Last week I attended the opening of a new art exhibition at Chashama in New York. The exhibition, which includes modern art installations using a variety of media, as well as performance, deals with the contemporary Asian-American experience, intensely marginalized and misunderstood.
“Eating bitterness,” or 吃苦, is a frequently used saying in Chinese. “She deserves this success because she ate bitterness,” “that spoiled kid doesn’t know the meaning of eating bitterness,” etc. In a culture that values perseverance and effort, eating bitterness is not far from the minds of many raised in traditional households.
The curators explain the theme of this show like this:
“Chinese parents often remind their children how important it is to 吃苦 (chi ku: eat bitterness), a phrase that means to persevere through hardship without complaint. This show is a meditation on the role of enduring adversity in the psyche of immigrant families, comprising nine artists’ work across sculpture, photography, painting, and performance. Just as each artist’s personal relationship to the chi ku mentality varies, each piece approaches the concept from a different perspective: as a virtue or a burden; with familiarity or estrangement; as part of an inheritance or against the backdrop of orientalism. Narratives of loss, alienation, and disorientation are woven throughout the work. The exhibition, located on the border of a gentrifying Chinatown, aims to be a space to constellate these ideas and for visitors to consider their own relationship to eating bitterness.”
I appreciated Eating Bitterness very much, as an Asian-American who saw much of my cultural background, or the cultural background of people I knew, interpreted and represented through this art. However, people who do not share the cultural background of working-class Asian-Americans depicted here will probably miss much of the meaning. (This includes international students from China and other Asian countries who came here recently for college.)
The art pieces lack the little white cards in museums and galleries that have explanations of the art’s themes and creation process. It’s either you understand, or you don’t. If you are interested in understanding the art better, bring a friend who can share their own stories with you and tell you the significance of certain things, benign and banal on the surface.
There is pain in this art, some suppressed, some not.
One of the most striking works were these bags of rice being dragged down. This imagery needs to explanation.
Now onto the food, since this is a food blog…
A corner of the space had been outfitted to resemble the kitchen of a working-class Chinese American family, probably in an urban setting. Visitors could sit at the round table and eat rice with bitter melon, a traditional Chinese vegetable. New batches were constantly being cooked.
Some dishes included scrambled eggs or pressed tofu, fermented black beans, and pickled mustard tuber:
Pickled mustard tuber is the most common accompaniment to the plain white rice porridge Chinese people have for breakfast. It’s slight crunch provides a textural contrast to the smooth porridge, and it’s intense, salty flavor is mellowed by the rice and water. Sometimes it is called “boss vegetable.”
This was actually performance art, not part of the reception.
The reception included Tsingtao beer (a Chinese brand), wine, and dim sum. By the door as visitors left, we could pick up a White Rabbit Candy (another iconic Chinese food), reminding us about how sweetness could exist with Bitterness as well.
Eating Bitterness is on view until October 27 at 384 Broadway in New York City. Free.