Cow-gate's lessons for my children

SINGAPORE - My kids are staring at a map of China made of 1,815 tins of baby milk formula.

"Hey, that's my brand," says my younger son, Lucien, almost four years old, pointing at a cluster of eight orange tins representing Hainan Island.

Spread out on the floor in an art gallery, it is the latest work of art by controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to be exhibited here.

Baby Formula 2013, as the piece is called, is Ai's comment on his country's 2008 food-safety scandal, in which at least six children died and 300,000 toddlers became ill after drinking melamine-tainted milk formula.

On until Oct 6 at the Michael Janssen Gallery in the Gillman Barracks art enclave, the art installation is accompanied by two series of prints which make the political indictment clearer.

"Shameless, can't get any more Shameless," read the yellow text on one print, against a background of milk-powder labels (one label was for "Cow&Gate", a real British brand but also an uncanny echo of Watergate, the political scandal which brought down American president Richard Nixon).

"This is a senseless and faithless society with no conscience, people will gradually understand that this system is the root of all evil," read another.

I decided to take my two sons to the show, Ai's first solo exhibition in South-east Asia, because its subject matter and materials are things that the boys can relate to immediately.

Lucien is still drinking milk formula, a 900g tin of which costs more than $45 and lasts us about two weeks. When he turned one, we had attempted to wean him from breast milk and switch to fresh cow's milk. He developed severe constipation.

The paediatrician, suspecting a cow's-milk allergy, suggested soya-based milk. But drinking that turned the boy's stool white, signalling a potentially worrying digestive problem. So we put him back on the same infant formula he was drinking before and he has been asking for it ever since.

Now, Lucien is telling my friend B, who works at the gallery, that he can drink only "Stage 2", as opposed to the Stage 3 milk formula used in Ai's installation - "because my mother says Stage 3 is too sweet".

"I don't like it when it's too sweet," adds the boy, warming up to his subject.

B kindly humours my children, and asks them to guess why the artist had used tins of different designs to make up distinct sections on the map. They are the different provinces, he finally reveals.

The Supportive Spouse and I explain to the kids the tragic events that led to Ai making the work. The issue is complicated by a new ban Hong Kong imposed earlier this year on travellers taking more than 1.8kg of milk formula out of the city.

Last month, China moved further towards consolidating its milk-powder production, with a proposal to slash the number of domestic infant-formula manufacturers. And a recent bacteria scare and recall involving products by New Zealand's Fonterra Co-operative Group, the world's largest dairy exporter, lend the polemic extra frisson.

Standing in front of the array of tins, we wanted our boys to appreciate the things that we often take for granted in Singapore: Safe and delicious food, stringent checks on producers, and proper recourse for consumers. And we wanted them to learn that art, in the hands of people like Ai, can be both accessible and activism.

Newspaper headlines and esoteric issues are driven home, once the kids realise how they and others like them are affected by these matters.

Lucien giggles with his elder brother, seven, and runs around the perimeter of the milk-tin China map. I suffer a minor heart attack when he accidentally kicks out part of Yunnan. But B calmly pushes it back into place.

Kids will be kids. With any luck, I hope mine will grow up not afraid to stick out and speak out against injustice, refusing to be bound in life by formulae.

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