This work explores the relationship between seeing, knowing and believing. Focusing on the concept of food, it examines to what extent the interplay between substances and our bodies is determined by historical and cultural beliefs, and our collective memories.
Unlike the Western dietary pattern which categorizes food by the composition of its nutritive facts (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), traditional Chinese medicine has developed a comprehensive system of food energetics over thousands of years. Food is categorized by its nature (qualities of yin/yang, temperatures, flavors and directions), which determines its therapeutic function. Throughout these conceptual categories, the tastes are somewhat perceptible, though they represent abstract ideas more so than concrete objects. The categories comprise five flavors, each of them affecting specific organs: bitter relating to the heart and small intestine; pungent to the lungs and large intestine; salty to the kidneys and bladder; sour to the liver and gallbladder; and sweet to the spleen-pancreas and stomach. By achieving a delicate balance between different flavors, Chinese medicine turns a person’s diet into a healing process based on life experience and speculation. Although it still serves as an alternative or complementary approach to modern western medicine in China, the methodology is challenged by modern pharmacology, which examines the biochemical effects of substances on the organism in the molecular dimension. With technology we now visualize the unseen, materialize the senses and scientize our experience. In this way we try to subjugate the unknown with the power of progressive knowledge. Is this scientific articulation, however, merely another domain of ideology? Are we what we eat, or what we believe that we eat?
Five flavors (bitter, pungent, salty, sour and sweet) are extracted from food ingredients (coffee, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar and cherry) and preserved with a spherification technique based on the chemical reaction between sodium alginate and calcium lactate. Assuming that different flavors will affect the pattern of the oral microbiome, the artist collects epithelium cells from her oral cavity after taking in food ingredients of five respective flavors. The specimens are observed and photographed under a compound microscope with 100x and 400x magnification. Except for the bitter flavor which presents as the original color of crystal violet (the stain used for identifying the bacteria), the colors of other flavors are altered with image editing software in order to distinguish them from each other.
The experiment explores a narrative between fact and fiction, truth and belief, the known and the unknown, and challenges the authoritative power of knowledge. The objects invisible to the naked eye are visualized through the processes of staining, focusing, trimming, zooming in and zooming out. Although appropriating scientific methodologies, these processes are somewhat manipulative and arbitrary. Interestingly, the forms of the microflora vary between the different flavors. The relationship between the flavor and the oral microbiome demonstrated by these microscopic images, reflects as an imaginary association rather than as objective evidence.