A table beyond borders (2018), HD video, 15.25 minutes

Commissioned by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea), Department of Education and Cultural Programs. Collaboration UNESCO. Artists Ara An, Elia Nurvista

A table beyond borders was commissioned by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea and investigates as a food based collaboration with artist Ara An. The restful video explores daily life and rituals around food sources and preparations. The video is procedural in nature and takes the viewer on a familiar journey of collecting, contemplating, making and lovingly consuming a meal. This 2018 work was accompanied by a publication with graphic design by Hezin O.

Elia Nurvista graduated from Indonesia Institute of Fine Art in 2010. She is interested in exploring a wide range of mediums with an interdisciplinary approach and focus on the discourse around food. Through food, Elia intends to scrutinize issues of power, social and economic inequality in this world. She has exhibited internationally and actively participated in several residencies in Japan, Taiwan, Germany and the UK. In 2015, she initiated the Bakudapan food study group with colleagues from differing disciplines such as anthropology and philosophy. With Bakudapan she has conducted public workshops and ongoing research around concepts of food within various socio-political and cultural contexts. Elia lives and actively works in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Food as Practice: Ferdiansyah Thajib in Conversation with Elia Nurvista

This is an edited excerpt of a recorded conversation between Ferdiansyah Thajib (F), a Berlin-based researcher and a member of KUNCI Collective in Yogyakarta, and Elia Nurvista (E), an Indonesian visual artist. Elia’s 2018 residency at the international cultural centre Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin was part of a program funded by KfW Stiftung foundation.

Held at Elia’s studio at Künstlerhaus Bethanien on a cold and grey afternoon in 2018, the conversation traces the story of her past and present artistic practice. As a transdisciplinary artist, who has been working both individually and collectively, her main body of work revolves around food. She examines the social implications of food production and critically addresses wider socio-political issues. The pivotal role of food in Elia’s artistic approach is the starting point of the following discussion. She continuously explores the limits and potentials of food in sustaining our daily activities and lives. In addition, she not only investigates how food is produced, distributed and consumed, but analyses possible disruptions that can occur between the various stages: from the moment when food is harvested as a raw material to the point where it is prepared as a dish, served on a “table” and potentially thrown away as a leftover.

Practice here is understood in two senses. The first one pertains to practice as an ethico-political action aimed at fulfilling the idea of what a good life might be. This aspect involves the different ways in which people negotiate the relationships between individual and collective well-being, how they subsequently engage in the transformation of material conditions and deal with the consequences. The second notion of practice relates to how we understand, adjust to and handle repetitive outcomes – not for the sake of attaining stability, but rather with the aim of opening up new possibilities and being transformed through such encounters. In all of these instances, practice emerges as an act of (un-)learning values that are taken for granted.

Ferdiansyah (F): I first got to know your practice in 2007, when you started with Simponi, the women’s artist collective in Yogyakarta, which you initiated with Gintani Nur Apresia Swastika, Yovita Dwi Raharti and Dian Ariyani. Back then, you worked with fabrics, threads and other kinds of fibre. You used sewing and crochet as your main techniques. Ever since, I have been noticing your preoccupation with everyday materials, with manual labour and domestic affairs which I think reflects a tendency in your artistic practice towards certain feminist political values.

Elia (E): Actually, this labelling as a feminist, ironically, is something that I think contributed to the dissolution of Simponi in 2011. While our work at that time addressed issues that are crucial in women’s lives, I was mainly concerned with the question of representation. What does it mean to represent difficult topics, such as domestic violence, sexism etc. in gallery spaces and art markets, while in real life these representations do not really change the hard reality that a lot of women are dealing with?

My starting point was crafts. At that time, I saw myself more as an artisan. I was always keen on working with materiality as a form of expression, but I also thought a lot about how to technically translate it into direct use. That is why after Simponi dissolved, I started Simalakamma with Syafiatudina. This collaboration was intended as a kind of a small business enterprise based on handcraft and design. But since I live and work in the close-knitted community of artists, galleries, curators and other cultural producers in Yogya, the products of Simalakamma seem to have an afterlife of their own. They started to be exhibited in gallery settings and they were circulated in the art scene.

F: Collaboration is clearly key in many of your practices. When did you intentionally start to engage with the public through art production?

E: I have been drawn to practices that aim to build relationships with the audience or the public as a form of creative participation ever since I was invited by KUNCI to join the public art project “Santan Ketumbar Jintan” in 2012. In this project I worked with Indian communities in the city.

