Community Partner From:The Museposted on 28 October at 10:33 PM
28 October at 10:33 PM

Talking dessert with Thai conceptual artist Arin Rungjang

Last week saw the Singapore debut of Thai conceptual artist Arin Rungjang at Future Perfect Singapore, in parallel to the opening of the 4th Singapore Biennale. Rungjang was one of two artists to helm the Thai Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale (the other being ceramicist Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch).

Rungjang’s works are grounded in personal experience and Thailand’s complex political and cultural history. Golden Teardrop is based on the true story of a traditional Thai dessert Thong Yod, adapted from a 15th century Portuguese recipe originating from a mediaeval convent. This delicacy was introduced to the Siamese court in the 17th century by Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of Japanese, Portuguese and Bengali descent and the wife of the Greek counselor to King Narai. Golden Teardrop shows how small events can propagate into a chain of reactions that have impacts in much bigger systems both cultural and political.

For his first Asian solo show outside of Thailand, Rungjang will present the digital video component of Golden Teardrop, along with a new abstract sculptural element conceived specially for the Singapore exhibition. A third iteration of his project will be displayed concurrently as part of the Asian Art Biennale in Taichung, Taiwan.

The Muse caught up with Arin ahead of the opening to talk about his latest work.

Golden Teardrop was originally commissioned for the Thai Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Where did the idea come from and how has it evolved?

The project was conceived in December 2012. I was doing a residency in New York, collaborating with a Puerto Rican artist name Hateuy Ramos Fermin. The project was created with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, and organized by CEC art links. Golden Teardrop began to emerge at that time. The first idea was to find connections between Puerto Rico and Thailand and we found the point where it’s turned into an interesting subject which was “Thong Yod or Golden Teardrop” a Thai dessert which was created by Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of Japanese, Portuguese, Bengali descent who had lived in Ayutthaya some 350 years ago. Another side of the story was when the Portuguese discovered South America and turned what we now call Brazil and Puerto Rico into lands for producing sugar. By founding 2000 sugar cane mills to supply sugar to all parts of Europe that was the time all joint venture companies worked together. Slaves were traded from places like the Congo, and indigenous people were made to be slaves. People of very diverse ancestry worked together in the sugar cane mills. That was the starting point of “Golden Teardrop”. When I returned to Thailand the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture invited me to present my work at the Thai Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. They knew that I’d been making a project about food, which was a theme they wanted to pursue.

The work comes in two parts – a sculptural element and a video. Which came first? Can you describe the two parts and how they interact with one another?

The two components complement each other. The first idea was continued from the one that I made in New York. In New York I went to Thai dessert shop in Queens and asked the owner if they know any person who made these desserts whom I was willing to meet. They gave me several names to all who supplied sweet dessert to Thai dessert shops in New York. I finally met a girl named Jeab. I went to meet her and asked her if I could visit her kitchen and interview her while she was making Thong Yod and other Thai desserts. So I did a video interview of her making Thong Yod in her small kitchen in Queens. These desserts set all sorts of symbols in play, referring to multiple times and spaces, in the daily work of an individual living in the present. I hesitated in the face of this complexity – how to handle the truths revealed by an individual’s anonymous struggle to exist and make a living in this world, in the midst of larger global, historical narratives, acknowledged and unacknowledged? The tensions between institutional history and oral history, between master narratives and minor narratives – the complexity was intimidating, but exciting at the same time.

Starting the “Thong Yod” project in Bangkok, I found a point in the history of the dessert which was interesting: Marie Guyomar’s great grandparents had lived in Japan, near Hiroshima; they were Portuguese-Bengali and they were Christians. At that time, the dictator Hideyoshi wanted to rid Japan of all Christians, so her great grandparents were arrested, put in a sack and thrown into a ship bound for Fai Fo or Hoi An (in Vietnam). They then moved on to Siam (now Thailand). I realized that an old friend of mine, with whom I studied in college had married a Japanese woman and opened a restaurant in Bangkok. I called him and asked if his wife knew how to make Thong Yod. Coincidently she did, and her family was from Hiroshima. The story took on new layers that were fun but at the same time sad and sophisticated. I went to meet her and she told me her grandparent were survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Her grandmother had been injured and her grandfather almost lost his leg because of his epic search, on foot, for his lost sister, who he eventually discovered had died in blast. I asked if I could visit her kitchen while she made Thong Yod. That’s how the video came together.

For the sculpture, I used the shape of the “Thong Yod” or “Golden Teardrop”. Another friend took me to a place where they produce Buddhist amulets. In discussion with the foundry owner, we designed the sculpture and asked if they could produce it. We also recorded the process while the workers made the sculpture. In the video you see the foundry in action, producing the “Golden Teardrops”. Here again, the master plays sophisticated games with servants, via the institutional apparatus of art.

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