An art exhibition that looks at food as a marker of identity, social class


A screenshot of Hoo's video work 'Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea All Fish Banquet' which reimagines Chinese dish naming convention and plating aesthetic through 3D animation. Photo: Hoo Fan Chon

Something fishy is brewing at The Back Room KL space at the Zhongshan building in the capital. Swing by to feast your eyes on an art piece of different fish species presented on plates, overlooking a banquet dining room installation that restages the mise en place of a Chinese restaurant banquet service with a self-rotating Lazy Susan.

If you like your fish served animated, there is a video of fish dishes being introduced one by one, in the Eight Immortals Crossing The Sea All Fish Banquet. It reimagines Chinese dish naming convention and plating aesthetic through 3D animation.

To really drive home the point that this is a seafood destination, there are paintings featuring tools such as the crab cracker, prawn peeler and fish scaler, on the wall.

The entire set-up is an invitation to take a peek into what Hoo Fan Chon, the contemporary artist behind this exhibition, describes as his lifelong obsession with fish.

Hoo, who grew up in Pulau Ketam (off the coast of Klang), has a special affinity with fish, which is a recurring motif in his artwork. Photo: Hoo Fan Chon Hoo, who grew up in Pulau Ketam (off the coast of Klang), has a special affinity with fish, which is a recurring motif in his artwork. Photo: Hoo Fan Chon

He grew up in Pulau Ketam, a fishing village off the coast of Klang in Selangor.

Hoo’s father was a fisherman before he came to KL to work as a mould maker and Hoo notes that a lot of his knowledge on fish came from him.

Unsurprisingly, his childhood revolved around fish-eating, seafood and banquet services.

“My memory of banquet service and fish-eating experiences has a lot to do with my late father. I remember how he would tell me the best way to cook and consume each fish. In my work Commercial Marine Fish (Pelagic) Of Malaysia, I try to imagine what he sees when he looks at the official fish chart from the fishery department. Our understanding of the natural world is not always a scientific one but sometimes informed by our cultural practice, or in this case, our gastronomic experiences,” says Hoo.

Hoo turns to Chinese culinary and dining culture in 'The World is Your Restaurant' - an exhibition that presents paintings, video, and installation art. Photo: The Back Room KL Hoo turns to Chinese culinary and dining culture in 'The World is Your Restaurant' - an exhibition that presents paintings, video, and installation art. Photo: The Back Room KL

In The World Is Your Restaurant exhibition, he has even included a selection of photos from his family album, taken at banquet dinners, from weddings to company dinners and Chinese New Year reunion dinners.

“Fish, culturally, is associated with prosperity because the character meaning abundance (yu), is a homonym for the character meaning fish (yu). And, the type of fish that is served, the lavishness of the menu, and the size of the banquet, are ways for some to assert their social status or to perform their class aspirations,” he says.

This project also got him looking at the shift in banquet dining culture from his younger days to now.

From his online searches for seafood preparation tools during the recent lockdown, he was amazed by the wide selection available on online shopping platforms.

Hoo’s artwork '#3 Crab Cracker' (acrylic on canvas, 2021). Photo: The Back Room KLHoo’s artwork '#3 Crab Cracker' (acrylic on canvas, 2021). Photo: The Back Room KL

“These tools not only suggest each culture’s relationship with the particular seafood, but also the migration of seafood consumption experience from the social space (restaurants) to the domestic space,” he says.

This was how his Seafood Tools For The Sophisticated Home Chefs series was born.

“In a way, this project allowed me to immerse and learn more about the restaurant dining culture in KL, especially of the late 1980s and 90s, the restaurant visual presentation, plating aesthetic and cooking methods, as a way to rekindle my growing-up experience as a kid,” he says.

The World Is Your Restaurant was initially scheduled to take place in June this year at Wisma Central in Kuala Lumpur, but it was postponed due to the pandemic and is now hosted by The Back Room KL.

Hoo’s 'Commercial Marine Fish (Pelagic) Of Malaysia' (acrylic on poster, 2021). Photo: The Back Room KLHoo’s 'Commercial Marine Fish (Pelagic) Of Malaysia' (acrylic on poster, 2021). Photo: The Back Room KL

This exhibition is jointly produced by independent art space Mutual Aid Projects and The Back Room KL.

It is Hoo’s his first solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. The British-trained artist is currently based in George Town, where he co-founded the art collective Run Amok Gallery.

His last exhibition was Biro Kaji Visual George Town in Penang, held in Dec 2019.

“When I was invited by Eric Goh, the curator of this exhibition, to take part in Mutual Aid Projects, I didn’t really have a project in mind. It all started with a question from Eric: ‘Why are you so obsessed with fish?’ Fish has been a recurring motif in my art practice, from making a music video on tilapia, to proposing the installation of a pair of mudskippers on top of the Komtar building,” he shares.

Hoo's banquet dining room setup at 'The World Is Your Restaurant' exhibition at The Back Room KL. Photo: The Back Room KLHoo's banquet dining room setup at 'The World Is Your Restaurant' exhibition at The Back Room KL. Photo: The Back Room KL

In concluding, Hoo notes that the restaurant is a fascinating site for exploration, culturally and aesthetically, as it is not only a social space for conviviality but sometimes also to perform our class aspirations.

“The lockdowns have also changed our perception of the convenience we used to enjoy, to be able to dine out. I hope the audience can relate to this exhibition through their personal restaurant dining experiences,” he says.

If you would like to bring home a bit of this fishy tale with you, you can tapau (takeaway).

There is merchandise that was created just for this show: a 10-inch (25.4cm) ceramic coupe plate that says, “The World Is Your Restaurant”; T-shirt inspired by local restaurant staff uniform; and posters with prized restaurant fish names, a collaboration with typography collective huruf.

The World Is Your Restaurant is on at The Back Room KL, Zhongshan Building in KL until Dec 12.

More info here.

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