Social Media

Book of the Week: Selected by Meggan Gould

Book Review Eat A Chili Photographs by Wei Weng Reviewed by Meggan Gould "What is the visual equivalent of the adrenaline rush induced by ingesting a hot pepper of unexpected intensity? Also, why is chili ice cream so perfect? (Answer: it’s a singular pleasure: acute burn merged with its own salve.)"

Eat A ChiliBy Wei Weng
Eat A Chili
Photographs by Wei Weng

self-published, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2021. In English/Chinese. 152 pp., 75 color illustrations.

What is the visual equivalent of the adrenaline rush induced by ingesting a hot pepper of unexpected intensity? Also, why is chili ice cream so perfect? (Answer: it’s a singular pleasure: acute burn merged with its own salve.)

The first time I ate wasabi I thought I was going to die. A casual gluttonous mouthful, and I proceeded to suffer, in silence, what I was sure to be my imminent death through hot flashes of visual confusion, hovering between hallucination and mortification. This is also the capsaicin tease of the pepper’s spice, forcing us to face — embrace — mortality. And then, inevitably, we return for more.

Wei Weng’s new book, Eat a Chili, functions as a controlled frenzy of eye-watering stimuli. It is an epic narrative, matter-of-factly relayed in English (recto) and traditional Chinese (verso). A prank chili bomb delivers a lover’s rejection to set the pace, followed by synthetic dyes, ethically questionable human lab testing, joy (and pain) via food, machine labor, thrill-seeking, prosthetic limbs, and black cats. It lies somewhere between speculative fiction and science fiction, or between pre-post-apocalyptic fiction and post-pre-apocalyptic fiction. In other words, it is a terrifying version of now, hovering on the edge of very-human decisions taken too far.

At the heart of the narrative is the Great Chili Simulator, meant to infuse the thrill of the capsaicin high into the most innocuous of foodstuffs. A mango tree grown to pack a chili punch: culinary ecstasy, or GMO terror brought to its logical conclusion? Weng pulls off the same, visually, using the power of multiple photographic acts, overlaid, to become more than the sum of their parts. In one, a sharp but blurry knife (sharp: blade, blurry: focus) becomes a rainbow explosion of patterned color, underpinning the text of the initial prank chili bomb that spirals out into this tale of if-only-this-was-futuristic hijinks.

In the space of text and images both, multiple transformations unfold. On the personal level, via fleeting protagonists: a street peddler, a small boy, a mango. On the societal level, via a grim and toxic future. On the image level, through intermingled visual information, forever burned into improbable partnerships.

The format of the book is slight, vivid red, and sliced across the cover with a sharp blade; it is a perfect vessel for the delight, and blistering, that lies within. A test of Scoville units: how much pain can we bring upon ourselves and endure? Or, how much frozen milk and sugar must we pour onto our scorched tongues to quench the delicious burn?

The photographs are less linear than the narrative. They function as pepper sprays of visual confusion, with the occasional post-spice hiccup of a singular frame, shocking in its comparative lucidity. Miniature explosions unfold: of taste, of color, of intensity. Neon lights, chicken feet, poker pairings, urban architecture, dentures, and balloons move in and out of visual cacophony. Clarity is often hard to find, but I don’t want it; I succumb to a hedonism of double vision, melded realities.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.