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Culinary as a Political Statement - a Review of Sijia Chen's Art

Unveiling the power of cultural heritage and cuisine, artist Sijia Chen sparks new dialogues at the intersection of art, identity, and globalized economies. Discover her captivating work and journey in this exclusive review.

18 June 2023

Joana Alarcão

In the realm of contemporary art, emerging artists continuously strive to push the boundaries of current social and political climates. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the media-driven misconceptions that have tainted Western perceptions of Asian countries, Chinese artist Sijia Chen emerges as a thought-provoking voice. Through my recent interview with Chen, I had the opportunity to delve into her work, which creates a discourse around cultural heritage and cuisine, providing a fresh perspective on the intersections between art, identity, and globalized economies.

One of Chen's artworks that captures the complexities of cultural identity is the immersive audiovisual performance, "Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles''. This piece delves into the unseen energy and cultural significance of Wuhan, the artist’s hometown. By combining sound, light, performance, audience interaction and culinary elements, Chen assembles a multi-sensory experience that challenges preconceived notions about Wuhan and fosters a positive reconnection with its culture and people.

Image courtesy of Sijia Chen

A brief examination of Chen's practice reveals the connection between her architectural background and the need to create a discourse around space beyond its mere physical structures. "Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles" accomplishes this by not only considering the environment and atmosphere created within the performance but also by utilizing the space in which it is held. Why do I divide the space into two different concepts? The context of the place where the performance takes place is meticulously designed to evoke the bustling cityscape of Wuhan. With cracked halls, the absence of drywall, and a half-human-sized window the setting immediately submerges us into the streets of Wuhan's - to the artist's memories of Wuhan's street food culture. In the same spectrum, the atmosphere created through meticulous sound capture, using contact microphones, along with performer’s light movements and the resonant sounds of boiling noodles, chopping onions, and mixing ingredients transports the audience to  the lively ambience of a noodle stall, further connecting them to the streets of Wuhan. Not only does the performance engage with physical spaces, but it also evokes emotional and sensory connections to those spaces.

Furthermore, the interactive aspect of this performance gives Chen's works another coating. The act of cooking the noodles and sharing a meal with the audience fosters an atmosphere of connection and nostalgia, bringing the viewer to the present moment and stimulating conversations about their own personal connections with food.Through this approach, Chen skillfully draws a parallel between her hometown and the audience's own experiences.

During my analysis of Chen’s practice, the question arose as to whether there was a subtle political critic woven through the work.  When asked about this the artist explained, "My art is not meant to be political, I want to create a vibe, an atmosphere where the audience can feel the true energy of Wuhan" Yet, even though Chen's art may not be explicitly political, it raises the question:Can't political implications emerge from sharing personal experiences and cultural heritage through artistic creation? 

Diving beyond the mere surface, while asking the why's of the artist, one can observe that Chen's immersive art is rooted in her personal experiences, and the desire to transcend the political discourse lies in the need to present a more intimate, gentle and nostalgic atmosphere that allows the audience to connect and engage with the cultural identity of Wuhan. By creating a gentle parallel between the individual and the political, Chen prompts the audience to challenge dominant narratives that may stigmatize or marginalize certain communities. 

I would argue that even though Chen's main goal is to create a particular vibe and atmosphere, the act of sharing personal experiences and cultural heritage inherently carries political implications. Chen's practice urges us to question the importance of food in shaping a city's identity and cultural background, redirecting our attention to the misconceptions created by unquestioned media narratives or dominant representations. By seeking to engage directly with the lived experiences and artistic expressions of individuals like Sijia Chen, we may be able to understand on a deeper level diverse cultural backgrounds. 

For those interested in delving deeper into Sijia Chen's work, I highly recommend reading the interview available.

Sijia Chen Dinsky is a new media artist, architect, and pilot originally from Wuhan and currently based in London. She specialize in creating immersive spatial experiences through sound capture and multisensory performances, reconstructing sound and visual systems, and exploring the interactive relationship between people, sound, and dynamic spaces through motion and lighting. Sijiachendinsky graduated from Pathway 3 of the UCL Bartlett Interactive Architecture Lab and is currently active as a digital artist in various interdisciplinary fields such as theater, animation, film, architecture, and aviation.

Her individual and collaborative works have been exhibited and screened at prestigious venues and events including Tate Britain in the UK, Ars Electronica in Austria, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Media Architecture Biennale, Safehouse12 London, Birdman 300 at the Anaya Theater Festival, Canal Dream in London, the Flamenco Dance Museum in Spain, British Got Talent, and the UNESCO Paris Conference.

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