Gayle Chong Kwan

Artist Gayle Chong Kwan photographs worlds she has built out of food.


Gayle Chong Kwan

There is a dark little corner of the human psyche reserved for places, people and even entire societies made of food, be it the sinister fairytale candy trap of Hansel and Gretel, the overbearing 'Glutton's Paradise' of poet Hans Sach or the secretive lair of Willy Wonka, our shared cultural history consistently signposts an ingrained and somewhat morbid fascination with the notion of an edible universe.

'Cockaigne' a major new exhibition by Gayle Chong Kwan at The Focal Point Gallery explores precisely that fascination, her twelve large format photographic representations of various fictional, mythological and religious landscapes meld seamlessly together to form one continuous terrain that completely absorb the viewer amongst rolling vistas of sugar, chocolate and cheese.

Although the title of the work refers specifically to Hans Sach's poem of the same name, Kwan's 'Cockaigne' is profoundly contemporaneous in nature, investigating the dark side of utopian ideologies often existing at the heart of the global tourist industry and providing deceptive dreamscapes that are invariably found, upon close inspection, to be in various stages of decay.

You may have already seen a small selection of these strangely enticing wonderlands erected on massive billboards surrounding Southwark Underground Station, this is part of an ongoing commission by London Underground's 'Platform For Art' which sees it's completion this July.

Dazed Digital caught up with the artist on the eve of her new exhibition and asked her just what exactly, is it all about?

DD: What inspired you to create the edible environments of Cockaigne?
GCK: 'Cockaigne' was a 14th Century fictional glutton's paradise island, a land made entirely of food, where all wants and needs are met. These days at Disney's Epcot Centre there are idealised representations of world cities built around a circular lake and one day can be spent walking from China to Morocco via Venice, stopping off in Mexico for a meal of tortillas and Japan for green tea. In the same way I am bringing together geographical, historical monuments and landscapes in one impossible Paradise Island. The icy landscape made of butter and lard is based on Casper David Friedrich's 'Wreck of the Hope', the tower of Babel is created out of meats, Eldorado of potatoes, Eden of rotting apples and so on.

DD: To what degree is the work a comment upon excessive capitalist wealth?
GCK: I am certainly interested in the way in which we are quite literally consuming and altering aspects of landscapes throughout the world to correspond to our ideals of paradise. The global tourist industry functions as a way of re-creating our dreams of satiation and escapism. Mauritius for example is marketed as 'paradise' for tourists, and those who visit stay in luxury hotels, surrounded by palm trees and white sandy beaches. However the traditional Causarina trees lining the island have been felled and replaced by those Palm Trees and guards patrol those hotel beaches, making it difficult for the islanders to have access to their own coastline.

DD: If you had to choose one of the fictional places you have photographed to live within which one would it be and why?
GCK: At the moment I feel that I am almost living in one,' Voyage to the World at the Centre of the Earth' is a wooden mountain landscape made of fish and seafood based on an anonymous utopia written in 1755 in which the narrator falls into Mount Vesuvius and arrives in a region where the
inhabitants are strict observers of animal rights. The work was the initial starting point for the project that 'Platform for Art' have commissioned me to work on and the results, which come out of work I have made with different communities in the area around Southwark and London Bridge, will be launched in July.

DD: Where do you stand on the issue of obesity in society?
GCK: Our relationship to food is a complex one, governed by desire, want and necessity. Obesity is one perspective on food, but I am more interested in memory and the senses in relation to food. My practice explores the memorial power of food, its use in identity creation and conflict. Senses are socially and culturally significant, whilst taste and smell have a much greater association with episodic than semantic memory, with the symbolic rather than the linguistic, and with recognition rather than recall.

DD: How many chocolate eggs did you have at Easter?
GCK: I have recently been doing site research for a future exhibition based on chocolate and attempts at utopian settlements in the UK, which will show at MAC, Birmingham, from November 2007 to Jan 2008. I have been making research visits to Bourneville, the town built by the Cadbury family, which is sited near MAC, as well as at Cadbury World, all this exposure to chocolate has somewhat diminished my desire for it at the moment.

'Cockaigne' is a commission by Autograph ABP