Consuming Culture: Food and Art

EAT MORE ARTI just came across this photograph on Facebook, and it reminded me of an exhibition that I just saw at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the end of April. The exhibition was called (Da bao)(Takeout), which featured art from young artists of Chinese-Canadian, Chinese, or Canadian descent. The exhibition calls into question how we consume Chinese culture through its food. We don’t travel just to see and experience new things, we also usually travel to taste the exotic food of a different culture. In this way, we literally consume other cultures.

Xiaojing Yan, Bridge, 2013, ceramic spoons. Courtesy of the Varley Art Gallery and the artists. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Xiaojing Yan, Bridge, 2013, ceramic spoons. Courtesy of the Varley Art Gallery and the artists. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Food is such a big part of everyday life, and we exult in the chance to discover new flavours. Eating Chinese food, for instance, is one of the most popular ways to experience Chinese culture. However, one thing that this exhibition points to is that we can often misinterpret a culture based on our Western conception of it:

In North America, Chinese food has long been a favourite takeout food. Ironically, the ubiquitous white cardboard container used in the West for takeout Chinese food is completely unknown in China, and thus, the box becomes an iconic symbol of everyday misunderstandings.

The same can be said of China’s misunderstandings of Western culture through the mass introduction of fast-food chains like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, etc. What the exhibition highlights is the gaps that can occur when we try to experience another culture solely through its food. This is especially true when you go to a Chinese restaurant down the block from your house—you aren’t really experiencing the authentic Chinese culture, just the “white box” version of it. (Da bao)(Takeout) challenged us to bridge these cultural gaps and amend the misunderstandings that can occur when culture is imported.

On another level, the exhibition also allows us to consume culture through another ‘white box’ as it were, aka the gallery. The gallery is a space where the meaning and interpretation of culture can be created through the display of art. In this way, (Da bao)(Takeout) takes on new meaning. Art is also a part of culture, and is a part of how we understand it. By exploring issues of cultural misunderstandings and transference through art, we are also consuming these cultural meanings. Art can provide deep insight into the values, beliefs, and traditions of any culture. It conveys information in a single image and in just one glance.

Furthermore, seeing art is yet another way for people to ‘consume’ culture. I know that I am personally guilty of this, and I have traveled to different countries with the explicit purpose of seeing what their various galleries and museums had to offer. More to the point, I went to this exhibition while I was waiting for a connecting flight at the Winnipeg Airport. I only had an afternoon to explore the city, so I went to an art gallery or two. I managed to see the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Plug In ICA… I consumed what I could of the Winnipeg artistic scene before I had to catch my flight, but did I learn anything about Winnipeg’s culture? No, I don’t think so, not beyond the aesthetic of the downtown core at least. If I had had more time in the city, I probably could have experienced and learned more about its culture.

Both foodies and art geeks consume culture in their own ways, but at the same time this exhibition, I think, warns us that we can’t limit ourselves to just one encounter with a different culture. Our experiences have to be varied and must come from multiple directions in order to avoid any misunderstandings or misinterpretations. In this way, (Da bao)(Takeout) presents us with a challenge to understand the metaphorical concept of the delivery and interpretation of cultural identities, both foreign and our own.

So, keep it varied, think critically about what cultural narratives you are receiving, and eat more art.



  1. Interesting insight into consumer culture. It is probably true that knowing any culture from its consumer products is not likely to give a true impression. Movies are a case in point. They are usually just what sells and are loosely base on reality, mostly what people want to see or believe. Whether its Hollywood , Bollywood or China they seldom reflect the culture in any realistic way.

    1. dumspirospero112 · · Reply

      Well, if you take movies only for an explicit truth value that reflects a realistic sense of culture then perhaps not. However, I think that art, movies, food, etc. are all just facets of a larger organism that we can call “culture.” Culture, in general, is just a social construction, and can be regarded as a system of delivering ideas from one group of people to another. Even if the representation is flawed, we can’t dismiss it totally, because there is always a reflection of the beliefs and traditions of a certain culture in each representation. That is why it is important to seek out different aspects of culture to gain perspective on the whole.

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