Of take-outs and takeovers
In Anthony Key's Free Delivery (1999), a map of the British Isles sits atop a military-style table, its papery topography delicately punctured by a swathe of miniature red flags. Each proclaims the name of a Chinese restaurant or take-away, a procession of Bamboo Inns and Golden Dragons, Silver Lakes and Peking Gardens, usurping conventional landmarks to stake territories far and near. From metropolitan centres to rural outposts, banners herald a steady encroachment, unexpectedly uniting an otherwise discordant kingdom.
Key's vision of a 'Chinese British Isles', a Britain over-run and co-opted by an immigrant other, plays upon and mocks historically contradictory cultural perceptions of Chinese in Britain. These hark back to late nineteenth and early twentieth century racist ideologies, which proliferated disproportionately to the then-small concentrations of 'lowly and hardworking' Chinese in London's and Liverpool's docks. Media representations identified the Chinese as servile and submissive, yet their perceived passivity and insularity also provoked suspicion and speculation, inspiring 'tales of drug trafficking, secret societies and seductions of young white women', and feeding wider fears of an imminent 'yellow peril'.
The vaunting of a foreboding six hundred and sixty six flags (representing some two thousand establishments) is striking less for its triumphalism, than for the simple effect of making visible a presence which, but for the annual Chinese New Year coverage, has until recent years remained largely unacknowledged across historical, cultural and political spheres. 'Free Delivery' alludes to the economic niche taken up by the Chinese in Britain following their immigration in the 1950s and 1960s (largely, though by no means exclusively, from Hong Kong). If Key privileges the catering trade over other industries and professions, his map nonetheless reflects the dominant narrative behind the widespread settlement and dispersal of Chinese in Britain over the last half-century. Each methodical, handwritten inscription adds to a sense of homage, even as the difficulty in differentiating one flag from another risks the reduction of the particular to the generic. Moreover, the title's promise of 'something for nothing' made over the familiar if peculiar telephone transactions and remote rituals of a particular kind of cultural exchange also hints at an ambiguous emancipation. For whom and from what? The amusing yet unsettling sight of a 'Chinese British Isles', Sinified by stealth and delivered by a weakness of stomach unto the tables and counters of innumerable restaurants and take-aways, turns the notion of assimilation back to front, belly up.
'Free Delivery' relates to a larger body of work in which Key explores perceptions of 'Chineseness' within the contexts of migration and diaspora, playing on the fears and aspirations of immigrant and host, processes of assimilation and integration, and playing with supposedly discrete cultures of food and consumption. 'Yellow Peril' (1997) sees hundreds of bottles of soy sauce 'flooding' a gallery space. Like the later 'Free Delivery', Key parodies the dreaded influx of immigrants (all looking the same), in light of the return of one of Britain's last colonies, Hong Kong, to mainland China. Reclaiming Gormley's universalist fields of humanity as an alternate terracotta army in which 'Everyman' is Chinese, innumerable subjects advance portentously, absurdly reduced to a condiment symbolic of the industry with which they are most readily identified. The 'threat' is served up as both indictment and palliative a mirror to preconceptions, an assurance of harmlessness, a reaffirmation of consumer relations or a mere guise? What lies beyond the anonymity?
'Stir-Fry with the Sound of its Own Making' (1997) finds a take-away carton elevated to a plinth. Cooking sounds emanate, a sample recording from a series of audio cassettes of various dishes being prepared by the artist, available to buy. The exposition of hidden labour mimics the self-reflexity of the post/modern artist, a introspection in which the economies of culinary and fine arts coalesce, with little disclosed of their agents. ...Key's 'self-portrait', 'Soy/Ketchup' (Naturalisation Series) (1997), is deceptively straightforward, revealing no true, 'natural' self. Whether read as 'foreign contents in a western body or more positively, an integrated body comfortable with itself,' appearances are not what they seem. The revelation that 'ketchup' derives from the Cantonese Chinese 'ke chap' for 'tomato sauce' casts doubt on origins and naïve notions of assimilation; it is 'Englishness' as much as 'Chineseness' that is called into question.
From 'Inglorious Food' an essay by Susan Pui San Lok, in the monograph to accompany Anthony Key: Walcot Chapel, Bath, September 24 - October 19, 2002