Eating North Korea

IMG_3613

Okryugwan – Dubai Chapter

As I wind down this most recent visit to Dubai I’ve been really trying to get into the spirit of things, namely by consuming as much as possible. In my regular down-to-earth Canadian life I’m ethically opposed to over-consumption. But as they say, “when in Rome”. As a result, this has been a trip of reserved excess. Reserved because I’m not on vacation and therefore cannot simply surrender to the siren’s song of consumerism.  Reserved also because my consumption is, I like to think, an aesthetic one, which is to say it’s a slightly elevated experience than the all you can eat breakfast buffet or the tour bus that shuttles the British seniors between the hotel, Jumeira Beach, and Dubai Mall.

Yes, the only defense against the mundane is to put on an air of self-importance. This too I learned over the weeks, which seems like years, in Dubai. What’s the point of all this you might ask? Well, the point is precisely this: North Korea has a restaurant called Okryugwan which is apparently a global chain and the have a branch in Dubai and this is what Wikipedia said of it:

“Okryugwan has various branches throughout China, which help the North Korean government to earn badly needed foreign exchange. Okryugwan is thus well-known even in South Korea. Each restaurant is reportedly required to remit US$100,000 to US$300,000 to Pyongyang per year, depending on local conditions.”

The tour buses are sadly not stopping here. But as responsible global citizens and sympathetic to the Great Leader’s need for foreign exchange (who doesn’t want to diversify their cash flow?) – and more importantly, people curious as hell about a North Korean chain restaurant, we simply had to give it a go. We proclaimed yesterday as Great Leader Appreciation Day to make it more festive. Strangely enough, I was the only person out of our party of 5 who had any real experience with Korean cuisine (shout outs to my peeps at Paldo Gangsan Toronto!). As a result, I think I was the only one who realized that North Korean cuisine is pretty much what my friends and I back home like to call, “Korean food”. We ordered a variety of dishes and as we ate the reality of the situation in North Korea was not lost on us. The thought that kept creeping into my head was, “This has gotta be soft power gone wrong.”

The Experience

They ask your nationality when you make a reservation. Not sure what the wrong answer is, but so far I can confirm Norwegian and Canadian are ok. Overall though the ladies that worked there were lovely and hospitable. It was a strange experience though because everything is perfectly orchestrated, from the woman dressed in traditional costume guarding the door, to the impeccable manners of the wait staff, to how they insist on walking you to the bathroom. The experience is diminished by reports that potential defectors and asylum seekers working at the restaurant risk punishment on their families back home.

They claim most of the food is imported from North Korea…which I sincerely hope is not the case (how about feeding your people first?). Below are images of what we ate. Pretty basic stuff if you know Korean food.

Cabbage Kim Chi

Cabbage Kim Chi

Marinated Raw Beef

Marinated Raw Beef

Mixed Mushrooms

Mixed Mushrooms

IMG_3617

Braised Beef

Ox tail soup

Ox tail soup

 

Sideways view of cold noodles

Sideways view of cold noodles

 

What happened after the meal was totally unexpected…cue karaoke night. Yes, we were the only ones in the restaurant and we ended up having special juice singing terrible renditions of songs ranging from the Backstreet Boys to yours truly belting out Eminem’s Stan to the applause of our sweet and very hospitable hostesses. Internal ethical considerations aside I would highly recommend going to Okryugwan. It’s definitely an experience to remember.

First song of the night.

First song of the night.

Strangely fun.

Strangely fun.

 

For more about Okryugwan see:

http://www.npr.org/2010/12/31/132491605/dubai-restaurant-offers-a-taste-of-north-korea

http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/asia-pacific/n-korea-serves-up-everything-but-politics-in-deira

http://www.fastcompany.com/1713872/karaoke-espionage-haute-cuisine-adventures-north-korean-governments-restaurant-chain

Dubai, where the theme is more, More, MORE!

Lalla A. Essaydi. Harem #1, Triptych, Chromogenic Print, 2000.

Lalla A. Essaydi. Harem #1, Triptych, Chromogenic Print, 2000.

