Anatomy of a Painting With Michelle Nguyen
In this article, Michelle Nguyen dissects her powerful painting Four Course Bacchanal by giving us a peek into its creation process and describing the various themes illustrated in the piece's imagery.
Themes in the Painting
Decadence and Desire
The title Four Course Bacchanal communicates a sense of decadence. ‘Bacchanal’ alludes to a festival held by ancient Greco-Romans that celebrated and worshipped Bacchus (also known as Dionysus), the god of wine, ecstasy, and bountifulness. Bacchus' very existence is meant to encapsulate the lifeblood element in nature. These festivals were often overflowing with wine and included extravagant feasts, festal processions, theatrical performances, as well as the occasional orgy.
This painting is meant to showcase the human desire for and inclination towards abundance and serve as a critique towards overconsumption and issues of inequity that arise from it. I believe one can easily view the piece as an allegory of the perils of capitalism and the growing global wage gap with the tiered platters, the apical one depicting two squabbling roosters while the bottom tier contains nothing more than the bones of a fish picked clean. The two cherubs on the side expelling water are a cheeky reference to the myth of the Roman ‘vomitorium’, a place where people would go to purge so they could eat and drink more. In reality, the vomitorium is more of a metaphor meant to illustrate the astonishing extent of the ancient Romans’ luxurious and gluttonous lifestyle.
There is a suggestion of symmetry throughout many of the paintings in the show, but in no other painting is it more evident through the presence of pairs (two roosters, two lobsters, two cherub water features). There is a consistent allusion towards mirroring of the elements proposed by their compositions. As the viewer begins to examine the pieces beyond first glance, they would come to notice the subtle differences that distinguish the pairs from one another. There is no real symmetry throughout any of these paintings despite the clear suggestion of its importance. This is meant speak out against the myth of perfection and how humanity’s pursuit of it will always lead to failure.
Symbolism and Inspiration
Cockfighting and the Complexities of Masculine Identity
Once in a while, we learn new information that completely rocks our current perceptions of the world. For me, that fact was that chickens were initially domesticated for cockfighting, instead of for their meat and eggs as I had previously assumed. This pushed me down a rabbit hole about the historical significance of cockfighting. I felt a personal relation to this information because of the fact that I was born in the Year of the Rooster, and because of my father’s enthusiasm towards cockfighting as a young teenage boy.
What I found most compelling about the nuances of cockfighting was the polarizing realities of how these birds are brought up. Despite the violence and carnage associated with the sport, these birds are raised with the utmost tenderness and care. The men¹ who raise these cocks quite literally see them as “detachable, self-operating penises, ambulant genitals with a life of their own” according to Clifford Geertz’s essay, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” These roosters are unescapably tied to the narcissistic male ego of the owners. Additionally, the act of cockfighting is also aesthetically, morally, and metaphysically bound to this animality that exists in human nature.
According to Geertz, despite being seen as primitive, backward, and unprogressive before the Dutch invaded in 1908, cockfighting was a central part of community life in Bali. The cock rings in which these fights would take place were in the center of the village, along with other communally relevant institutions such as the council house, temple, and marketplace. At the time, cockfighting was seen as a “compulsory duty of citizenship” for male adults and that the taxation of fights was a major source of public revenue. So, I implore one to consider the Western colonial mentality that exists within the realm of cockfighting before bestowing the full force of their judgment.
The intimacies these men have with their cocks are much more than metaphorical. Even the ordinary aficionados put a considerable amount of time into taking care of these birds. They are fed specialized diets, frequently groomed (spurs trimmed, legs massaged) and bathed². My father recalls placing a blanket atop his fighting cock while it slept at night to help it retain its strength, and taking it out for exercise like one would do with a dog. There is this masculine tenderness and vulnerability that exists within this blood sport that intrigued me. These polarizing traits exist simultaneously in this singular space.
When I asked my father if he loved his rooster, he said yes. Wasn’t it hard then, to take part in these fights? Didn’t it hurt him to watch something he loved endure that kind of physical pain and trauma? He admitted that it made him sad, but that’s just what they were bred for, and then added nonchalantly, it was also just something to do. I have only just begun to analyze and research about this topic. I still haven’t completely figured out how to verbalize my fascination and explain my obsession with the historical domestication of the chicken and cockfighting’s role in it…an example of how multiple truths can exist simultaneously.
