Gayle Chong Kwan At Chinese Arts Centre Manchester

By Kay Carson | 25 July 2006
a photograph of a model diorama with a beach and buildings

Gayle Chong Kwan, Resort. © the artist

Kay Carson encounters mashed potato mountains and buildings made of cheese at Manchester's Chinese Arts Centre.

Cockaigne, the 14th century mythical, medieval land where leisure time reigns supreme and food is in abundant and infinite supply has been given a new and inspired lease of life by Gayle Chong Kwan.

At Manchester’s Chinese Arts Centre until September 14 2006, Cockaigne comprises 12 photographs showing the idle gourmand’s paradise in all its decadent glory, but with a delicious twist: the landscapes themselves are made entirely out of foodstuffs.

It is hard to believe at first glance, as the C-type prints always glorious to look at anyway, for their depth and intensity of colour just look like well-shot, moody views of rolling hills and buildings of a bygone age.

a photograph of a model panorama of trees and hills with a swirling sky above

Gayle Chong Kwan, El Dorado. © the artist

But take a closer look and you realise that the castle in Republic (2004) is made of bread, the crusts providing an architectural feature around the turrets - and the whole thing is pinned together with cocktail sticks.

The pictures may be perceived as segments of a panorama, but in each one, there is a distinct sub-theme, the foods largely belong to one group. For example, Voyage to the World at the Centre of the Earth (2004) has fish mountains, with crab-stick steps and rocks made of cockles and mussels.

And in Eldorado (2004), the land of gold is in fact cheese puffs and snacks on sticks, with jacket-spud terrain and fluffy mashed potato mountains. Set on its dramatic, electricity-charged sky, it looks fabulous. Hansel and Gretel would have had a field day.

What is most appetising is the precision of the compositions. Lotosland (2004) consists mainly of plain, white rice, with a couple of puffed rice drystone walls and rice cake pillars. The texture and shadows of the foreground, however, are so well defined they appear to have been as painstakingly applied as any paint layered on to a canvas.

a photograph of a model panorama of rocks and sand with a cloudy sky above

Gayle Chong Kwan, New Amazonia. © the artist

But, just as Damien Hirst is making moves to replace his now-rotten shark in formaldehyde in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), Gayle Chong Kwan has worked skilfully to capture the temporal for posterity.

Her micro-worlds were created two years ago and have obviously been consigned to the waste bin long before now; but her photographic timing is perfect.

The culinary treatment of a centuries-old, utopian legend makes us aware of the intrinsic decay within so great an empire, leading all too readily to its demise. And so the food is pictured just on the verge of turning bad.

In Resort (2004), the stately cheese buildings are sweating; in Babel (2004), the strips of ham, pinned together to form a magnificent tower, are curling and rancid. Even the apple palm trees of Avalon (2004) are brown underneath.

And therein lies a sobering moral to give us all a little food for thought.

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