F: I remember that you explored how kinship relations in the Indian-Indonesian community in Yogya are manifested through the trade in textiles and how they are geographically mapped onto the city landscape. Your research revealed that although they seem to be in competition with each other, this is structured by family issues.

E: It shows more than just the business competition that goes on there. The clusters of textile shops owned by Indian-Indonesians in Yogya also reveal the social patterns shaped by the history of migration.

F: What about working with food then, when did you start?

E: It was through a residency in Koganecho in 2012. Even before that, I had been interested in cooking for a long time. Ever since I moved into a new house with my partner Moki (Prihatmoko Moki is also a Yogya-based visual artist), and the house had a big kitchen, I often organised gatherings at our place to cook and eat together. I also often browsed blogs containing online recipes, particularly those made by Indonesian diaspora communities living abroad, which was quite a thing back then. So when I went to Koganecho, I had this idea to explore family history through cooking recipes. Kitchen, cooking, shopping, recipes, I was so preoccupied by such things in those days.

F: Why do you call cabuk and these other ingredients “exotic”? Is it because it is all new and unfamiliar to you or because you are curious about the practice of recycling food itself?

E: Actually, I used the term “exotic” as a form of self-criticism, towards my own bias at that time. The way I perceived things in the past was like: there is this privileged urban middle-class woman who goes to the rural areas and is shocked by the level of poverty that she sees in these areas and decides to make her experience into art. I think it is important to revisit our own old biases critically, especially because they resulted from our own naivety.

This reflection is not recent. It was also already weaving through the whole project at Kedai Kebun Forum, which is called “Adiboga Wonoasri”. We initially intended the project to happen for one month only. But since it attracted many people and sparked so many discussions, we extended the project to more than one and a half months. Dina and I discussed many issues with different people who were joining the project, including whether we should display some photos about the situation in Wonosari as a form of documentation. There were concerns that this could echo practices of colonial representation. When we opened the kitchen, we did not give specific instructions, people could basically do whatever they wanted. Our only intervention was a guideline telling participants to only work with the basic ingredients provided and to serve the food as fine dining. There was a lot of debate about what fine dining really means. Inspired by these conversations, we then decided to set up pop-up restaurants using a few selected recipes from the open kitchen period. For these events, we also invited people who had historical and cultural ties with Wonosari, the so-called local experts. However, later I questioned my own decision of bringing in this “local expertise”: how much was this about reproducing “authenticity” and other cultural essentialisation projects?

F: As you said earlier, food has been your main focus in doing arts. You have been working mostly on a collaborative basis, but mainly as a part of your individual practice. In 2015, you set up the Bakudapan food study group. What is behind this drive in setting up the collective?

E: To be honest, I started to get bored by food. I didn’t know what else I could do with it. After Delfina, I did different food-based projects in Taipei, in Australia and also some others in Indonesia. My concern was that it was becoming rather repetitive, although the contents varied. When I did my residency at the Delfina Foundation, I met people working in duos or groups, mostly focusing on more technical issues, such as gastronomic research or how to set up a kitchen together. I tried to collaborate with different local artists such as Lifepatch, thinking already about having a collective platform. But I did not want to focus on technical aspects anymore. I was more interested in the idea of having a kind of study circle. It was at that time that I got in touch with Nisa (Khairunissa) who also felt the need to have more critical conversations about food and its related practices.

Our initial activity was to hold regular discussions on several themes around food. The first topic was fast food for instance, and through this event series, I met with more people who were interested to study about food, most of them were anthropology students at the public university in the city. We were invited by Cemeti, a local art initiative working on the intersections between art and society to present our work as a collective in their space. For this event, we auctioned fast food menus found in street food stalls, hamburger, chicken and doughnuts, while simulating as if they were art objects. The auction was done not only to present our work but also as a part of our research. From then on, I became intrigued by possible overlaps between ethnographic research and artistic practices. I was so absorbed by Bakudapan that I didn’t spend so much time anymore doing new individual work. When I did participate in exhibitions, I mainly “recycled” my previous works. This period lasted for more than two years.

