by Sukanya DebDec 30, 2022
I don’t remember the professions of the two people who sat across from me at the table under the shamiyaana designed by Rashid Araeen, installed at Kotzia Square in Athens. The public art project, Shamiyaana-Food for Thought for Change (2016-17) was visibly elemental to documenta 14’s presence in the Greek capital, and I was excited that I had registered and could be accommodated. I sat among strangers. Yet, all these years later, what I remember most distinctly was that the head of our table was occupied by a homeless man. He had all his belongings with him, divided between his fanny pack and another bag. He had three pairs of spectacles, two on his head, one on the table. He was impatient for the food to arrive. Unlike the two others, one of whom may have been a University professor, or unlike me, even, he wasn’t here to experience the art, or to revel in the glow of Araeen’s geometrically abstract compositions reflected upon the fabric of the kind of tent usually constructed to celebrate weddings in Pakistan. He was here because the tent provided regular meals through the duration of documenta 14 in Athens.
I was admittedly alarmed by the gratuitous waste the project was simultaneously generating—the plastic cutlery came in rectangular plastic pouches, though at least the plates and cups seemed biodegradable. It stood out for me because through the week I was in Athens, in June 2017, there was a garbage-collector’s strike. I had seen mounds of black bags of refuse spilling onto the street. After a short wait, a volunteer came up to me to ask if I was okay with what was being served: stir-fried liver, a pulao with berries, and salad. I told them they could leave out the liver. I ate my slightly dry pulao and my salad, but not with the same appetite as the homeless man. When the food arrived, he fell quiet and immersed himself in eating. I remember thinking that the big pause between the seating of diners and the placing of food on the table was perhaps deliberate. Waiting compelled you to participate in small talk, and given the randomness of your assignation, you could end up sharing a table with anyone, from a homeless person to a university professor to a writer.
Was this diversity? Was this democratic? I had a flashback to a scene in an episode of Desperate Housewives, “The Art of Making Art”, when the red-haired Bree decides she wants to “give back” and is taken by a Reverend to a homeless shelter. Viewers of the show might remember that Bree was always portrayed as an incredible cook. She is offered a big old can of soup, the spice rack, salt and pepper. She ends up making an acorn squash bisque from scratch. Over time, she starts to get excited about the surplus validation she begins to receive. Eventually, the shelter’s clientele is completely transformed. Instead of those in need, outside the shelter there began to form serpentine queues mostly comprising of local hipsters. Bree had invariably converted the soup kitchen into a restaurant, gratified as she was by the hipster reviews. When the Reverend drops by for a visit, she tells him that never before has she felt more needed and more important. He tells her that’s not the point of charity. She disagrees. She is sure that feeling important is a happy by-product of helping people, until he points out to her how she has invariably dispossessed the homeless, depriving them of a hot meal because they no longer felt comfortable sharing the space of the shelter with aspirational hipsters. Bree’s kitchen was an exclusionary one, because the focus, which should have been on the act of feeding, was too heavily oriented towards the nurturing of her ego. It intrigued me that the episode was titled, “The Art of Making Art”, a reference to the preparatory aspects of the creative endeavour necessary to achieve an end. The title is a reminder that whether or not the process affects the outcome, it must be ethically sound, and fully considered.
What constitutes the politics of art-making when a project or a performance is centred around hunger, or the enabling of appetites? One could argue that all art emerges from some relationship between wanting to feed and being fed, but within the specificity of the edible, and considering the political nature of food production and the capitalist zeitgeist underlining its consumption, what does it mean for a work of art to be focussed on the generation of something that can be multiplied, that can be served? Much contemporary art has consciously focussed on feeding as comprising various forms of ideological, political, emotional and aesthetic labour.
One successful example was the reasonably well-funded Museum of Food, the brainchild of arts collective, Revue, comprising Sreejata Roy and her partner, Mrityunjay Chatterjee, located in the New Delhi-based villages of Khirki and Hauz Rani. Reflecting on the traumas of forced migration that comprise the evolutionary ethos of many food cultures, this museum was essentially a refugee-run kitchen and occasional pop-up restaurant managed primarily by female refugees from Indian states as well as countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Congo and Nigeria. The website has been expanded into a great archive of recipes, alongside a glossary, and visual documentation, and stories that offer insights not only about several dishes, but the experiences that were facilitated and the relationships that were nurtured.
