ArtSlant: Vegetable Matters

Country Fair

Little Donkey Farm, West of Houshajian Village, Sujiatuo Zhen, Haidian District, Beijing

April 16, 2011

To the North-West of Beijing just beyond the sixth ring road, approaching the mountains and the Great Wall, you find the Little Donkey Farm (LDF), a farm and community organisation promoting Community Supported Agriculture within China. LDF work with sustainable farming methods to grow and distribute healthy produce within the Beijing area. Artist Emi Uemura has been working with this organisation for the past year and April saw the fifth of their Country Fairs, initiated and co-organised by Uemura, an occasion where farmers and customers get together to buy and sell produce and share information. As was always planned by Uemura, Country Fair has now grown beyond her original artistic vision to become a broader platform for the social issues around food production.

On this hot and dusty weekend in April, I shared a taxi with a group of friends to make the one and a half hour drive to LDF to attend the Fair. LDF occupies a large section of land mostly taken up with fields managed by the members of the collective who share the land and resources. Beside the fields livestock areas hold a large population of chickens, pigs, and the (not so little) donkey from which the organisation gets its name.

In the middle of all this is a communal area where the Country Fair was being held. Already busy by the time we arrived, this large open space was lined with stalls promoting organic and sustainable farming, as well as selling fruit and vegetables grown on the grounds and homemade food and drink. On the other side a barbeque was set up cooking fresh fish, as well as a stand with jiaozi (dumpling) steamers flanking a large “Bus-Supermarket” decorated in black and white cow print. The bus was home to Special Commune, a local organisation for youth with intellectual disabilities, where you could support them by “adopting” a tree or a horse, amongst other things.

Taking a step back then, as much as this was a lovely day out, why should it warrant a review here on ArtSlant? For me, this has become an interesting question, in that the type of artistic activity Uemura initiates often straddles a fertile gap between the arts community (and their expectations) and society (ditto).

Uemura’s involvement in Country Fair has developed from her earlier, smaller-scale works, such as Bento Delivery, Mobile Container Farm and Calendar Restaurant, which I mentioned in my first review on this site about artists working with food. A recurring theme in all these activities has been the production and distribution of food. Country Fair, originally hosted by Vitamin Creative Space at their Shop venue in Caochangdi Art Village, has since taken place twice at Columbia University’s Studio-X in the centre of the city, and once at Renmin University. Each time the event has grown and now attracts quite a crowd—roughly 2,000 people made the journey on the day I went—to the extent that it can no longer be held in central Beijing. Indeed, as Uemura has always planned, the Fair has taken on a life of its own, taking it out of the artist’s direct control to the extent that it has built a community that will support it in the future.

This process of development and Uemura’s ambivalence to her extended artistic involvement, leads to the question of what purpose the art world serves in this situation? There is the realisation that at some point, an activity is best served outside of the art world: and for a work which aims at society, why delay the effectiveness by fixing it within the art world? This is not to say that the art world is completely useless, its freedoms in this case have proved initiatory and can lead to results difficult to achieve in more circumscribed arenas.

This movement from one arena to another, and the relative merits of either, is an interesting position and one which many artists who deal with social issues are well aware of. However, this movement also leads to ethical questions about an artist’s own commitment to the two arenas. There is ultimately no real gauge for this apart from the results, and it would be idle to impose artificial restrictions on what an artist can or cannot do. Based on the evidence, Uemura’s extended work with the issues embodied in Country Fair has proven her responsibility to the groups and individuals concerned.

It’s perhaps also appropriate, even, to reflect on the purpose of this review for her work. In the same way as Uemura is ambivalent to the art world’s role, this also makes problematic my own writing about her work, situating it (as I inevitably do) within an art milieu, reading her work against an artistic framework. This is problematic—not for the artist, who picks and chooses her engagement with the art world—but for me, approaching her work from that direction.

To me this wrong footing of an approach via art, seems a very important and interesting side effect of Uemura’s work. In persisting in art writing and writing about art in what becomes a seemingly futile and almost de-humanising manner, serves to put the artistic into a balance between success and failure – to put it in the process of one or the other and to try to deny writing’s habit of setting things in stone.

So Uemura’s work also serves to upset its relationship with art. This isn’t a sole aim of the work—that would indicate a lack of commitment to the social effects of the work as I mentioned above—but it is certainly an effect of the work for me and as such is one of the reasons I find it interesting.

Uemura’s role in the development of Country Fair becomes an interesting case study in how an artist comes to terms with the art world – which has a habit of converting all its subjects into commodity status and defusing their potential. If this can be interrupted somehow, perhaps we can gain a fresh perspective on an artwork within society, something that Country Fair itself seems to do.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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