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I had to be in London, and felt grateful, with my interest in food politics and a lapsed personal art practice, to catch the last day of The Politics of Food at the gallery of the Delfina Foundation near Victoria. Many thanks to Edible Geography for alerting me to this exhibition.

There are many artists who engage with food as a medium and a topic, with the rituals of feasting and fasting, with describing our relationship individually, socially, and culturally to it all.  But I haven’t actually seen much of this work.  I have made pieces that played with issues of domesticity, corporate dominance and food, and I’ve imagined a great theoretical project about nostalgia and ethnicity that I would like to realise someday.  I also have some inchoate but active ideas about climate change and onions that I will try to give time to.  Beyond this, I was just really curious how an art show with the theme “Food Politics” would be conceptualised and curated to represent the diverse approaches of individual artists.

There were amazing pieces here, and they deserve a wider audience. The best review I could find describes the exhibition pretty well, even if in slightly opaque art-crit speak.  I’m compelled to write about the exhibition myself, from the point of view of an artist seeking to understand why some art is both moving and pedagogical (ie, teaches and helps the viewer to think/think through an issue) without being overbearing or ideological or desiring a specific reaction or response.  However, I wouldn’t necessarily be against a piece that sought to campaign– I’m open.

(The quotations in green are from the page that is offered to visitors upon entering the gallery space.)

All the work was good, but I’m just going to discuss the pieces that really touched me personally.  Since visiting, the piece I find myself thinking about most, which I photographed and posted above, is Tadasu Takamine’s 2012 JAPAN SYNDROME.

“Tadasu Takamine, one of Japan’s most controversial artists, created this series of performative videos to reflect on the socal consequences of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.  Takamine, a former member of the renowned Japanese performance collective Dumb Type, has been investigating contemporary biopolitics, often in a deep engagement with his own physicality and personal life.  Continuing in this line of inquiry, the three-channel video constructs a theatrical space in which the conflict-filled life sphere of post-Fukushima Japan…is re-enacted in a minimal yet condensed fashion.”

These videos really moved me.  They comprise three screens running numerous skits that document, verbatim, trips that the actors took to shops, markets and vendors to hear how people were negotiating sales and information about food that may have been effected by radiation exposure after the disaster at the Fukushima plant.  So the actors, all in gray t-shirts and a very neutral palate, plain sets, act out questions and answers between potential customers and shop keepers.  There’s a real power to hearing these kind of quotidian, almost banal conversations;  people are deeply interested in food regionality (distance from the “epicentre” [not sure if this meant from the earthquake or the nuclear incident), government radiation testing, reliable information vs. hearsay, etc, and the slow and often exceedingly polite  interogations within what seems like cultural constructed norms for this kind of relationship.

I actually felt quite trapped after a certain number of the reenactments– I had to walk away (and did come back) –feeling the weight of people’s worry for their own and their children’s health, for the impossibility of really knowing or trusting information, scientific and government-promoted and even intuitive.  I remembered an article I read in a Sunday magazine about the toll these kind of concerns were taking in interpersonal relationships, in which the partners had different attitudes to the problem and the worry.  That would certainly happen in mine!

The skits take place in butcher and chicken shops, fish mongers, vegetable stands, convenience stops, purveyors of varieties of rice…  The conversations show how a political, ecological, catastrophic “episode” can become part of daily life and culture with strands rooting deeply in the way people relate to each other and to their own bodies.  What one can eat, what is available to buy, what is permissible  to sell, prepared dishes changed slightly in ingredients– it’s all up for grabs, and wrapped in a kind of anxiety which is smoothed over by polite interchanges.  The work was quite anthropological in revealing these connections through the ordinary, daily interactions people have when shopping.  Of course, because essentially we are just witnessing verbatim reenactments, many interpretations are possible and thus the work was not didactic in any sense.  This is part of it’s power.

Right next to it in the gallery was another really ingenious piece, Candice Lin’s 2012 BACIUM SUB CAUDA:

“The title Bacium sub Cauda (Kiss Under the Tail) is a common term identifying witches’ relationship to animals, animal worship, and their animal familiars in the mid 14th century.  The work narrates the true story of the eradification of the Haitian pig in 1982.  Fearful that the African Swine Flu, which had been detected in the neighbouring Dominican Republic a few years earlier, might spread to the United States, the American government strongly encouraged the slaughter of every pig in Haiti initially through financial incentives.  The Creole pigs were replaced with fragile US pigs that required special pens and expensive feed that US companies were paid to supply.  The eradification of the Haitian creole pig has been named one of Haiti’s top agricultural disasters, along with the influx of subsidized US rice which destroyed the local rice farming economies.”

