Weppler & Mahovsky
Over the past 8 years, we have made life-sized sculptures of convenience stores in the form of lanterns containing items ranging from cans of pork goulash to boxes of cornmeal, which are given away at carnivalesque events. These photographic representations of everyday things form an installation drawing from the traditions of still life, while offering visitors the chance to collectively enact a dream in which everything in the world is free.
Initially photographed when fresh, the food items were left out and re-photographed three times to create versions of the image files in increasingly rotten states. As the seasons of life pass, mould engulfs the food in a repulsive yet beautiful display, restating momento mori themes of still life and conjuring common anxieties surrounding food.
This documentary of a process of waste – which is also a kind of sacrifice - suggests a fantasy that the digital files for this everlasting free shared sandwich might become infused with the fragile corporeality of real meat, cheese, tomato and bread.
Set in the increasingly-near future: A dystopic episode featuring neighbourhood favourite, PINEAPPLE BUN GIRLFRIEND, the part-woman part-pastry superhero, who braves overwhelming odds to preserve the legacy and recipe of her endangered bao kin.
2020: China’s National Security Law goes into effect
Bao know that texture is timing and timing is everything. Otherwise, expiration is imminent. Over the PA system, the Party anthem blasts through the empty streets of Chinatown.
Right now, I’m grateful for its help in covering up the CRASH & SMASH of my freezer escape.
At long last, I am tasting flavourful freedom. I bound down the street so fast that I don’t even notice that they’ve been renamed, re-paved, re-branded. I’m on a mission. It’s the middle of the night and I’m a bun on the run, running as if my life depends on it. Because it does.
I weave through back alleys like a local.
Security Crows out on patrol—gotta ga yau. I run faster. Not tonight, Crows, not tonight. For all I know, it’s the same old streets that I love, and that love me...except for the facial recognition surveillance cameras at every corner—those are new. I stare into one; it stares back at me, unable to compute. This is a war and I will be the bread-winner.
You don’t need to leave the continent to “Go Back to China”! Thanks to the Party and mega-developer Timmy Ho, rigorous revitalization has transformed these streets. CHINATOWN® brings you its award-winning curation of the most contemporary authentic experiences of Chineseness! Each year, millions of tourists and foodies flock from all over the western world for the tastiest of Motherland culture in the only Party-sanctioned heritage oasis we call CHINATOWN®.
(Youtube montage features counterfeit Gucci, Prada, and LV stores sandwiched between Michelin Star Restaurants where soft-serve machines poop out armies of tear-shaped soup dumplings.)
It is my first-ever B&E (Bake-And-Enter) afterall, so I CRASH & SMASH in through the balcony doors of a second-story apartment. I am careful not to mess up my crust. It’s my best feature, I’m nothing without it. A hoarse, wavering voice accosts me in the kitchen.
The softness of bao may have been the yeast of our demise. Humankind has always taken fluffy for granted. They have taken supple, yielding, malleable, soft power—as weakness. They have said things like “Stop buttering me up,” or “Don’t sugarcoat things” or worse yet, “I’m on Keto. “Not to mention, they’re always using “crumbs” as a slur. Why do that? We are born to this earth as crumbs, and we leave this earth as such.
Old Slippers Poh Poh, who I can now see in the faint lighting, is a beautiful sight to behold. She is shrunken, speckled and fierce. The right demographic, for sure. She eyeballs me suspiciously, slipper still wavering, waiting for me to speak. This was not exactly the reception I was hoping for.
It’s a half truth. I know where I am; I mean it more existentially. That is bound to happen when you’ve been in hiding for who knows how long. It has been too many years to count since the purge, although most bao aren’t good at math anyway, contrary to the lou poh beng’s tale (Old Wives Pastry’s tale). I’m not saying that none of us are good at math, I’m just saying that not all bao are the same. And by the way, we don’t all look alike.
Timing is everything, and I’m running out of time.
“Hint: I am an icon. A household name. An award-winning, internationally-renowned ambassador of culture and heritage in every major city.”
“Oooooo. A celebrity?”
“I’m Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-raised and praised—”
Old Slippers Poh Poh stiffens at this. Her eyeballs dart about at the surveillance speakers hung from the ceiling but I’m too busy gloating to notice. Decades in hiding have done little damage to my figure or ego, hence, the big head.
I turn around just in time for Old Slippers Poh Poh to SMACK me right over the criss-crosses of my head.
SMACK, SMACK, SMACK goes the slipper.
Maybe it wasn’t the softness that was the yeast of our demise, seeing as the steamed ones got the boot too. Maybe, all of us banned bao were just too good at multiplying. Diversifying. Unionizing. Most importantly, hiding our filling. Maybe we were just too much of a threat given how good we could keep our secrets tucked away inside.
The Party hates secrets.