Alright, here’s a less lazy post about the past two days of running around to final Art Dubai events and the start of the first annual Dubai Festival of Lights. I managed to hit the second hall of galleries at Art Dubai that I missed the first time around when I got distracted by opulence and booze. Some great photo-based works were on view (see below). I also attended the Global Art Forum discussion 1955-2055: A Documenta Century. I was pretty pumped for this talk as the conversants on the panel was impressive:

Catherine David (Art historian and independent curator), Okwui Enwezor (Director, Haus der Kunst and Director of the Visual Arts Sector of the 56th Biennale di Venezia, 2015), Adam Szymczyk (Director, Kunsthalle Basel and Artistic Director of documenta 14, 2017). Hosted by Hans Ulrich Obrist (Curator, Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Serpentine Gallery).” For description of talk go here.

Getting ready for some art talk at the Global Art Forum, Art Dubai 2014.

Getting ready for some art talk at the Global Art Forum, Art Dubai 2014.

My enthusiasm, however, dissipated pretty quickly. The topic of discussion was totally appropriate to the Fair and the subject of global art exhibitions has been of great interest to me since I was an undergrad. The problem for me was Hans Ulrich Obrist’s facilitation style. His introduction was over-long and it wasn’t so much a discussion as interview segments with a group of people on stage. It was clear that each  curator (including Hans) has their own unique personality and style. There were momentary glimpses of Catherine David’s French intellectual haughtiness (which was amusing and bemusing), Okwui Enwezor’s wit and sense of humour, and Adam Szymczyk‘s thoughtfulness. It could have been a great discussion if the participants were given the opportunity to actually discuss and respond to each other in a more organic conversational style. What resulted was, in my view, a rather convoluted dialogue about each individual’s experience of Documenta. The take away was basically, Documenta is important and interesting, but so are a lot of things. *shrugs shoulders*

Art Dubai 2014 – Round 2

Here’s my most recent image dump of things I saw at the Fair and a couple from the Festival of Lights, just because.

Loved this series of works on display at the Experimenter Kolkata booth by Hajra Waheed. Really simple, but innovative display style brought the images to life.

Hajra Waheed, 2014

Hajra Waheed, 2014

Hajra Waheed, 2014

Hajra Waheed, 2014

Hajra Waheed, 2014

Hajra Waheed, 2014

 

I also enjoyed the work at the Kalfayan Galleries booth by Lebanese artist Raed Yassin. His embroidered “photographs” are created from memories of family photographs that were lost or destroyed over years of upheaval in Lebanon. An interesting exploration of memory, loss and nostalgia.

Raed Yassin

Raed Yassin

I’ve seen Yassin’s Chinese porcelain works previously in random art publications and really love the amount of detail he puts into each scene. I liked the tension created between the polished surface of the delicate vessels and the images of violence depicted on them.

Raed Yassin

Raed Yassin

Raed Yassin

Raed Yassin

 

These large scale photographs by Atta Kim are part of the Korean artists On-Air project series. They were taken with long exposures on a large format 8 x 10 camera. It’s a simple technique, but the prints are beautiful and the images are quite elegant with traces of movement here and there.

IMG_3578

Atta Kim, On-Air Projects – Prague

Atta Kim, On-Air Projects - New York (detail)

Atta Kim, On-Air Projects – New York (detail)

 

And last, but in now way the least, the big excitement of the day was when H.H. Sheikh Mohammed, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai appeared to check out some of the art.

HH Sheikh Mohammed touring Art Dubai 2014.

HH Sheikh Mohammed touring Art Dubai 2014.

 

Oh, and this is a nice scene from Dubai Festival of Lights. Basically it’s eye candy for people roaming around Downtown Dubai. Think giant light fixtures and projection mapping on buildings.

Dubai Festival of Lights, 2014

Dubai Festival of Lights, 2014

 

A feast for the senses at Art Dubai 2014

Well, it’s taken me almost three months to write my first post of 2014. Most of this year has been spent in Dubai living in a hotel room, working out of a construction trailer and eating cheap, delicious and plentiful Indian and Middle Eastern food in old town Bur Dubai. After slumming it for the past week I had the opportunity to attend Art Dubai 2014 with some friends for the Jumeira Patron’s Preview. March is a great time to be in the Emirate and Art Dubai is billed as THE EVENT OF THE SEASON (yes, you have to speak like this if you want to fit in). It was definitely a feast for the senses.

