On Bridge Road, Richmond’s Tofu Shop International is working on its strangest request yet. The brief: a 40cm x 40cm x 7cm cube of its firmest (not finest) bean-curd mix. As Rebecca Coates, director of the Shepparton Art Museum (SAM), says, “Silken just won’t work.”
The giant block of tofu is being made and carefully transported to SAM in time for the arrival of Chinese contemporary artist Chen Qiulin. This Saturday, she’ll perform a live tofu carving to launch her career-survey exhibition One Hundred Names.
The performance is an extension of Chen’s ongoing 12-year project, titled One Hundred Surnames in Tofu, where (as the name would suggest) the hundred most-common Chinese family names are carved in tofu. The project is based on themes of migration and how displacement and urban development disrupt traditional ancestry, culture and way of life. Such themes resonate with many members of Shepparton’s diverse migrant population.
Ah Wong is the name SAM and Chen selected for the carving. In Shepparton, the Ah Wong Bridge provides a river crossing for commuters travelling to Mooroopna. Ah Wong was a Chinese immigrant who set up a market garden on the banks of the Goulburn River (now Chinaman Garden Reserve) and sold fresh produce to Shepparton and Mooroopna residents off the back of his bike.
Accompanying the performance is a collection of Chen’s photography and video installations, both new and old works. Complementing the tofu carving is a video installation that captures Chen’s 100 names carved in tofu and how they transform.
“There will be a series of 25 monitors stacked up, each depicting the derogation process of the tofu characters,” says Coates. “The audience can watch as they slowly disappear over the passage of time.”
“They are incredibly beautiful, quite lush images that are contrasted against decay and deterioration. It’s very compelling and seductive.”
Chen and SAM have worked closely to create six scents to accompany the carving. “The ability of a smell to remind you of somewhere else is something that I think is really key to Chen’s work,” says Coates.
Packing cases sourced from local fruit-and-vegetable suppliers will be fitted with vaporisers releasing sporadic puffs of smells that are representative of Shepparton. Apples and pears (Shepparton is the largest producer and supplier of these fruits in Victoria) is one, wood-fire smoke (a seasonal scent that emerges at the start of winter) is another.
“This installation is a similar experience to when you walk through a marketplace. You have this onslaught of perfumes, scents and aromas, and you try to decipher what’s what. It’s exactly like a smell test.”
With that, we’ll let you guess the remaining four.
For those of us who haven’t attending a tofu carving before (really, who has?), what can we expect?
“It’s quite non-spectacular in terms of a performative event,” says Coates. “But I think it’s going to be incredibly engrossing. It’s a bit like cooking with a glass of wine – you cook while you chat. I think there will be that kind of social engagement as the name appears.”
Chen’s tofu carving will be followed by a tofu banquet dinner at Mooroopna’s popular Yiche Restaurant. The restaurant will serve a specially designed Chinese hotpot alongside a mixture of traditional tofu dishes it has developed with Chen.
The tofu banquet at Yiche Restaurant starts at 6.30pm. Bookings can be made online.
One Hundred Names will launch with Chen’s tofu carving on June 3 at 4pm. The exhibition will show at Shepparton Art Museum until July 24, and no, the tofu carving will not be left to disintegrate in the museum. As Coates says, “Can you imagine the smell?”