by Rahul KumarDec 01, 2022
A whimsical part of dinner table rituals in the midst of meal production, arrangement, consumption, is that of conversations around food - that which is on the table to be had, references to previously consumed meals, and what’s for the next meal? It is a familiar setup, where the food becomes a ‘stand-in’, wilfully steered around, to access an atmosphere of exchange and sharing.
The exhibition at the kitchen table took place at 1ShanthiRoad Studio/ Gallery in Bengaluru, India, from September 17 to October 5, 2021, curated by Nihaal Faizal and Sarasija Subramanian, under the aegis of their independent publishing house, Reliable Copy. The shape of the exhibition is sprawling, including the display as well as its afterlife in the form of circulated documents, where books and written material are not objects or artefacts but an expansive territory to explore. The research, material and display are to continue evolving across the subsequent edition(s), eventually to be brought back to the publication format. Stepping away from the traditional and even contemporary visual art exhibition, much of the material is displaced, but ready to be discovered upon steady engagement. While the ‘image’ as visual is contested through the course of the exhibition, what appears is the after-image of curatorial vision and adjoined works that are assembled through engagement by the viewer/ reader/ user.
at the kitchen table features cookbooks, literary publications, video works and artworks that engage with food as historical document, trace, event, material culture, memory, and political envisioning. Seemingly bibliographical in form with its vast collection of source material, the exhibition becomes a production of primary and secondary material, alongside material that resembles footnotes, almost bookish in nature. One thinks of culinary shows on television and YouTube, Instagram accounts that document recipes, vlogs, mukbangs and the translation of cooking to a mode of digitality.
Sarasija Subramanian tells me over a Zoom conversation that the premise of the initial research project was to think around and through the form and format of the cookbook. Much of the developmental trajectory was organic, taking from footnotes, references, tangential material, recommendations and more. While the initial enquiry investigated the form of the traditional, instructional cookbook, the next inclination for the curators was to explore books that broke the form or utilised the format of the cookbook as a conduit to speak about other things. Part of their research became an engagement with a ‘wish list’ of artists whose practices had incorporated food or food media in some way, with artworks that were translated, produced, and showcased for the exhibition.
"The (exhibited) artworks looked at occupying the space of a recipe or a cookbook, or the communication, translation, circulation or even transmission of food, and how different people have looked at it," says Subramanian.
While the curatorial premise was fairly straightforward, it also gestured to the encyclopedic, with the collected and developed material forming a sort of open network, as is especially reflected in the selective digital circulation of material in the form of presentations, PDFs, documents, images. The curatorial note reflects this as it says, “The proposal, the script, the poster, the photographic documentation, the resource list, the newsletter, the keynote presentation, and the audio recording—elements that are traditionally left out of the work’s exhibition display, but that are often included in catalogues, monographs, or other publications around the work—become stand-ins for the artworks conceptually on display.” Material that is crucial to envisioning the artwork that is absent, is brought to the forefront, and deployed as an exploration of the document form.
The document becomes a point of departure for the curation. In conversation, Subramanian tells STIR that their strategy of conversing and ideating with artists was through the mode of the ‘document’. The idea of the document came about as a way of developing sets of engagements between the curators and artists that would be used to populate the exhibition space, translating conceptual work into production work. The document takes the form of a composite, primarily textual envisioning, that is opened up through the process of producing the exhibition.
For instance, artist Fazal Rizvi’s work Document for a Proposal for a Monument for Zareen was developed by the artist as part-prose, part set of instructions, almost embodying the skeletal form of the cookbook as document. The installation of material was developed in tandem with the textual work. The installation becomes a stand-in for the document that is displayed, alongside photographs, contact sheets, a diagram, a performative gesture, that populate the space, arising from the instructional aspect of the document. The textual document follows the memorialisation of a woman named Zareen, where a shared closeness is depicted through the prose.
Subramanian tells me that Dubai-based artist Lantian Xie’s part-installation, part-assemblage, part-latent performative work took eight months to come to a point of conception. His work includes three texts pinned on a softboard, 12 bottles of the Old Monk rum, 25 lighters, and two packets of nacho cheese flavoured Doritos. A plastic lighter hung from the softboard with a string, replicating the way they are kept at local tobacco shops. The work evokes a situatedness that is to be ‘read’ and found. The familiarity of the popular Indian rum acts as an invitation for the viewer.
A conscious decision on the part of the curators, there is no food present in the exhibition, a “constant absent”, as described by Subramanian. Food becomes almost an excuse to talk about other things in the envisioning of the exhibition.
Subramanian tells further that much of the production process was informed by the limitations of budget, because of which they envisioned the exhibition within certain parameters, of their immediate surroundings. They were able to tap into the existing supportive networks in Bengaluru, such as printers, framers, painters, where the process of production was localised. The mode of the evolving document allows for a certain translatability, transferability and flexibility that moves beyond material aspects of exhibition production, deployed skilfully.
“Because we see this as a show that we want to travel, we are very aware that the iterations will expand and contract. [...] Because the gallery space is almost like an opened up book, it will be interesting for us to collapse it back into that form.”