In between free flowing bubbly, foie gras and macaroons I managed to get some snaps of some interesting works of art. Unfortunately I got so carried away with people watching, chitchatting and sampling some of the finer things in life that I managed to miss an entire hall of art. Ooops. Still, no regrets so peep this!

IMG_3550

IMG_3558

IMG_3565

IMG_3563

IMG_3553

IMG_3549

IMG_3554

Lazy year end post – Sayonara 2013!

Well good people, the end is nigh and it’s time for bloggers to post their top whatever lists of whatever the hell to wrap another year. One such list is Co.Design’s 22 Videos We Couldn’t Stop Watching in 2013. Some really great vids/time killers on there so do get to it. It’s in the same spirit of sharing and reflection that I write this post.

But, since this is a lazy year end post I present not a list of agreeable things I’ve seen in 2013, but just one thing that I remembered. Filmmaker Marc-Antoine Locatelli’s Nuance. The first time I saw it I was totally mesmerized. Beautiful choreography, understated photography, and a totally blissed-out soundtrack. Let’s all agree to end the year and ring in the new one like a living version of this video — with nuance, poetry, beauty, and of course music.

 

India, Buddha and I

So, what do India, Buddha and I have in common? Aside from being Asian and being awesome — a new museum that recently opened in Patna, India. This is actually old news (over two months old), but seeing as my editorial schedule for this blog is haphazard at best (unfortunately personal blogging has had to take a back seat to professional duties), it’s still timely in my world.

Buddha Smriti Museum (Smriti means memory) is one of the projects that I’m most proud of and is also one of the first projects in which I played a lead role from the pre-bid concept stage, to flying out to India to pitch the concept, to winning it, doing the actual planning and then working with my amazing design colleagues to design and implement. All told I started working on this in 2011 so it’s been a slog. But, nobody ever said the museum world was fast and furious.

Buddha Smriti Museum was inaugurated on 13 September 2013 by the Princess of Bhutan. The event apparently coincided with a huge Buddhist conclave that was happening at Bodh Gaya so lots of Buddhist monks from around the world attended. The Museum is the newest addition to the Buddha Smriti Park complex which was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010.

I found this hilarious video tour of the Museum on YouTube. It’s a bit choppy and the guy barges around like a baby rhino, but at least you get a glimpse of the various exhibits that are in the museum. I’ll admit though, this guy’s museum going style is totally like mine.

You can see more images at this Facebook page.

Directors Collective at Nuit Blanche

Picture Day 651

Nuit Blanche activates. Introducing the Directors Collective – Class of 6:51pm.

  Last night was the 2013 edition of the City of Toronto’s annual contemporary art festival Nuit Blanche. I’ve participated in past Nuits as a curatorial assistant in 2008, researcher in 2008/09, and solo artist in 2010. This time around I participated as 1/5th of The Directors Collective, staging a project at the Gladstone Hotel’s Fly By Night event called, Picture Day. In Room 214 we created a backdrop of an elementary school gymnasium complete with an actual gym bench (kindly lent to us by Ryerson Community School) and cubby holes made from milk crates. Visitors – friends and strangers alike – were invited to come and sit for a class portrait.

We were interested in exploring broad themes of commemoration and nostalgia through a re-staging of the classic annual school picture day which many Canadians can recall with either fondness or dread. I’m personally interested in the topic because for me, picture day was a pointless exercise that we had to go through every year. It was just another photograph to add to the archive of the self. But, I was soon to find out that picture day was actually a really significant event in people’s lives. Although picture day essentially commemorates nothing, the act of going through picture days, the rituals associated with preparing and sitting for the photographs, was what was significant. I’d never really given it much thought until now.

Regardless of my own perspective on the project it turned out to be a really fun night, which is saying a lot considering I didn’t get to see anything this year. The reactions of visitors was extremely positive. I was surprised by how enthusiastic the crowd was. Some couldn’t wait to finally sit on the bench having always been relegated to the back when they were in school because they were too tall. Others recalled the trauma of picture day and preferred to watch as their friends hammed it up for the camera. One of the more memorable conversations I had was with a lady who told me, “Whoa this is awesome! I always skipped picture day to get high.” I was surprised by this comment because I don’t recall school picture day happening beyond sixth grade so skipping picture day to get high really takes badassery to another level.

