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Food Experience at the Venice Biennale | Interview with Hsieh Chun-te
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Food Experience at the Venice Biennale | Interview with Hsieh Chun-te

Hsieh Chun-Te, the artist from Taiwan, gives us an overview of his work called the "Cooking Theater", shown at the 54th Venice Biennale of Art

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The room is small, but somehow it is big enough to make you wonder what’s hidden in there and what will happen. I feel as though I’m no longer in Venice, at the Art Exhibition of the Biennale, but in some other unknown place – a place where tradition meets sorrow and conscience.

The Shaman of the Amis people of Taiwan, Yang Chia-Chao (Deloun Nahu), is chanting for me and other seven guests. I found myself hypnotized while watching Hsiao Ho-Wen dancing, first under a cloth stained with blood and then slowly revealing her body beneath it, her arms drawing in the air an invisible poetry. She symbolizes rebirth as she walks towards the sacrificial altar, an installation that represents a paddy field, our need and desire of growing (like rice does).

I am moved by the solemnity of the other people around. I feel the power of a positive energy that reminds me of something primitive, something I thought was lost.

After the sacrificial ceremony, we all sit at a table and wait for the Tea Master, Ku Wu-Nan, who makes us explore, through esthetics and flavors, the Taiwanese food prepared for the occasion.

Hsieh Chun-te is the mind behind all this: its his photography that’s hanging on the walls, strikingly powerful black and white images that talk to your soul, like everything else in here. 

With an artistic curriculum that spans over more than 40 years, Chun-te was invited by the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei to join the 54th Venice Biennale of Art. He agreed to participate, showing different kinds of art, with his project Le Festin de Chun-te.

«We are now facing the crisis of lacking resources and food. ThroughCooking Theater, I want to express that we should return to the origins of everything and begin a serious introspection» he explains, serious and solemn, after the performance. 

In the Taiwan Pavilion he’s managed to organize and show a photo-exhibition of 21 images about human primordial desires, titled “Raw”, an installation and a ground-breaking performance art piece: a piece of “cooking theater”.

When asked why he associated photography with food, he explains: «I wish to combine the ‘pure’ art with the ‘life’ art in the same time and space. It is just like our real life. For example, after you go to see exhibitions, you still have to go to eat meals».

It’s very important to keep this in mind when thinking about Chun-te’s presence at Biennale. Le Festin de Chun-te is a beautiful, meticulously prepared, moving tribute to life in all its forms.

The artist explains how important it was to arrange everything carefully: «The exhibition space is very limited so everything needs to be carefully presented. Especially in Venice, we are unable to cook food in the historical buildings. It is an island so the transportation is also limited».

For years, Chun-te studied other traditions around the world, finding out that aboriginal people often treat natural lives, which are sacrificed to become human food, with the feelings of appreciation and apology. He thinks we should do the same, too.

Culinary culture has been a very important topic for Chun-te throughout the years.

In 2009 he started a collaboration with C’est Bon Restaurant, featured as one of the world’s top 100 new restaurants in the book Coco by Phaidon Press of London. His role was initially that of a consultant for interior and utensil design. «Gradually, I found out that I am full of imagination about cuisine so I began by designing the menu. Then, I had a working team which was busy with the innovation of new dishes. There was no regular menu in the restaurant so we had to work on new cuisine all the time».

Chun-te’s first goal was to improve the local traditional dishes of Taiwan to be beautiful and more delicate, while at the same time using local ingredients to create new dishes without changing their original flavor. He has also gathered information about family dishes cooked in Taiwan – ones that represent different traditions and histories - in order to preserve them.

When asked to summarize his culinary philosophy, words come easy: «The simpler the dish, the more difficult it is to cook it. Simple food has richer flavors».

Always very careful about the ingredients he uses, he’s collaborated with a biochemistry Ph.D., Dr. Chen, regarding traditional local ingredients and sustainable agriculture. Natural Farming, the development of plants that are suitable to the land, respecting the unique condition of places and territories, is a core part of Chun-te’s philosophy: «We learn from all of the world’s trends, but we also interact with the environment, which we need to respect. In my works, I keep searching for the conversation between humans and nature».

Much of Chun-te’s art is focused on biological and primal desires: that is why he thought about associating his photography (often linked with strong references to sex) with food for his show at the Biennale.

He believes in the Big Bang Theory: human souls were bound together before the big bang, resulting in the so called “collective subconscious”. He explores that original power and brings it back to us, today. «That is why I talk about Raw (editor’s note: the title of his exhibition at the Biennale), the biological and primal desire. I hope to find a connection among people, but I don’t know exactly what it is. My works are a way for me to connect with people who have primal desires. This connection is beyond the limitation of time and space: the power of it might change our world. Such desire also supports us to make progress and commit to achieve our goals».

In this way, food and art go hand in hand: «For me, photography is the way to see myself, to see the world. Food is my way to treat myself, my way to treat the world. Photography is not only to see the visible through your eyes. Food is not only about taste. They are the same to me, so you can enjoy my photography while eating at Le Festin de Chun-te. Eat what you can see».

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