Old Slippers Poh Poh wails and repeats this over and over, as if this curse will absolve her of her crimes. With both slippers on, she is pacing and sobbing but there’s no time to cry over spilled condensed milk. I’m on a mission. Expiration is imminent.
I ransack the kitchen, still light-headed and wobbly from the beating. I search for flour, sugar, eggs...what else...oh, of course. Gotta add oil. Ga yau.
“What are you doing?”
“They want the world to forget the taste. The texture. The technique. The…WHY IS THERE NOTHING IN THIS KITCHEN?”
“We don’t use these kitchens for cooking. This is a heritage site, cooking is a hazard! The Party feeds us—”
Outside, the Crows gather, darkening the sky. There is panic in Old Slippers Poh Poh’s eyes. The temperature is rising.
I channel all the wisdom, thriftiness, and sacrificial spirit of all the bao who have come before me, and—lard help us—all the bao who will come after me.
“Do you remember the taste?”
Old Slippers blinks rapidly.
“ANSWER ME, DO YOU REMEMBER THE TASTE?”
The Crows shriek in chorus, attacking the window pane.
Old Slippers Poh Poh runs her fingers along my crusty, golden top. She draws my bao head towards her face. My fragrance of sweet bakery engulfs her with sensations, sounds, memories. She inhales deeply through her nose and then exhales her hot breath into my face, softening my butter into cream. She opens wide and takes a bite.
She goes in for another and another, each morsel more satiating than the last. She is starving in a way she never knew. How long has she been this hungry?
CAW! CAW! CAW!
The Crows crack the glass.
CAW! CAW! CAW!
Old Slippers Poh Poh feasts until every last piece of me falls into her. Falls for her. Becomes her. When the Crows descend upon the scene, she is glowing with grease all over her wide, fake-toothed grin.
The Coconut Effect is a short digital film that uses binaural sound, ASMR, Foley performances and text captions to create sensory narratives around Trinidadian food and cultural memory. The narrator, who takes us on a journey through waking and dream states, lulls us into a series of experiences that meander between two worlds, both inside and outside of the tropics, while navigating a Caribbean authenticity that is continuously called into question. We are introduced to the failures and awkwardness of a subject who occupies a space between belonging and not belonging. The film’s soundtrack is created entirely by manual manipulation, using only imported Trinidadian food products as props. These materials (either fresh, processed or artificial) are explored for their acoustic qualities as a way to tap into their narrative capacities. This film looks to Caribbean food products themselves to be the storytellers of cross-cultural experiences in the sounds they hold.
Digital film and sound, 8 mins
Please wear headphones to experience this film.
This Saccharine, Suburban, Senior Year is a three-part personal essay. It is inspired by foods that are bad for your teeth. (And Chinese stereotypes, Winona Ryder, existentialist birthdays, NYC and moviegoers.) It is sort of about coming of age.
The term “junk food” teeters on the vulgar end of describing things. Sure, the junk food agenda is an apocalyptic game, culturally and culinarily. Nonetheless, it is in the same category of trash as those seashell shards that land cunningly into our juvenile palms and become promoted to indispensable treasure. Before we know it, junk food is regulating our formative brains. Smithereens of crushed candy thoughts.
Critics say it’s too sweet. Sickening, synthetic. The nutritional equivalent of half-truths, anecdotes and cheap revelations wrung out of some girl’s high school diary and window-dressed to pass as art. Well. Screw the critics, let's tell some stories.
Suburban conformity does not give heads-ups when it creeps up on you. Suburban conformity is about as hostile as the Walmart cereal aisle. Sugar. Mass produced, mass marketed, branded to palliate the nation’s wide-eyed children’s consumer awakenings. So many choices, or at least judging from the box designs. There must be something sinister about how the clashing colours all stack along their straight seams and right angles. Blissful teens stop by often ever since photogenic retrospection was proclaimed a universal trend. There is nothing primitively nostalgic about the cereal aisle in my life, if I am being honest; except, if I am ever fortunate enough to be befriended by trendy teens, then there is no need to be honest at all. Suburban conformity is a taste of content belonging, it accompanies your midnight helping of Raisin Bran as you tweak your autobiographical mood board to include the off-white colour of Walmart linoleum. The triumph of fitting in creeps up on you, one sugar rush after another.
Forget the textbooks. Undergoing self-assimilation in its full ferocity at seventeen is really quite fun—the dark and morbid side of fun. Suddenly those trademarked sugared things have personalities. Suddenly my senior year is a cult classic. Choose your hero—I want Winona Ryder’s spite-inhaling, sarcasm-exhaling Veronica Sawyer. Plastic Twizzlers and cherry soda. Activate with a quotable paperback of my choice. Lights, camera and cue the tracking shot of me strolling upstream through the lunch break masses, as if I am pop culture’s favourite artificial flavouring personified.
