Taste me! Says each painting in Zhou Tiehai's Desserts series. And we do, seeing ourselves, perhaps obliquely, in the twelve 'professions' around which Desserts revolves – diplomat, judge, minister, professor, policeman, sycophant, dancer, washerwoman, financier, buffoon, ragman and bottom smacker, each illustrated with some 120 small paintings. In the Mandarin Oriental exhibition, appropriately displayed around the sumptuous buffet of this famous Hotel, is a 'tasteful' selection' of 76 works from the Le ministre series, a kind of Stations of the Croissant.
Famous for not painting the images himself but instead selecting the images to be reproduced by his studio assistants, a critical exercise of taste itself, Zhou offers us a critical and cultural labyrinth in the guise of magazine pictures of pastries and politicians. This Borgesian mise-en-abyme of Desserts is precisely its critical function. The France of Zhou Tiehai's Desserts exists everywhere and nowhere at all, simultaneously cliché and mythology, the mix of vanity and liberty, revolution and Louis Vuitton.
Accompanying these works is a florid text in beautiful, gold cursive script by French art historian, Frederic Le Guerierec, recounting the gastronomic history of Le ministre. Or is it political and social commentary? Do the pictures illustrate the text or the text the pictures? Zhou Tiehai gives no explanation (Zhou himself does not speak French).
Each exhibition of Desserts is an intellectual performance, one might say, a new translation. There is no 'correct' order to how the paintings are hung. In Shanghai they were hung in a long ribbon up the spiral ramp of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Here groups of four are chocolate-boxed for your delectation. Each 'hang', then, is a game of taste-making and jouissance, something both intellectual and sensual. Language and taste may be arbitrary but not illogical. We dare not forget that every decision, every designation of taste, fashion, and style, high and low, cheap and expensive, good and bad, is a moral one.
The word Ministre, or minister, derives from the religious advisers to the Catholic Church, and later European kings and emperors. These church ministers eventually became 'government ministers' and, as Le Guerierec notes, an Eighteenth Century French dessert, that is to say, a dessert of the Enlightenment. Richelieu, that most famous French minister, from 1624-42, to Louis XIII, was also a cardinal. Again though, these historical references are mere Chess pieces in Zhou's game. We might ask who are the people, who with the umpteen images of pastries populate Le ministre, but actually this is no more important than the names of the many petit four themselves.
Desserts then is an opulent game of bourgeois mores, it lays our pretensions and weaknesses bare, for we want to be seduced. To enjoy these Desserts – and how can we resist? – is not only to be seduced by them and to be complicit in their conceit, it is also to be the object of their mirth. In as much as we are the public of satirists Voltaire and Lu Xun, so too are we of Zhou Tiehai, which is to say, also their subject.