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Wok with Teguh

/ 07:03 AM December 23, 2012

In preparing for Christmas dinner, all we do now is visit the mall to get everything we need—precut, premixed, and precooked. It was already starting to be like that when I was growing up, although in the rural areas, Christmas still meant a big feast communally prepared and partaken by the whole clan.

So on the day before Christmas, everyone takes part in food preparation, of which the highlight is the slaughtering of some livestock, usually a pig, and a few chickens. It’s a savage ritual performed mostly by men, reminiscent of our hunting and gathering past. You wake up to the morbid chorus of these screaming animals early in the morning. Smoke wafts in the air as men start a fire over the pit built at the yard for the lechon and other sorts of cooking.

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And for all the boiling, deep frying and stewing, only one kitchen instrument is used: the wok. The big round pan with a deep bottom is usually a family heirloom, whose layers of soot represent the many fiestas, Christmases, birthdays, and other big celebrations that the cookware served.

Introduced to the Philippines by the Chinese, the wok is something we share in common with our Southeast Asian neighbors and thus explains a lot of common culinary practices, mostly reinventions of Chinese dishes, and shared affinity for ritualistic clan feasts.

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My Indonesian artist-friend Teguh Ostenrik finds in the lowly wok a signifier for this shared Southeast Asian heritage that persists in spite of the onslaught of a more homogeneous Western popular culture.

“In 1978, I brought a wok to Berlin,” he said, recalling his days as an art student in Germany. “I invited my friends to my house and cooked nasi goreng. That time when I used the wok, all my friends watched that genius wonder from Asia. Now everybody in Europe has a wok in the kitchen.”

The wok has thus become a cultural icon of Asia, symbolizing the globalization of Oriental culture. Like how it inspires the mixing of culinary styles that eventually became regional and national cuisines, the wok represents an early form of multiculturalism long before the term is used to describe the same eclecticism happening in the West.

The great diasporas of Asian people resulting from political disruptions in the last century brought the wok to different parts of the globe. Today, it is no longer just limited to Chinatowns and Asian restaurants, the wok has found its way in almost every kitchen around the world.

During a residency in Penang, Malaysia, Teguh began collecting used woks from local kitchens and cut them up into a series of sculptures that were exhibited there, in Jakarta and elsewhere. Recently, he asked me to write his exhibit statement as he prepares to mount his recent wok sculptures for the Singapore Biennale next year.

The new series features sawed-off pieces of aluminum woks deformed and welded together to form metallic birds, fishes, butterflies and other figures to be suspended above the lobby of the state museum in Singapore.

By installing them above our heads, the artist wants to put them in a “sacred” place. Thus Teguh deconstructs the binaries of beautiful/banal, sacred/profane implied in the image of the wok. In effect, the artist retrieves the wok from its former place in the “dirty kitchen” and literally puts it in lofty position at the museum.

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It is disorienting not to see the wok from the usual elevated position of someone using it. But freed from utility and now flying free in the virtual “cloud”, as Teguh would say, we are thus reminded of our own state of being earthbound, and being subjected to mere instruments in some devil’s kitchen.

The sight of the commonplace now transformed into creatures of some divine realm is supposed to occasion a rediscovery of our own potential to transform and elevate ourselves. And this Christmas, Teguh’s wok reminds me of the Filipino bamboo star lantern we hang to signify the star in Bethlehem shining above the dirty manger where the God-Child was born.

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