This video was projected from the bum of a grunting, paper-mache pig, introducing itself as humorous and maybe a little edgy…

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In the video, the pigs tell the tale of what happened to them resulting from the policy of US agronomists worried that Haiti would become a staging ground for the spread of disease.  The stop-motion animation gives a hilarity and ironic absurdity to the weight of their “genocide” (the old folks telling the tale to the youngsters around a homestead).  The pigs telling their own history gives a reversal to the notion of history belonging to the victors; here the “victims” reclaim their own tale.

This article sums up how US “development” intervention in Haiti killed pig and rice culture.  You could talk about this as the “underdevelopment” of Haiti– how global processes and events embedded in systems of power entrenched poverty in smaller agricultural markets and systems.  A bunch of pigs snorting and recollecting makes the intellectual content pretty visceral.  Also using animation as a medium for serious content is interesting in itself– along the lines of the great resurgence in graphic novels bringing comics to a deeper level.  For all the times I’ve read reference to this episode in US/Haiti history, its significance has never sunk in as deeply as after seeing/watching this piece.

The other pieces I especially loved in the show felt more like gallery-manifestations of work that were very alive in their original contexts.  I don’t mind this actually, because it gives people elsewhere the chance to understand a work even though they are not able to experience its original form.

Such was the case for El Matam El Mish-Masry [The Non-Egyptian Restaurant], a 2012 work by Asuncion Molinos Gordo from Spain and Egypt.

“El M El M-M entailed the creation of a small restaurant in Ard El-Lewa , one of the informal settlements of Greater Cairo, to explore the issues related to import-export policies, as well as the effects of uncontrolled growth of suburban areas built atop formerly agricultural land.  The restaurant was installed in the Dokkan at Artellewa art space, designed to resemble a typical local eatery. It … served an array of polemical menus to induce critical analysis and conversation about food sovereignty.”

For the interest of readers, here’s a synopsis of the gallery-sheet visitors received:

“Egypt has long been an international agricultural producer…. Until recently, it was also self-sufficient, capable of feeding its population via domestic production.  Since the 1970s and the application of new policies on agricuture and development, Egypt has become a major importer of grain, especially wheat, and the population has been subject to increasing food shortages and price increases.  Food insecurity was a major contributor to the Revolution that began on January 25, 2011.

In recent decades, Cairo has experienced fast growth , paving over large swathes of fertile soile and constructing informal settlements for new comers.  The illegally constructed neighbourhoods, with no urban planning or public infrastructure, are popularly known as Ashguahiyat, a term meaning ‘leaving things to chance’….”

In the gallery space were graphic posters representing these “polemical menus” (love that phrase!).

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WEEK 1

Dishes made of the highest quality Egyptian grown products, reserved tor the international food markets and rarely seen, let alone afforded, by Egyptions.  Prepared collaboratively with Elizabeth Shoghi, a chef who has worked in five-star luxury hotels.

WEEK 2

Dishes made with ingredients typically used by low-income families in Ard El-Lewa, purchased in the market nearby.  Four women from the neighbourhood — Om Islam, Om Mohammed, Om Karim, and Waefa [so happy they are individually named] were invited to cook traditional Egyptian recipes, constrained by their actual household budgets.

WEEK 3

Inedible dishes prepared with ingredients “harvested” from the area surrounding the restaurant– discarded chewing gum, spent cigarettes, plastic bags– marking the interval between the agricultural fields of thirty years ago and the contested informal settlements of today.  “Cooked” in collaboration with Solafa Ganem and Rana Khodair.

WEEK 4

Inedible dishes prepared with the bounty of an agro-archaeological exercise in the restaurant’s backyard.  Working with the Egyptologist Salima Ikram, we conducted excavations that looked for traces of agricultural activity in decades — indeed centuries– past.”

I found it really thought-provoking to consider menus with monetary, social, historical and even practical (vs. imaginary) parameters.  There is no assumption therefore of “Egyptian Food” but rather possibilities and practicalities within this.  Nevertheless, there’s a sense of place– the specificity of an actual neighbourhood —  in which food history, agricultural and economic, happens, as well as roles for individual cooks/ actors. The piece also offers an opportunity to consider the pan-historical sweep.  I could imagine what it would be like to eat from these menus knowing the conceptual framework behind them.  Most stimulating!

