Art collective Comfort Ball have turned their irritation with all the cultural stereotyping they were experiencing as Asians in Europe into material for their art. But what started as a messy and communal sharing and consuming of food has been pared back to fit the current moment where germs have become the feared enemy.

Uncomfortable Lunch, 2019, Rietveld Pavilion

Bin Koh cannot deal with the idea of eating cold muesli, or, for that matter, anything sweet for breakfast. The 29-year old South Korean designer and performer, who relocated to Amsterdam for her Master’s at the Sandberg Instituut in 2016, described her breakfast to me in detail. “You whisk egg and put a little bit of water, and chop spring onion or chive. I also put enoki mushrooms. Like chop everything and whisk it in, and then steam it in a bowl and it becomes like a pudding. I made that with leftover duck meat that I had for dinner last night, and silken tofu with some chili oil.” The steamed egg dish that she was telling me how to make is called gyeranjjim, and savory egg puddings like this one show up in cuisines all over Asia.

The value of food as a cultural communicator is an important part of Koh’s work as one half of Comfort Ball, an art collective currently comprised of Sumin Lee and herself. Growing up in a homogenous country like South Korea, Koh was used to the feeling of innate belonging, and how anyone who looked remotely different would be singled out at a glance and treated as an outsider. Upon arriving to the Netherlands, however, Koh suddenly found herself in the minority and for the first time in her life had the lonely experience of being defined by others as Asian stereotype before anything else. When Koh and Lee, a recent graduate of Gerrit Rietveld Academie’s Video Audio Visual department, worked at the same ramen restaurant in Amsterdam, they found themselves being fetishised by customers for being Asian women, and at the same time alienated as low-wage hospitality workers with little rights or power. This situation led to much anger, frustration, and bonding, and that’s when Koh came up with the idea to use that energy as fuel to create art, using food as a medium.

Tar for Mortar, 2020, diptych, photos: Oat Sankrit Kulmanochawong

“I saw how Sumin loves cooking and food, she lives for it and she dies for it, like, I could see that.” Koh had never thought about using food as a medium before. “So, I thought maybe because my personal practice was very grounded in female labour and commodified hospitality, how, when care becomes commodified, this femininity, this fantasy of femininity, can be misread … I thought, it’s very nice [to join forces]” and this is how Comfort Ball began.

The name Comfort Ball comes from the collective’s first work, a rice-ball making workshop. “The name sounds like ‘comfortable,’ and at the same time, like, we’re dealing with comfort food, a lot of Korean comfort food, or like general Asian comfort food [in the case of the rice balls]. And also, what we are doing is more like, a party, like, festive. Like, big long table, inviting a lot of people. At the beginning, a lot of our events were very nasty. A lot of food preparation, dumping it on the table and making a food landscape, starting with a very delicate display and then people come and just like grab, just, you know, it’s very food orgy, it’s very nasty. And I think it really fits somehow with a name like ball. Like, oh, it’s a party.”

Tar for Mortar, 2020, diptych, photos: Oat Sankrit Kulmanochawong

Now the duo has changed their style, if not deliberately then by necessity. “I took the documentation for one of our [pre-corona] projects called Uncomfortable Lunch. And when I saw the video I was shocked. When we did it, it didn’t feel like anything was wrong. But during the Corona, we all have changed. Imagine people all around one table, just like grabbing food like zombies, like fighting, you know, like aum, aum, you know, like saliva mixing, like, gross.“

These days, Comfort Ball’s work is more pared back. Koh, who arrived at our interview wearing her hair slicked back, with a wrinkly patent leather trench coat and Margiela-esque split toe boots, has a look that evokes nineteen-fifties greaser-meets-brutalist-fashion. (Lee was unable to interview due to a cold.) This aesthetic is not unlike the one in Comfort Ball’s most recent performance at Framer Framed, an art space in the Oud-Oost neighborhood of Amsterdam. The performance, in which audience members participate in the making of dasik, a traditional Korean sweet served with tea, is titled “Tar for Mortar” and features charred wood tables resembling flames and tornadoes, nearly invisible clear plastic aprons with aluminum hardware buckles, and incense burning atop small mountains of deep black powder. Here, at a table made from an enormous plank of solid wood, audience members are handed a sheet of instructions printed on edible paper. Following these instructions, they make and mold their own dasik by pounding grain in a mortar together with some syrup. They then go on to consume their creation in a tea ceremony, conducted at another table comprised of an ovular sheet of glass set atop two concrete slabs. This sharp departure from their previous bacchanalian style reflects not only the times but also their dynamism as a newly minted collective. “Our aesthetic changes from time to time…but there’s always anger. I think it’s a very important core idea, that [despite] how it looks, the core idea is anger.”

Do Androids Dream About Cooking?, 2020, Willem Sandberg Space, photo: Sidsel Lehn Mehlsen

I asked Lee if her work is cathartic. “It’s not like writing a diary,” she responded. “It’s more like writing a thesis. So, if diaries are an expression of strong emotion, what we are doing is more like factual, more with a distance. I just want people to understand the fact of our experience through this performance. If I make a sculpture or a film about whatever, my Asianness, or fetishisation, okay, people can probably get it. But with Comfort Ball, I can access them way easier. I can really deliver the information about the work or about the history [of my culture]. We share ideas and they feel something and they eat something, so they’re happy. These kinds of things make me happy.”