WHO IS COMFORT BALL?
Feature photo provided by Comfort Ball
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Make an OK sign with your hand to make sure everything is okay.
Look at the size of the O from your OKAY sign.
This is the amount of syrup you will use.
Take a look at the pinch between your thumb and index.
That’s the amount of salt you will use.
And so on and so forth.
These are the instructions you would have found printed on edible paper, had you had the pleasure of attending Comfort Ball’s performative workshop in September of 2020. Don’t worry, I didn’t get to either but I did have the opportunity to interview the artists at a shared studio in West Amsterdam earlier this year. But let’s start with the basics and answer what I assume are some of your preliminary questions:
Who is Comfort Ball? What’s a performative workshop? Will everything be okay?
That last question is between you and your astrology app but I can certainly answer the first two. Comfort Ball consists of Sumin Lee and Bin Koh, two artists from South Korea who came to the Netherlands to study at its famous art schools: The Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. They bonded over a shared frustration at the cold, Dutch canteen lunches (typically a cheese sandwich), and decided to offer up an alternative option: onigiri. They were ,however, banned from doing so by the university, so instead of sharing rice balls with the university masses, they joined forces to create a two-person art collective. Since then, they’ve been hosting food-focused, performance art pieces that often involve viewer participation.
One such piece is Tar for Mortar - a collaborative performance where guests are invited to make an ancient Korean tea food called Dasik that harks back to the 11th century. Guests are invited into a big room with hand carved tables , created by Alex Zamora, and large alien forms decorate the floor. On the tables lay swooping piles of hand-dried, finely milled powders of purple yam, glutinous rice, and sesame, prepared by Sumin. In the middle sits Bin Koh with pots of honey and sheets of edible instructions, ready to guide the guests through the interactive piece. Tar for Mortar is an exercise in future survival as the artists imagine what will happen when climate-driven food insecurity becomes widespread: would ancient recipes such as this, concocted without refrigerators or electricity, be the apocalyptic norm? Moving their way through the recipe, participants are encouraged to think about future life in the anthropocene, and the importance of connection and ritual in the face of emergency.
During my interview with Lee and Koh, we joke about teaching our Western friends how to cook the recipes our mothers and grandmothers have passed down to us:
“They always ask: how many grams? Does that count as three cups? How many teaspoons is a pinch?!”
“Just taste it! It’s like a small handful I guess.”
Asian cooking, as you may know, is led by the senses and the instinct: the measurements exist in the corner of a ladle, a flick of a knife edge, a pinky dipped into a sauce and pensively tasted. That’s something Comfort Ball tries to convey in the recipe sheet for Tar for Mortar too, crafting instructions that are tactile rather than reliant on external systems.
But it’s not only Asian cooking that’s led by complex feelings and gut instinct - it’s also Asian living, especially in a Western context. Unlike me, Sumin and Bin grew up surrounded by people that looked like them; laughing, they said: “We have felt what it is to be white! To be in the majority!” so it may come as no surprise that moving to a predominantly Caucasian country has brought its own, new tensions.
As most Asians know, beneath the rhythms of the everyday runs the ominous subtext of living as ‘the other’; to sometimes ‘fit in’ as a ‘model minority’ and sometimes to not, as an exotic interest or exterior threat. These subtexts have only been amplified due to Covid and as Lee says: “going outside means that I have to secure myself mentally. And then even physically.”
It’s important to note that we spoke the day after the horrific massacre of Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. All three of us felt a nebulous weight in our hearts and both artists admitted they were “still processing it.” Lee described their murders as her “worst nightmare and deepest fear come true.” I asked the two how all these racial tensions affected their work:
“Well, even during the project we were fetishized and exoticized. Even as we’re trying to fight [those impositions] through the art, it still happens because of the way we look, because of the ingredients we work with, and how we work within an Asian context. Audiences from outside the art scene still tend to look at our work as ‘exotic art’ and that’s difficult to navigate. But [wanting to rise against the] hate crimes such as the one in Atlanta makes me feel empowered. I have even more reason to be passionate about this… it gives me strength.” (Koh)
The hate crime in Atlanta drew together several narratives which have become central to the Asian experience: that of exotification, femicide, and unbridled violence, particularly against women living in precarious conditions, including those engaging in sex work. Manual labor and the effect this has on the body is a recurring theme in Koh’s work. She often uses a motif of a gnarled hard, inspired by the toll domestic labour can take on the body, inspired by “how the body is shaped by chemicals and repetitive movements like scrubbing or polishing.” This attention to detail began with Koh’s previous job as a dishwasher, and the idea soon extended to include the bodies of domestic cleaners, nail artists, and masseuses - all types of labour often associated with Asian women. In Tar for Mortar, the artists again return to these primitive gestures, using a pestle and mortar in order to produce the powders necessary to make dasik.
The body and the gaze are often central to Comfort Ball’s work; inversely, they seem to have little choice about that, moving through a European context as Asian women: “When I had just moved here I felt as if I was wearing a transparent box. Like I was on display and people would just watch me and I could see them but I couldn’t watch back [in the same way],” says Koh. Motions and imagery like those deployed in Tar for Mortar are, in some ways, an attempt to address that.
For us, ritual, healing, and community have had to become much more than secondary needs. They have been, collectively, a lifeline that many of us have had to cling onto since the beginning of the pandemic. For Sumin though, long before Covid-19, meeting Bin was a turning point. Bin tells me she was lucky to have been in a “relatively safe zone” at her Master’s programme at the Sandberg Institute; while getting through her degree she experienced few, though not zero, microaggressions or incidents. However, Sumin, studying the Bachelor’s programme, was not so lucky. She faced a barrage of microaggressions, and whenever she or her Asian colleagues complained, they were framed as ‘overly sensitive” and not taken seriously. Prior to meeting Bin, Sumin describes herself previously as “shy and reserved,” reluctant to speak up about the microaggressions directed towards her at art school. Then slowly, she began to make more Asian friends, who then formed an Asian Union together, and a form of group healing unfolded. Sharing her incidents with people who simply understood on a meaningful level struck up a fire within Sumin, and she developed an even stronger ability to express herself. This would prove invaluable to her further down the line, when after suffering a xenophobic attack, she decided to take the case to court. A combination of Sumin’s strength and the support of the Asian community meant that it was the furthest a case of this kind had ever gone in the Netherlands.
Though ideas of ritual, healing, and community may look to some like lit incense and goddess circles, the reality can be very different. For Sumin and Bin, their everyday survival and flourishing relies on a practice of “complaining and drinking and drinking and complaining!” Though they were kind of joking, collective anger, and the space to reckon frankly with their fears and experiences, remains a vital part of the Asian healing journey. The model minority myth harms us all and can often mean that microaggressions or even overtly racist comments are thought to be neutered of real violence. The inevitable buildup therefore, begs for release, preferably in the company of the community.
Sustaining and nurturing such a community has not been easy during the lockdown, but Comfort Ball is already preparing for that. The future-focused pair will be featured in the next FoodCulture Days Biennale in Vevey, Switzerland. The event will be online and the artists have found translating in-person events to big group zooms “quite challenging but exciting.”
Comfort Ball’s talents lie in the difficult tasks of presenting abstract effects in tangible form and creating beautiful experiences that somehow induce a sense of subversive community. By my estimation, a technological challenge should be no problem.