Art served up with a tasty touch 

Experimental Eating makes for the perfect starter

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GLENDA BARTOSH
  • Photo by Glenda Bartosh

I'm on the board of Richmond Art Gallery Association, and yesterday I was having a great conversation with a fellow board member about two cool venues for art. They both happen to be in Europe.

No surprise on one level, since from classical to post-postmodernism, Europe is considered the treasury of Western high art (as opposed to what's traditionally called "low art", usually with toffee-nosed overtones).

What was surprising, though, was when my fellow boardie and I compared notes, we were glad to confirm that both venues could be as unpretentious as they were stimulating, avoiding the dreaded snootiness and overly intellectualized conversations around signifiers, simulacra and all things precious in art theory that often plague the art world, as above.

One is a rich incubator in all regards: Berlin, from which reports by fellow Canadian artists come back dripping with enthusiasm over the cool neo-hippie, down-to-earth atmosphere where performance artists, musicians, visual artists, you name it from around the world, are finding an open, authentic vibe and physical space where they can cooperate, show, learn, exhibit and develop the best of their creative selves.

The other is equally potent, but on a smaller physical scale — the Venice Biennale. Often regarded as the contemporary art event on the global calendar, it can also be an unpretentious, satisfying experience, provided you avoid the openings.

If you don't have the chump change for a summer's-end tour of Berlin or Venice (the current biennale, All the World's Futures, is on through November, featuring artists from more than 50 countries) stand by, because a wonderful book can take you somewhere equally far out and accessible, for only 25 bucks. And, yes, it's from Europe.

Black Dog Publishing out of London has put out a new release focused on art related to eating — what else would be appropriate in a food column? Experimental Eating nicely illustrates the kind of fertile ground that makes for accessible, edgy, in other words, good contemporary art: When everyday elemental stuff runs smack into a creative brain. A bit of science never hurts either, so I love the simple tagline: (Art = Life) + Food = Experimental Eating.

I first crossed paths with artists working around, with and through food in a class on bioart I took with artist David Khang at Emily Carr University of Art + Design a few years back. Bioart embraces way more than art about food and eating, but that's definitely a component.

So we'd discuss Michael Pollan's "The Plant: Corn's Conquest", from his book, The Ominvore's Dilemma, and consider how we exhibit and regard plants, food-bearing, wild, cultivated and otherwise, in science, in art galleries and life in general.

We'd poke through essays in a catalogue from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco about our man-made systems of containment for other living things we want for food or pleasure, from greenhouses and clay pots to Nathaniel Ward's glass cases for insects. What do they say about the stuff contained? What do they say about those who contain it?

We talked about Linder Sterling's 1982 meat dress. Or was it Canadian artist Jana Sternback's of 1987? (Either way, they were decades before Lady Gaga wore meat.) We watched videos about the Cyprus-born performance artist, Stelarc, who had a third ear grown in the same way that in vitro meat is grown and surgically attached to his arm. Again, this was years before headlines trumpeted test-tube hamburger, shmeat — whatever you want to call meat cloned from cells from fetal calf serum.

Since artists often lead the way — after all, isn't that part of their job description? — make room on your reading list for Experimental Eating if you like considering what will be as much as what is.

Divided into sections that track everyday eating (Origins, Preparation, Dinner, Leftovers), this survey of artists who usually fly under the cultural radar offers as much variety as a food court.

"Eating Ahead: Art, Food & Life" is the book's opening essay by the founders of the Portland-based Center of Genomic Gastronomy, an artist-led think tank that examines the biotechnologies and biodiversity of our food systems. It delivers the perfect set-up, including this deft observation: "One definition of art is making the familiar strange. Nothing is more familiar than eating."

A photo accompanying the essay features Cobalt 60 Sauce, complete with an atomic logo on the label. It's a barbecue sauce made at the centre from five radiation-bred ingredients including Rio Red Grapefruit and Milns Golden Promise Barley, pointing out that more than 2,500 mutant crop varieties have been registered with the UN and International Atomic Energy Agency, but they're not labelled.

In The Mutato Project, Berlin-based Uli Westphal comments on the 1958 "uniform standardization parameters" established for 26 different fruits and vegetables by photographing deformed, distorted ones falling outside our expectations of "normal." Twin mushrooms conjoined at the tips, four-bulb eggplants — you know, the kind of food orphans I was urging you to love and take home in my Aug. 6 column, "That won't hurt you."

Aussie artist Elizabeth Willing often works with sweets. In Goosebump, for Fresh Cut at Institute of Modern Art Brisbane, she used her favourite adhesive, royal icing, to attach row after row of pfeffernüsse, a traditional European cookie my mom used to make at Christmas time, to a white wall.

The white-on-white repeated pattern of the "goose bump" cookies looked like sophisticated 3-D wallpaper until their yummy aroma lured visitors into eating them, revealing their spicy brown insides. The result, in part, documented the heights of visitors; only hard-to-reach cookies weren't eaten at the end of the exhibition.

But one of my favourite "eating experiments" was by Dutch artist Mella Jaarsma, who lives in Indonesia. I Eat You Eat Me (2000-12) consists of a large aluminum platter suspended by bibs around the necks of the two diners, who sit facing each other. The platter acts as table, one that moves as the diners do while feeding each other. It makes for a simple, evocative piece reflecting Jaarsma's interest in the relationships between people and our social environment.

Creative. Accessible. Based on something common to us all: eating. What a recipe for good contemporary art that can engage anyone, even a child.

Now I'm looking forward to the day Whistler's signature food and drink event, Cornucopia, serves up some evocative food-based art to really spice up the celebration. Bound to be yummy and satisfying.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who urges you to check out Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow's work on eating, and more.


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