The gallery also featured videos showing people participating in these ephermeral eateries.  Viewers can understand, for one, how very fun an experience the artist offered to participants, engaging them in cooking and eating and a play-restaurant experience through which the issues of food politics brought up by the “polemical menus” becomes experiential, not just intellectual.  I found myself a little challenged by the disjunction between the piece and the representation of the piece, which was nevertheless very graphically interesting and informative.  I just know it would have been wonderful to be part of it in its original conception.  I guess this is a pretty strong challenge for artists doing conceptual/ experiential work– how to represent it afterwards….  I would also love to talk with people who took part in this piece just to hear what they would have to say about the experience.

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Next I looked at PORTE-ORANGES by Senam Okudzeto (Ghana/UK/USA),  2004-2007. 2001 — another wonderful piece that was more recollected in the gallery space than constituted.

“Senam Odudeto’s installation refers to a 2004 – 2007 display of seven readymade sculptures purchased from fruit-sellers in Ghana, along with 1000 oranges, which audiences were invited to peel and eat while watching a version of the video now on display…   The piece, entitle Portes-Oranges after Marcel Duchamp’s 1914 Porte-Bouteilles (the first true readymade– a bottle rack with phallic tines…), is a sort of feminist documentation of a hitherto overlooked contemporary African modernist object, produced and handled almost exclusively by women.  Each of these strange metal sculptures are meant to be invisible, like a billboard or a hat stand, there to make the commodity it is selling more desirable.  (Fruit, and oranges in particular, supplies crucial refreshment when food or clean water is scarce.)  Most of these sculptures are made by the fruit-sellers themselves, who use them to set up their stalls along the road.  They are emblematic of women’s cultural production, even formally, with their yonic inversion of Duchamp’s spiny bottle rack.  …”

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There is so much to this piece that I found myself straining for in the small video screen of the device on the floor.  What was at Delfina is both art-historical (the clever reference to the Duchampian readymade) but also a celebration not of industrial production but of artisanship as well– embodied in the beautiful handmade displays themselves, as well as the extremely sculptural/ process-oriented work of the Ghanaian women peeling oranges with rough knives with an incredible artistry and speed.  The artisanship stands in an interesting relationship to the high-tech and spare materials through which we watch the art in the clean, modern gallery, so different an environment from the living, breathing, busy, noisy reality of a proper food market.  All of this spilled out of a teeny screen and minimal installation, which is quite a feat and success.

Everything in the gallery was thought-provoking, and well-curated, and showed the immensity of a topic like “Food Politics.”  With one visit, I didn’t feel able to amply engage with every piece, but I would not want any artist I don’t discuss to feel less respected, because it was all good.  There were also very large photographs, unfortunately displayed separately from one another, by Raed Yassin, from Lebanon, SELF PORTRAITS WITH FOREIGN FRUITS AND VEGETABLES, (2011) which I didn’t photograph– (if you do a google image search for “Raed Yassin Fruits Vegetables” you will see them), that were quite provocative.

“Self-Portraits with Foreign Fruits and Vegetables are Raed Yassin’s attempt to express the futility and melancholy associated with forcing oneself to assimilate to a culture other than your own.  In an array of varying postures and positions, the artist poses naked in front of the camera with a different fruit or vegetable. The fruits and vegetables are, in his eyes, the success story of his dilemma. For despite their foreign origins, they have managed to fit into the European diet and go unnoticed at the dinner table.  They are the successfully naturalised foreigner, the role model that the artist seeks to become.”

I couldn’t connect with this explanation of these pictures. To me looking at them was much more an experience of different gender approaches, where the fruit and veg look kind of fake (as happens in a world of intensively hybridised and corporately owned seed varieties) and the man, hairy and fleshy and up-close for examination, both with desire and embarrassment, looks very real.  He would never be unnoticed at a dinner table, but that’s usually the woman’s position (think “The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover or any tableau you can recall with a woman AS table).  Or maybe the famous painting to recall in this context is the Arcimboldo:

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Thanks for reading– I wanted to give a go at writing about art on a subject so close to my interests…  And this was a great, stimulating show I was most lucky to see.  If you know of other exhibitions, past or present, on this theme, please do tell me– I’m so interested in the breadth of how these issues can be approached.