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Bento Box Project

A research into deliberate and unintentional movement and its relationship with boundaries through the act of arranging food

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The Bento-box experiment started as a foray into the history of corridors. I was pretty interested in the ambiguous social and physical spaces in Singapore such as void decks and the stairwells that connect different storeys in the HDB flats. The word corridor developed from the root word courier, which referred to messengers. (The physical space of corridors are characterised by movement). I chanced upon Maze Walkthrough by Serafîn Alvarez in which he recreated filmic corridors in games and films and stitched them together as a video-game-maze. (Corridors hold much significance in games and films even though they are interstital spaces – intervening spaces where little time is spent at, but used for effect. The corridor is a “conduit where our curiosity can be sustained; where it is yet to be resolved by the destination at its end”) Afterwards, I had this mental image of a miniature maze and a fishball rolling around in it for eternity. Studio Kait by Junya Ishigami also conveyed this sense of movement and ambiguity in terms of personal space. It is an open concept studio/office where in place of walls and partitions, 305 pillars populate the common space, akin to the random arrangement of trees in a forest. An observation was made about how people would place objects closer to the pillars (the design concept of ma).

The link to food arrangement and plating came about upon my observation that bento boxes resemble floorplans. With the architectural aspect came in focus, I next explored the movement and arrangement of food objects in relation to their physical constraints (bowls, plates, other containers). Arranging Things by Leonard Koren is a visual exploration in which he describes the two aspects in arrangement; the selection of objects and the arrangement of them. Successful arrangements possess rhetorical power – the ability to capture and sustain attention and interest. Gary Bryant’s arrangement of food objects in an infinite horizontal space definitely possesses rhetorical power, His food photography works without physical boundaries and tells compelling narratives.

In response to all the research above, I wanted to explore arrangements and movements within constraints. I created my own bento “floor plans” that were more open. The rule I kept was to  not have a single sectioned-off space but to keep the space unobstructed. From there, I constructed them with MDF wood and spray-painted the colors of the ubiquitous melamine cutlery in hawker centers in Singapore – purple, pastel blue, pink, red, orange, yellow, lime green and eggshell. The food objects I used in my arrangements were sushi, fishballs* and meepok**

The boxes only resembled bento sets visually – but functionally, culturally and contextually they are a combination of many different points of reference. This project had a very convoluted transpiration and it taught me to filter my research in future projects to avoid clouding the meaning of the work with uncertainty.

*a common food in Southeast Asia, made from fish paste
**a common type of flat noodle in Chinese dishes

Of course, I was also enraptured by the traditional craft process of making bento boxes. Odate, Akita, Japan is the home of Japanese magewappa bento boxes. Magewappa refers to “bent wood” and is the process in which Akita cedar wood would be bent in boiling water and tied with the bark of cherry blossom trees to form the bento box. This method does not require and hardware (nails, screws etc.) and cedar wood is extremely durable and it makes rice taste good if left uncoated.

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