Food performance artist Ayako Suwa takes the idea of eating your feelings literally.
She harnesses emotions such as anger, happiness, jealousy or remorse, translating them into food to develop sensory culinary experiences unlike any other. Each plate Suwa creates embodies her motto, “To eat is to live, but to taste is to evolve.” It’s a concept she has been exploring since childhood, long before articulating it in 2013 at TEDxTokyo.
Born and raised on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, her native landscape was mountain forests ringed by the sea. Her imagination roamed over every rock, crevice, shoreline and tree trunk, leading her to create fantastic stories centered on food.
“I would look at things and think, ‘Oh, I bet that would be good to eat.’ Or, ‘Isn’t that beautiful? I’d love to eat it.’” Suwa recalls. She would fashion whatever was at hand — pollen, snake skins, flower petals — into an imaginary meal.
After graduating from the Kanazawa College of Art in 1998, she returned home to these wooded mountains. Suwa refers to her time back in Noto as a second childhood, and it’s where she brought her sense of food play to events. Her specialty at that time was kusudama, a traditional decorative paper ball hung from the ceiling with streamers below that guests pull to release the confetti inside. Suwa, however, filled hers with a variety of light, colorful foods and feathers.
“The effect as it falls is really impressive. People liked it, but I was just having fun,” she says.
One of those people was Ritsuko Takahashi, a curator at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. “She loved the concept,” Suwa says, “and asked if I would consider doing an exhibition.”
Her first show at the museum, “Sensuous Food, Emotional Taste,” ran for eight sold-out days in July 2008. Visitors sat at a long, white linen-covered, utensil-free table in a glass-walled exhibition room. With dramatic flair, Suwa served guests 99 bite-size tidbits, each an edible work of art designed to embody the taste of an emotion.
Suwa also brought the show to Singapore, Paris and Taipei in 2008 and 2009. Each time, more guests queued for “a taste of guilt” or “anxiety slowly blended with terror.” Asked why her exhibition commanded such international success, Suwa explains that food is a medium everyone understands.
“We put things into our mouths and experience them,” she observes. “Even just tasting a morsel, you use all your senses to understand why you like or don’t like it. It’s a basic function, but it has a higher meaning, too. You don’t have to be a hardcore art fan to understand it.”
Conceptual catering for brands such as Cartier and Yves Saint Laurent followed, along with exhibitions and “guerilla restaurants” — pop-up events in hotels or museums — in Kanazawa, Tokyo, Berlin and Paris. As Suwa observed audience reactions, her work gradually began to change.
“I started developing a sense of situation and story,” she says, “and the audience became like characters.”
Suwa’s often surreal — and always thought-provoking — events are stage-worthy performances replete with costuming, props and supporting actors. Servers in sequined body tights or tinted makeup subtly coordinate with artfully staged food displays. Suwa, playing a character of her own in matching regalia, directs every aspect of a full-immersion experience designed to wake people’s curiosity.
“As human beings, we’re still not at our full potential,” Suwa says. “My greatest wish is to open our senses and turn the ‘off’ switch to ‘on’ so we can continue evolving.”
Recently, Suwa sensed that after nearly 20 years in Tokyo, her own levels of sensitivity and awareness had dulled. In February 2020, she moved to the forested mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture. “Now, I live with animals, plants, and insects on their terms, in their territory,” she says.
Then, in March, COVID-19 sent the country into lockdown. Suwa’s solo exhibition, “Taste of Reminiscence, Delicacies from Nature,” at the Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo, closed early. Undeterred, she began exploring how taste and food can help us adapt to this new reality; the show reopened in August with fresh work.
“Our values have changed,” Suwa says. “People see a need to interact with nature in a different way and that is the theme of the exhibition. It was a complete coincidence that my move coincided with the virus. I have a sense of fate as well as meaning and optimism.”
For more information about Ayako Suwa, visit foodcreation.jp/en Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.