Every day, people pass through Union Station in Toronto, on their way to work downtown or home in the suburbs. Some get off the platform of the train fresh from elsewhere, while others board the airport express, en route to the other side of the world.
It wouldn’t be unusual here, in Canada’s busiest transportation hub, to find a vendor serving up a snack or souvenir to this bustle of travelers – but visitors passing through the West Wing may notice a small cart of Scruffy food which seems somewhat out of place.
The curious stand offers prepackaged bricks of dehydrated river spinach as well as bagged entrees of congee, with the reconstituted greens, fried shallots and fish sauce for seasoning. It also sells 6G SIM cards – as if from the not-too-distant future – belonging to major telecoms in Asia-Pacific. And its viewers advertise a currency exchange for Chinese yuan, Cambodian riel, and Lao kip, as well as visa support services for those same countries.
Attentive viewers will find the final clue to what’s going on here at the top of the booth’s counter, where a map of Ho Chi Minh City – Vietnam’s largest city – is reproduced, with much of its land colored green to indicate encroaching flood waters.
The food cart, titled Special Market Ration, is an installation by Toronto artist Alvin Luong. He responds to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2021 Consensus Report and Modelingwhich predicts that large swaths of Vietnam will be uninhabitable due to rising sea levels by 2050. The artist imagines stalls like this lining migration routes to serve a next wave of climate refugees as that his friends and family leave Vietnam for safety.
Luong imagine Special Market Ration as a “low-end”, potentially black-market operation, where you’d stop for a quick sustenance, gear to keep your phone running while crossing borders, and “perhaps to take a chance on getting out smuggled out of the country”.
Luong started working with spinach from the river, also known as morning glory, or rau muống in Vietnamese, as a symbol after a trip to visit family on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. The vegetable, which the artist describes as “delicious” and “crispy” (“like a lighter watercress”), thrives in Vietnam’s wet and humid conditions, growing wild even in urban centers – at such locals consider it a weed. Luong asked his uncle if he ever picks it, because it’s so good and so common. “But he said he didn’t,” the artist explains, “because for him it’s actually a trigger.” In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the government issued river spinach rations. “So that’s all he ate.”
It is the artist’s intuition that due to the amount of cropland being bombed and sprayed with defoliants, such as Agent Orange, sturdy and abundant river spinach has become a staple of necessity. For Luong’s uncle, this represents a time of intense scarcity and precariousness in Vietnam. And Luong is redeploying the semi-aquatic vegetable, which can quickly invade floodplains, to portend another period of precariousness just around the corner.
“My grandparents are refugees, my parents are refugees, and maybe I felt at some point that I might be the first generation that won’t be refugees,” Luong says. “For me, the drama is that there will probably be a third generation who will also be refugees.”
The artist does not, however, qualify the work as “dystopian”. Rather, it is “a sober acknowledgment of what is very likely to happen”. In the West, he says, we think of climate change abstractly as “mass extinction events,” but that misses the picture of ordinary people finding ways to survive an evolving crisis. Special Market Ration is a more “realistic and pragmatic” vision of our future; there will be a life that will go on – “even in the ricketiest cart on the most terrible of human smuggling routes” – and that could be a slice of what it looks like.
Sure, Toronto is a long way from Ho Chi Minh City, but set up here in Canada’s largest transit hub, Luong wants the work to “fit in a way that people might think: “I’m at a train station, and there might be people at a train station on the other side of the world trying to get here.” He adds that Toronto has so far been relatively comfortable in terms of concerns the direct effects of warming, but inevitably, “climate pressure will increasingly become a lived reality” — even here.
Special Market Ration reminds its visitors that in the paradigms of global ecology and international diasporas, no two places are far enough apart to be disconnected. Open for business at the crossroads of our daily commute, the artist’s cli-fi food cart suggests that the movements we make here today will impact the movements of others tomorrow.
Alvin Luong’s Ration Market Special is on display in the West Wing of Union Station as part of the ArtworxTO exhibit “I am land that speaks” through October 2.