Understanding a winning artwork

Buying into Debbie Fan’s Cheque or Savings?

By Cate Terblanche, Curator, Sasol Art Collection

My first reaction to Debbie Fan’s work Cheque or Savings? (2018) was a cursory look and then to move on to the next work in the gallery. However, this unassuming artwork excited me on my second viewing.  And, it kept my attention, and still fascinates and challenges me every time I walk past the entrance to the Eatery restaurant in Sasol Place where it is now installed.

So if the work did not capture my attention at first glance, why did it go on to win a Merit Award at the 2018 Sasol New Signatures competition? Personally, I think that is exactly what makes this work conceptually rich and deserving of its award.  The artist chose to confront us with a rather unremarkable object from our daily lives, a till slip. Superficially, these represent a financial transaction, but on a profound level so much more.  It’s a tax deduction, it’s a refund, it is proof of ownership, but most often, it’s a piece of paper that ends up in the dustbin or clutters your purse. A cursory glance is often the most attention a till slip receives from us. The artist uses this insignificant slip of paper to challenge our thinking about the value of art and labour, as well as several other assumptions we have regarding culture and ideology.  The daughter of Chinese immigrants who have made South Africa their home, Debbie Fan works part time as a waitress at her parents’ restaurant while studying art.   For her, the till slip is primarily an observation about consumerism, but it also becomes a comment on cultural and racial stereotypes, as well as the alienation and discrimination immigrants often experience.

The work itself consists of two parts, one an enlarged print of a till slip, and the other a meticulously painted copy of the slip, but with minor edits to the text.  These changes are very subtle and only the attentive viewer will notice these.  

The first alteration is item number 16 CASHEW NUT CHICKENS which changes into 16 COMMUNIST CHICKS, which for me bizarrely conjured up ideas of mail order brides. However, this statement contains obvious references to political ideology, gender discrimination and labour practices.  Other food items have also been changed. EGG FRIED NOODLES becomes DOG FRIED NOODLES possibly referring to the myth Westerners hold of the Chinese ‘custom’ of eating dog meat. BEEF NOODLES become MEIN NOODLES. Noodles are commonly associated with ‘Chinese fast food’, a rather vague, even disrespectful reference to a culture with a rich and varied approach to food. 

The drinks item MIX SHOT –PASSION becomes MADE IN CHINA with a value of R0.00 (or no value). The phrase ‘Made in China’ evokes ideas of mass produced (read inferior quality), cheap disposable goods made by untold scores of underpaid workers. Fan comments on the value of labour by creating a replica of the original till slip by painstakingly copying each and every little ink dot on the slip using acrylic paints, creating an original work of art from the most mundane object associated with consumerism. The time taken to produce this artwork defies the very notion of mass production. With this act, Fan also challenges institutional ideas of authorship and originality in art in a similar manner to the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  For instance, his installation Sunflower Seeds (2010) consists of a 100 million individually crafted porcelain sunflower seeds made by hundreds of professional artisans, and turns the whole idea of ‘Made in China’ on its head.

While the VAT on the till slip remains the same (according to government regulations), the total amount of the bill has jumped to a surprising R613 516.00. Is this wishful thinking? Is this the promise of a better future that entices many immigrants into changing their homeland for another?  Or is this a comment about the real cost of goods and labour? The GRATUITY becomes MY SALARY, remarking on the industry practise of only paying waiters their tips, rather than a definite salary.  The total reflects as the family income, once again commenting on the fact that so many families are reliant on one bread winner’s salary.  The till slip ends with the phrase THANK YOU FOR YOUR MONEY. PLEASE COME BACK, a poignant reminder of the dependence of the majority of working class South Africans who are battling to make ends meet on a daily basis.  In total, Debbie Fan’s work is a rich and rewarding artistic comment for those who do ‘come back’ and spend time engaging with it.