LIU Xiao Xian; The way we eat
The way we eat consists of an ornate set of English Victorian flatware and a single pair of chopsticks, totalling 33 pieces, all reproduced in fine unglazed bone china. In The way we eat Liu Xiao Xian juxtaposes a set of objects that have been cast from various sized eating implements, such as soup ladles, cake servers, tablespoons, caddy spoons, game knives, cheese knives and knife and fork sets, with a pair of chopsticks. Seen together they establish a succinct summary about human invention and choice, and about historical and cultural distinctions.
A point of reference in The way we eat is the history of European flatware (so-called because of the flat placement on the dinner table), which dates from around the seventeenth century, particularly in France and Britain. Spoons of varying sizes and functions, knives and forks served not only utilitarian purposes, but also came to signify wealth and status, and more overtly, taste. Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, amidst the rise of Baroque and Rococo 'decoration' in German and French architecture, the fine arts adopted 'ornament' through the capricious scenes of painters François Boucher and Antoine Watteau. Ornament began to assume a function of symbolic rather than practical importance in the decorative arts. The use of decoration and ornament - both surface ornament and the shapes of the implements themselves - within this group of cutlery illustrates the ritual-like indulgence that accompanied the eighteenth-century dinner table. As Liu Xiao Xian states, these objects signify an 'excessive overlap in their functional purposes'; during this period the necessity for use was far outweighed by the desire for decoration.(1) Today, complete sets of flatware are rare and often expensive. Due to the utilitarian nature of cutlery, some pieces became more quickly worn than others and were replaced.
The set of cutlery that Liu Xiao Xian has used is a mixture of various styles dating from the Victorian era. In the set of 33 pieces, some two-and three-piece sets are visible by their identical patterning and size. Others are single items and decorated with elaborate embellishment. During the reign of Queen Victoria, spurred by the Industrial Revolution and the mass-produced silverware on show at the 'Great Exhibition' of 1851, more silverware was produced than during any other period.
Liu Xiao Xian's flatware set is not, however, a simple matter of illustrating an opposition between the Industrial Revolution's production of silverware to English aesthetic standards and the ancient Chinese philosophy 'less is more'. Throughout the 5000-year history of chopsticks in China, chopsticks were often made for the wealthy from precious materials such as silver, gold, bronze, jade and ivory, and were elaborately decorated. While being the staple utensil for the eating of food, the chopstick was also a symbol against the use of knives as objects of slaughter. By 500 CE, the use of chopsticks had spread to areas such as present-day Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Thus, the complexities of The way we eat are not simply about the intricacies of cultural difference and excessive material consumption, but are also about the movement of cultural objects and the magnificence of human imagination.
Lui Xiao Xian's slip-cast objects are created by combining the use of rubber and plaster mouldings, firstly to gain a sufficient impression of the low-relief areas of decoration and, secondly, to allow the mould to absorb a sufficient amount of moisture from the clay mixture without making it difficult to release the object. After firing, the objects are extremely fragile and required the utmost care when releasing the pieces from their moulds. Porcelain is also a very durable material and can withstand extremely high firing temperatures. Thus the use of bone china is a fitting material in the making of The way we eat as it encapsulates aspects of robustness, brittleness and fragility that are attached to notions of cultural exchange, variation, creativity and difference.
1. Liu Xiao Xian. Email to Suhunya Raffel, 27 August 2002.