The Feeling of Homeland
by Ulanda Blair
For one month in summer Andrew Rewald engaged in a residency project at Australia House in the community of Urada, as part of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale 2012. His objective was learning about the local food customs that are integral to the culture and livelihood of the Urada people. Andrew had first-hand experience in cultivating crops, and in preparing, cooking and serving regional dishes. He foraged for wild forest vegetables (sansai) in the surrounding mountains, and was invited to sit at various dinner tables to share home cooked meals. Together these experiences provided vital opportunities to explore the ever-shifting traditions, culture and identity of the Urada people, and to connect with the locals in a non-verbal way.
The Feeling of Homeland culminated with staging a collaborative performance event for the Japanese Ancestor Festival (Obon), on the forecourt outside of Australia House. Here three tables in the shape of a triangle referenced the unusual design of Australia House and the pointed snow-proof tin sheds that dot the local landscape. The triangle also visually marked out the three different ways that food is traditionally handled in cuisines across the globe: raw (fresh), cooked (transformed) and rotted (fermented). In this way, the triangular shape not only highlighted locally specific food preparation practices, but also subtly referenced the shared experiences that cross cultures, histories and continents. Likewise, fried chicken (karaage) was chosen to be the centrepiece of the Obon meal, a dish that is not only a popular celebration food in Japan, but which appears in different cuisines, in different variations, all over – karaage is at once global and locally specific.
Four local vegetable dishes taught to Andrew by local women over the course of the residency provided colourful and tasty accompaniments to the chicken. Because of this The Feeling of Homeland performance evolved as a collaborative, participatory project. For three hours, every visitor that came to Australia House was invited to help prepare the food, approaching the triangular structure from the outside, and greeted by a local cooking “instructor” positioned on the inside while Andrew cooked the chicken. Visitors were encouraged to roll sticky sekihan (red beans and rice) into balls to make onigiri; to wrap the onigiri in nori seaweed; to crush black-sesame seeds, walnuts, miso paste and Sake together to make a tantalising creamy salad dressing; to slice cucumbers into paper-thin disks for sunomono; and to wrap the freshly fried chicken in bamboo leaves and rice straw before sitting to eat and chat at a long communal table in the gallery where chilled green tea awaited. Tea was a direct reference to mountain home – dhirrayn ngurang by Brook Andrew, a permanent artwork commissioned for Australia House. This work in neon Kanji asks ‘drink tea with me’ next to a neon poem written in response to Brook’s own residency experience with the Urada community.
The intention for Andrew’s performance was to relinquish his role as the single artist-author and to initiate a setting and context for gathering, sharing and learning. The project assumed different, unexpected meanings however in this rural Japanese context. In Japan, there is the long held custom of hosting guests and of showing appreciation by the serving and gifting of food, which meant the relational and performative interaction aspects of the event were not apparent to all. The Feeling of Homeland was a steep but valuable lesson in cross-cultural engagement; it got Andrew thinking about the intricacies of artist-audience relations in unfamiliar art and cultural contexts. Particularly when dealing with the public, performance and the universal topic of food used to distil ideas about local history, identity, ritual, cultural tourism and economic sustainability.