I can go further, though. Being invited to the club invariably comes first and being a fan second—I hone my ethics according to the sharpest politicians in the biz. Oh, I can trade whoever this is that I am for much less. Stale doughnuts and Iced Capps. Anna, the name is "Anna." Anna does not get asked to spell her name twice at the counter. Anna’s stellar grades mark her the golden girl, charming young intellectual rather than another one of those smart Asian kids. Anna watches television without fearing that, as long as the lines are written in this language which she loves, those of her kind will be entitled to little besides filler, accents and silence. Anna is enjoying her weekend road trip, instead of combatting the paralyzing impression that her family appears like tourists in these stupid overrated mountains.
What to do with these thoughts imploding in my system each time I stand (panicking) in line at a Tim Hortons? “Love me,” I channel hopelessly with my shifting gaze. Love me. But for who?
Suddenly my senior year is a cult classic. Choose your hero—I want Winona Ryder’s spite-inhaling, sarcasm-exhaling Veronica Sawyer. Plastic Twizzlers and cherry soda. Activate with a quotable paperback of my choice.
I am one of those self-obsessed 2000s kids who grew up on High School Musical, and have invested inordinate amounts of time in a 2020 fantasy of graduations and eighteenth birthdays. Lucky numbers, I thought: a myopic child lacking in prescience. Cut to an unreasonably cold mid-spring morning—me pacing in the kitchen, alone, stifling the vanilla icing jitters with a second cup of coffee, proceeding to recall those absurd birthday musings of yesteryear. “The Costco cake tastes bad, but we love a kitsch party.” Life glides along a fine, fine dramatic arc.
I am only one undeservingly privileged individual, capitalizing on some glib little girl daydream about the symbolic significance of birthday cake.
Treasure the microscopic things, for there is absolutely no perfection of any kind to be found in the grand scheme of this adult world, ablaze in a fire that we didn’t start and thus can’t put out. My improvised birthday agenda was an exhaustive list of one singular task—to register as a UN volunteer, for which I immediately found out that I lacked qualifications both in competence and character. Anticlimactically, as usual, one shaky step towards active citizenship turned into another foot stuck in active self-loathing. I am only one undeservingly privileged individual, capitalizing on some glib little girl daydream about the symbolic significance of birthday cake. Perhaps, the gravest reality of them all is setting your toolbox of acquired skills down on the table, only to open it and find nothing but a lens of subjective perfection, magnifying fragments from your cul-de-sac memory.
Vowing to “get out of here” is a serious, serious activity incumbent upon the suburban high school experience. We are kids raised in odd-coloured parkas, determined to metamorphose, on 100% pure bravado, into power-striders clad in trench coats. Heard about taking “the midnight train going anywhere” once and decided that catapulting one’s entire existence far from comfort is the most marvellous thing anyone can ever do.
The parka kids went to New York City for one week in February. We squeezed our way to the rear of the plane, assured that it was because we were high school medallists in non-stop talking—meet your neighbourhood (privileged) overachievers. Did all the tourist things, including speculating at the inner lives of passersby based on wisps of their perfumed trails. Piled into the cheesecake bakery adjacent to the theatre alley, one to defrost from the wind and two to decrescendo from the witching hour frenzy. The wedge of New York cheesecake perched on our hotel room counter, atop histories we cared not to inquire, indifferent and insolent in its posture while scanning the sight of our research binders and charger cords and starry eyed gullibility. Whisked in with the sugar was a dizzying lightness without the familiar weight of unsophisticated homeliness.
Missing home is realizing that you have packed everything you know into a suitcase and your head. Me against the world in a city where I was nothing but an interloper. I could not decide whether I felt at home or the furthest away I have ever been from home—both statements lack veracity, I suppose, but for one week in New York City my thoughts spun in a whirlwind.
Home in a suitcase. Home in a box. Home in a nerve-manipulating capsule. I can get by on that. I have to. The notion of “getting out of here” continues to thump in our veins and remains urgent, perhaps because we are phoenix-moth hybrid things still enamoured with silver screens and clamorous cities and lightbulbs that we confuse with stars.
It is no coincidence that the metropolis and the cinema have great affinities for each other when they function so alike. Together, the two make a seductive couple of Venus flytraps, sweeping the outsiders off their feet with promises of life at its most vivid. Both changing hearts at their best, crushing souls at their worst.
“Take me,” I say.
They put an end date to the pandemic.
It will be cinnamon season soon, by then the colour orange and the crinkling of candy bar wrappers will make her miss back-to-school back in the city where winter starts in October. Her memories of those locker-lined hallways are indeed finite, and everybody knows those re-runs of kid movies are really meant for adults.
It will be cinnamon season soon, by then her capricious heart may have already begun to fall for the city traffic, mid-afternoon racket and tweed-clad strangers on campus.
The girl at the airport hopes everything is going to be okay.