Picture Day 700

Me looking deranged and ready for bed.

 

Picture Day was the first project I’ve ever done that was participatory and I gotta say, it was real pleasure to watch people perform and to chat with them about their memories of school picture day. It clearly meant a lot to them. For a first project with my fellow Directors, I’d say it was a success.

What do you think of picture day? Pointless? Dreadful? Good fun?

You can view class pictures from Picture Day on twitter at: @DirectorsCo with search terms: #pictureday #snbTO

Return to The Square

Tahrir 1

A few weeks ago I saw a film at the Toronto International Film Festival called The Square, a new documentary by Jehane Noujaim. It’s about the Egyptian Revolution as experienced by those who occupied Tahrir Square. The footage takes you from the start of the revolution up to the very recent events that happened after the downfall of Mohamed Morsi — the President elect who was deposed by the Egyptian military in July 2013. I could not believe how recent the footage in the film was. It seemed like news items I saw a week or two prior was edited into this beautiful, moving, and at times heart-stopping documentary. The film is, in a word, extraordinary.

I’ve been following the Egyptian Revolution on and off since it started back on January 25th, 2011. I still remember sitting in my Arabic lesson in Dokki on January 24th struggling to make my tongue work with the alphabet. Some co-workers had told me earlier that I should stay home the next day because there would be some protests happening on National Police Day. I had wanted to hang out downtown since it was a public holiday. I remember asking my teacher Ahmed if he thought there’d be trouble and if I should stay home. He smiled and told me it was just rumours, and that there’s always whispers of agitation but nothing really happens. A few people might try to step up, but those few usually get put back down. He told me to practice the alphabets over the week and that we’d pick up our conversation the following Monday. The next day all hell broke loose.

I never made it to Tahrir Square during Revolution Part 1. I was on the other side of the Nile in Giza when it all happened. The days were strangely quiet. The sun shone bright as ever with not a cloud in the sky aside from the plumes of black smoke rising in the distance. Twilight falls and I’m locked down, windows covered, eyes glued to CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. Then, tired of the news and unable to reach friends downtown, I’d lie awake listening to the gunshots announce the night.

We were evacuated February 2nd the infamous Day of the Camels. We’d eventually return after Mubarak resigned, and I’d make it to Tahrir, “The place of pilgrimage” a friend would tell me.

 

Tahrir 2

As I sat watching The Square, I was reminded of how powerful a place can be. The truth of physically occupying a space together, especially one as iconic as Tahrir, can be overwhelming and you can’t help but be moved by it. But, as the film manages to capture, so beautifully and brutally, the truth of being together in a place can change. Tahrir, a beacon of hope, a promise of solidarity, and shelter from the shadows of the streets can be corrupted. It can be perverted and violated. There’s a scene in the film when Ahmed Hassan, the young revolutionary, decides to walk in the middle of the street of downtown Cairo, exhausted and I think a bit heartbroken.

That scene underscored the power of Tahrir, because if the sanctity of the Square can be broken, then what the hell is the point of walking on the sidewalk? Space would no longer have, or need to have, meaning. The pacing of the film was perfect. The story carries you along as you meet each individual united by Tahrir. It manages to capture the rage, the pain, the sorrows and the hope that keeps the revolution going. In the end, although Tahrir can be taken and physically transformed, it’s the spirit of Tahrir that keeps people standing tall. I loved this film. And I’m so happy it won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF.

If you’ve read this far then please, go see this movie…and invite me because I’d definitely see it a few more times.

 

Laneway Festival Detroit – One for the Ages

IMG_2545

This past weekend we busted ass down to the inaugural Laneway Festival Detroit. Since this was the first time the festival was staged in North America we thought that there’d inevitably be the annoying hiccups and operational problems associated with planning and executing events of this scale. We were oh-so-wrong and the festival was oh-so-good. Everything went off without a hitch. The weather was amazing and the festival staff friendly and quick with the light-hearted banter that Americans seem to master so well. Phosphorescent was tight. Solange was sweet. Run the Jewels bumpin’. Sigur Ros epic.