Food, Community, and Appetite
The spark for this painting can be traced back to a day in August on which I went out for dim sum with a handful of my coworkers after a morning of picking plums. It was something that I had been craving for a long while and had yet to partake in due to the pandemic, so, it felt very joyful and meaningful for me to go. In addition to craving the food, I was nostalgic for the bustling nature of the space itself, the clinking of chopsticks on china and the soft murmurs of strangers conversing in Chinese. I felt a sense of collective community that I haven’t felt in a while. I knew I wanted to capture that feeling of bountifulness that I felt at the time.
What also inspired me that day was one of the pictures of the restaurant’s specials, a whole roasted squab. I knew I wanted to include it in the painting as soon as I saw it. Food has always been a very important aspect of my identity, as it is one of the fundamental ways I connect with my family and friends. To be able to share a meal with the people you care about is one of the most joyous experiences there is. My choice of edible subjects was decided by my own personal cravings and things I would like to eat. A handful of them can be attributed to missing my mother’s cooking, for I haven’t seen my immediate family in over two years.
Food is also a primary subject of vanitas painting, which I draw a lot of inspiration from. When conceptualizing this painting, I only had a vague idea of what I wanted it to look like. I only knew at the time that I wanted to include two fighting cocks and the roasted squab. Everything else came along as I worked on it. I would like to note that the top two tiers of the painting contain bird imagery. Below the two live fighting cocks is a squab framed by two roasted quails that are then encircled by deviled eggs. The quail, in contrast to the squab, becomes much less creature and more meat with the removal of the head. There is a suggestion of the cyclicality of life and the inevitability of change. It is to serve as a reminder to the viewer that death is a natural part of life. The birds also serve as a critique of how detached we have become from the systems that uphold our reality. For example, working part-time as a server in restaurants, I often encounter customers who complain to me about the pricing of the food, and I wish they would take the time to take into consideration of how the pandemic³ and climate change⁴ has disrupted the global supply chain⁵, further exposing the unethical and unsustainable nature of it all. Despite how easily accessible information has become in the modern age, a lot of the processes exist within a black box--far from the human psyche.
Finally, I just want to wrap up by adding that I don’t want to completely condemn gluttony and desire, despite my critiques of overconsumption. Hunger is a very human thing that keeps me driven, hopeful and in love with this world despite all its faults. At the end of the day, it is all about acknowledging the nuances and complexities of everything and everyone, and keeping in mind that we all have so much to learn despite where one is in their life. My feelings towards this idea can be best captured by a story from Eric Carl, the author and illustrator of one of my favourite children’s books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, where he talks about the heated argument he had with his publisher over its ending:
"My publisher and I fought bitterly over the stomach-ache scene in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The caterpillar, you’ll recall, feasts on cake, ice cream, salami, pie, cheese, sausage, and so on. After this banquet I intended for him to proceed immediately to his metamorphosis, but my publisher insisted that he suffer an episode of nausea first—that some punishment follow his supposed overeating. This disgusted me. It ran entirely contrary to the message of the book. The caterpillar is, after all, very hungry, as sometimes we all are. He has recognized an immense appetite within him and has indulged it, and the experience transforms him, betters him. Including the punitive stomach-ache ruined the effect. It compromised the book."
¹ It is mainly men who participate in this activity, despite the fact, according to Geertz, gender roles
aren’t as strictly enforced on the population the way it is on more Westernized societies.
² They are washed in the ”same ceremonial preparation of tepid water, medicinal herbs, flowers, and onions that infants are bathed in (Geertz 1973).”
³ Partridge, J. (2021, October 5). Hundreds of healthy pigs slaughtered amid UK shortage of abattoir workers. The Guardian.
⁴ Gomez, M. (2021, July 6). B.C. heat wave 'cooks' fruit crops on the branch in sweltering Okanagan and Fraser valleys. CBC.
⁵ Friesen, G. (2021, September 3). No End In Sight For The COVID-Led Global Supply Chain Disruption. Forbes.