Museum of Food was shaped by the lives of dislocated people and their culinary inheritances. Some artworks, however, are directly critical of the capitalist structures responsible for mass-scale displacement by extending ongoing conversations about the superficiality of consumer-based markets, and the subsequent waste of food that is in fact perfectly edible. Many markets around the world reject food for aesthetic reasons, and so, much imperfect produce has no shelf life because it is assumed it will not find buyers. The London-based gallery, San Mei’s Investigating Consumption programme has featured what looks like a spectacular body of work, titled Inedible Harvest, which includes sculptures of handmade vessels cast from moulds made from presumably ugly vegetables considered unfit for display and sale. The collective, Natural Selection (James Binning and Farrokh Aman) turned the rejected material into organic plaster moulds. The ensuing objects reflect the eccentricities of their constituting substances—they look a little bit off; they are asymmetrical, or lopsided, but exquisite, and are cast using a range of clay bodies and glaze techniques such as Chinese porcelain wares, terracotta, black glazes, raku-fired stoneware clays and also with low-fire yeast glazes typical in the Baltics.
Another bold and poetic project dealing with food-related refuse is Asunción Molinos Gordo’s IN TRANSIT: Botany of a Journey, commissioned by the Dubai-based Jameel Arts Center as part of its Artist’s Garden programme. This project was my primary motive for wanting to visit this year’s Art Dubai, which sadly didn’t materialise, thanks to the ongoing pandemic. Essentially, Gordo’s garden is grown from seeds rescued from the intestines of people who either live or visit Dubai, a city that receives an average of 90 million travellers a year, from 270 destinations across six continents. The seeds are those contained in the sewage treatment plant in Al-Aweer’s clean, final sludge. The artistic intervention involved salvaging these seeds, thus altering their fate.
While I was unable to bear witness to Gordo’s work, I was, however, able to experience Ballad of the Lost Utopian Meadow, a multi-media work that ably confronts and provokes a line of questioning about the origins of food cultures, how recipes travel, the violent, even misogynistic nature of our culinary histories constituted by erasures, the ceremonious nature of eating rituals and the sustainability of consumerist food practices. Conceived by Helsinki-based artists, Vidha Saumya and Ali Akbar Mehta for the ONOMA Summer Exhibition, Meadow, curated by Taru Elfving in Fiskars Village, Finland, the work is the consequence of their desire “to extend the metaphorical implications of what a meadow means to Finland within the contexts of ecological conservation, cultural significance, and as a site of contemporary co-existence”.
The ensuing, subversive ballad, stirs up many silences through its 71 stanzas accessible online, through the customised web experience by Palash Mukhopadhyay, in the form of a sound piece, with vocals and piano by artist-duo varialambo (Varia Sjöström and Hatz Lambo), designed by Kaino Wennerstrand and recorded at Artlab Studio by Albert Ihanus. The hyper-textual, haunting melody introduces non-Finnish audiences to the Finnish kitchen and constructs an archive for local audiences, letting them delve into marginalised culinary histories by mapping what Saumya refers to as “the social and political dimensions of food production, distribution, and consumption in Finland, its histories, and cultural significance, as well as its artistic and aesthetic possibilities.” Finland, Saumya informed me, is a country where 74.2 per cent of its land use is forest, making the meadow an important cultural artefact. A significant part of this percentage, though, has been used for cultivations that serve human needs, enabling monocultures that facilitate the lack of biodiversity.
What lingers through the text in the form of the recurring refrain is the promise of and longing for a utopian meadow, which Saumya articulates as a site where everyone can gather, take space, share food. “It is a site of refuge, and of rest. It is a space that allows us to be unflinchingly non-selective, and be cognizant of our differences, our diversity, our plurality; a space that also allows for us to highlight our affinities, our intersections, our togetherness, in order to counter alienation by providing spaces for familiarisation.”