IMG_2573

Laneway left us wanting more and we’ll definitely be back again next year for another taste of Indian summer sun in Auburn Hills. Copious amounts of beer. Corndogs and other junk. Friendly Michiganders (shouts to Dave, Mike, Steve I & Steve II). And above all – glorious glorious music.

IMG_2562

 

Dubai the Weird

Dubai Comp

Well, it’s been a month since my last post. I had intended to write regularly while I was in Dubai having arrived on August 12th from Bombay, but work, sun and the searing heat got the better of me.

I was on assignment in the UAE for about 3 weeks where my days consisted of attending site visits, the odd client meetings, doing research and putzing around my hotel room trying to resist the urge to just go for a swim. Eventually, time lost all sense of proportion, measured largely by the hours between room service meals. There would be days when the only conversations I’d had was with the Filipino, Indian or Pakistani staff that make up the bulk of the service industry. Space too starts to feel out of joint – understood as the distance between the chair and the bed, or the bed and the pool, or the air-conditioned hotel entrance to the similarly air-conditioned Al Fahidi Metro station.

I’d heard a lot about Dubai from friends who had visited. More often than not the reviews were unflattering. Those who love Dubai often speak of the luxurious standard of living and the high level of service that expats can expect. Those who dislike Dubai decry above all the highly visible social stratification and inequities that exists side by side with the glitz and glam of the world’s tallest building and the most insane shopping malls I’ve ever seen.

The story of the UAE, a country so young yet progressing at such a blinding pace, is a bit of a marvel. The speed of development fueled in large part by oil revenues has resulted in a place that is, simply put, weird.

4/5ths of the population are foreigners. It’s a Muslim country, but with a strangely permissive feel. For some it shines with the brightness of possibilities. For others it’s nothing more or less than the realities of foot on pavement, sweat on brow and the physical labour spent to realize someone else’s dream. The extreme wealth in contrast with poverty served with a smile left me feeling empty. As impressive as the views are from the Burj Khalifa, what I’ll remember most is the conversations I had with some of the workers I met. I’ll remember their questions about Canada and whether things are better here.

There were moments when, under the heat of the Arabian sun, sitting in my crappy rental car, I felt completely at ease with my dislocation because the place just doesn’t feel real. For most, it’s just a place of transition, a pit stop on the way to something else. Dubai is like a mirage and even now, as I write this back home in Toronto, my experiences of the emirate seem a distant memory. In a few more days it will be as if the trip never happened. It will feel like Dubai doesn’t exist.

Bombay Round-up

Basically over my jet-lag just in time to prepare for the trip to Dubai. Here’s what happened in the last couple days:

Chennai Express opened today! Featuring SRK and Deepika Padukone. Look out Salmon Khan! SRK has you in his sights! I actually have no idea what this movie is about, but all my friends here seem disinterested. Speculation about SRK and Salmon Khan’s competition is not my own, I just stole that from the interwebs.

IMG_2200

I had lunch in a food court where I had to buy a pre-paid debit card and then get a refund on my balance. Operationally inefficient if you ask me. I had a tandoori chicken kebab sampler. It was ok.

IMG_2199

I was dazzled by the lights of Churchgate Station. Things were bustling as people prepared for the Eid holiday.

IMG_2193

 

I had masala chai on the street with some friends. Apparently this stand is where they typically go and it’s 5 INR for a cup. Interestingly, this time he charged 6 INR. I suspect the extra rupee was a foreigner surcharge because I was there…just kidding! We had 2 cups and it was pretty tasty. The rupee surcharge was just to cover overhead costs which have sky rocketed.

IMG_2192

Finally, here’s a shot outside of Indian Village Restaurant. It’s a resto in South Bombay that is themed around an…Indian Village. The parrots are in reference to Indian fortune tellers. Apparently, if you were to actually see a fortune teller there would be a parrot that would come out of its cage and pick up a piece of paper and your fortune would be told within. I think that pretty much qualifies for the most adorable fortune ever. Though there’s also a fortune telling lady involved — details of her potentially grisly appearance remain unknown so the experience could yet prove terrifying.

IMG_2178