To name a few of the new works that I did during this phase, there was “Hunger Inc.”, a project which I presented at the Jogja Biennale Equator XIII. This work, which took the form of a makeshift tent commonly built as a part of NGO relief projects in disaster inflicted areas, addresses issues of poverty among structural imbalances. But even in this supposedly solo project, many of the Bakudapan members were deeply involved in the process. It was only earlier this year (2018) that I started to work on individual projects again, one of which is the video “Safeguarding the Curry Burger”. It is actually part of a long-term project called “The Possibility of Inauthentic Recipes” (2016). In this work, I looked at how certain kinds of cuisine or ingredients, like curry, function as an intangible cultural heritage that carries a long history of cultural mixings and appropriations.

F: What is it about the materiality of fruits that interests you?

E: I can’t say the exact reason why. There is something visual about it. Also the smell, the form, there is this sensuousness. To some degree, I want to see other ways of engaging with food, beyond consuming it, things that I did in the past such as holding performative dinners for example. It has something to do also with the ways fruits can be artificially cultivated. And there is this struggle with how ephemeral nature is. This aspect is very clearly captured by fruits, the way in which they visually shift from one phase of life to the next until their decay. How do people preserve it? Most importantly, why do we preserve it?

F: Sorry to keep coming back to the food issue. Based on what you told me just now, my understanding is that at one point you saw it as an exotic object, then it became a means of social practice. Through your involvement in Bakudapan, food became a source for addressing deeper political issues. And, at present, you are concerned with the materiality of food, especially fruits, and its value as a sensuous object. I think this process is really telling, especially in relation to you being here.

E: I think my perspective when looking at food is getting narrower these days. In the meantime, I do know this is meant to be temporary. It has something to do with the current environment that I am in, as I explained before. Added with other pressures I am facing now, such as the necessity to hold a solo exhibition, to challenge myself to make object-based works and to respond to the specificities of gallery settings. It is kind of limiting my view on the potentialities of food. Again I am saying this, knowing that this is just a phase, there will come a time when I will get to see food in a broader spectrum again.

F: But you remain optimistic about continuing to explore food?

E: In relation to what I am doing in Bakudapan, I think yes. But in relation to my individual practice, I tend to be more open to other possibilities. For example, recently I encountered an artist friend who organised an intervention following the result of the presidential election in Brazil. She initiated a solidarity project, where she provided practical support for Brazilian migrants who wanted to apply for a German visa. This kind of socially-oriented art making is something I wish to bring along into the future. In comparison, being here in the studio for more than six months already, most of the discussions are about the technicalities in producing art.

F: Are you saying that your current environment here is apolitical?

E: First, I am not saying that my current environment is apolitical. Most people here are quite sharp in terms of how they understand global political situations. It is just that I don’t really see any clear connection between their political thinking and artistic practices, as if they belonged to two totally different worlds. This Brazillian artist- friend, whom I mentioned, is someone I met outside of the studio environment. I have to look for people from outside the studio walls to find like-minded individuals, by engaging with other artist circles in the city or tapping into my old network of artist friends whom I met before in different settings outside of Germany.

F: Tell me more about your biggest concern these days.

E: Unconsciously maybe I have become too comfortable with this specification, an artist who engages with food as an artistic practice. As you know, this specification or labelling has economic values, in the context of the art market especially. But with Bakudapan, I still see so many things that I can explore. And this makes me enthusiastic again. It allows me to see other means of social engagement beyond food itself.

F: This self-criticism of yours, as regards feeling comfortable about being labelled, well, I can see another aspect which is perhaps less self-damaging. Maybe food is not only about maintaining your selling-point as an artist, but is rather a discipline that enables you to investigate other social and political realities.

E: Regarding discipline, we have discussed this in Bakudapan. Food becomes the lens that allows us to work on multiple issues. But again, after so many years of working with food, it kind of becomes automatic for me to work with food. Sometimes it felt rather imposed, to an extent that it becomes a burden that I have to carry in my artistic life.

F: I think, on the one hand you can see it as a burden, you are compelled to deal with food due to your past track record and you are somehow stuck with it. But on the other hand, if you see it as a discipline, you can also treat it more practically, as a method. A tool which allows you to get to whichever aims you wish to achieve through your arts.

E: Yes, in the end, I think I have to say that food still has great uncharted potential as an artistic practice, but also as a methodology in doing research and as a tool for sharing and discussing social and political issues. I do need to find ways to present and circulate such ideas, not only in the art scene, but also in others contexts.

Thumbnail caption:
A Table Beyond Boarders. National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
Department of Education and Cultural Programs Collaboration UNESCO. Artists Ara An, Elia Nurvista