (it should have been montage), but instead he insisted on telling me what the photo was of. Perhaps I expect too much of the SAM staff, they are certainly miles better than those at Malaysia's National Visual Arts Museum (Kuala Lumpur).

Incidentally, just to remind you, dear reader….collage is “a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric on to a backing. A collection or combination of various things.”

The key terms are ‘different’ materials or ‘various’ things. Whereas a Montage is a composite picture made by combining several separate pictures, or things of the same material, i.e. photographs.

My debate with the Indian lady (above) centred around the need to explain Contemporary Art. I felt that Contemporary Artists, sometimes, ask an awful lot of their audiences. The attendant suggested that is what the text and labels were for. I disagreed, saying that the image should capture attention and, to some extent, be self explanatory. She admitted that she had seen many visitors take one glance at the images, and just walk through the gallery. 

Marcial Bonifacio
The images in question were part of the display - Medium at Large, a thought provoking set of images and objects, including a portrait of the Filipino Jose Rizal (nicknamed Pepe), drawn with 'live' bullets, or so it is claimed on the text. Alvin Zafras Pepe and Marcial Bonifacio are images created using ground live bullets as drawing tools onto sandpaper. Once known, that fact becomes intriguing and their Filipino history revealed. Without the text, it is simply two averagely made drawings looking a bit nondescript and grey. Contemporary Art, it seems, needs that explanation, it frequently cannot stand alone. On their website, the Singapore Art Museum claims that “Through its exhibitions, educational and multi-disciplinary programming, audiences experience and understand contemporary Asia at SAM. 

Noted Contemporary British artist, Grayson Perry (in his book Playing to the Gallery) suggested a hot formula for Contemporary Art. He proposed a half decent idea, over an ambitious dealer, times the number of studio assistants equals the amount of hedge fund managers and oligarchs in the world. He may or may not have been considering Damien Hirst at the time. Perry brings all sorts of other arguments into his, including art linked to commerce by an umbilical cord of gold, validation by established art notaries, eg. auction houses or museums of art which lend respectability and therefore validate the artist, and his/her work.

Nevertheless, a tourist walking in off the street, paying his/her $SD10 to be entertained, may or may not have specific knowledge about Contemporary Art, may or may not have an inkling about the subject, the ability or will to read explanations. Without that the Contemporary Art work has to fall back on its ability to captivate sans external information. I would argue that Zafra's two pieces were less than successful in that regard. 

The J. Paul Getty Museum's web page suggests that "When engaging with contemporary art, viewers are challenged to set aside questions such as, "Is a work of art good?" or "Is the work aesthetically pleasing?" Instead, viewers consider whether art is "challenging" or "interesting." Contemporary artists may question traditional ideas of how art is defined, what constitutes art, and how art is made, while creating a dialogue withand in some cases rejectingthe styles and movements that came before them." Does this definition help. Maybe not. Especially when someone has little experience of being challenged in this way. The "challenge" may be heightening barriers already erected through unfamiliarity with newer ways of thinking about and manufacturing art objects. The phrases elitist and elitism, Emperor's New Clothes, etc. spring readily to mind.