Have you ever had paella? It’s a fantastic seafood and rice dish that is recognized as one of the national dishes of Spain. Now have you ever wondered what paella is in the abstract? Probably not. Stephen Lapthisophon’s newest installation, The Construction of a National Identity, depicts the paella recipe through a carefully thought-out, abstracted assemblage of mixed media and ready-made objects. The exhibit aims to explore what we create and how it addresses issues of place, identity, and history.
Set up on the second floor of the Hyde Park Art Center, The Construction of a National Identity consumes the entire length of the hallway that is Gallery 5. The exhibit, though composed of seemingly haphazard elements, is a systematic examination of the act of making (a meal, in this case). Candles on a cardboard counter simultaneously set the dinnertime ambiance characteristic of late-night dining on Spanish streets and remind the viewer of the necessity of fire in cooking. The capability to heat a pan or pot for oil or water is a basic and necessary ability of all civilizations.
Next to this is the name “SLAPTHISOPHON” painted on the wall in saffron ink, curiously abstracting his identity and the idea of authorship. He is making his mark, literally and figuratively. By choosing to write in saffron, Lapthisophon focuses on the materiality of the act of spelling. By including his first initial before his last name, Lapthisophon not only abstracts his name but explores the idea of spelling as a means of representing invisible patterns of meaning, reminiscent of another of his exhibits, Spelling Lesson, currently running in Dallas. Furthermore, Lapthisophon is exploring the idea of a public space—a wall—as a space not only for claiming identity but also as a shared space that allows individuals from diverse backgrounds.
The ingredients for paella are painted further down on the wall. “Squid, peas, saffron, thyme, sage” drip down towards the floor, as though their individual written beings are fleeting and are combining into one dish. After Lapthisophon has mixed all the ingredients, the viewer comes to rice, a uniquely unifying food. Rice is, somewhat ironically, a cultural hybrid all its own. Although it is a bland
food source, it is, at the same time, used over and over again by cultures across the world. A pile of this cultural hybridism thus sits on a piece of cardboard on the floor. Accompanying the rice is a set of pink stamps, remarking on the ability of a cultural staple to travel and spread. Above the rice on the wall is what seems to be a simulation of steam rising from a pot of cooked rice, as though he is “cooking” many cultures together. Probably unintentional are the ants that have discovered the pile of rice.
The Construction of a National Identity requires the necessary interaction between the piece as a whole and the viewer, as well as complete attention during said interaction. The viewer, akin to a cultural symbol like paella, is constantly in dialogue with its surroundings, interpreting and adapting to the times, but remaining steadfast in its history and origin.