Opinion

The Limits of What We Can Learn from Food-Themed Art

Marcel Broodthaers, Le Manuscrit, 1971 // Collection privée © ADAGP, Paris 2014, Courtesy Estate Marcel Broodthaers, Ph. DR All images courtesy of MuCEM
Marcel Broodthaers, “Le Manuscrit” (1971), collection privée (© ADAGP, Paris 2014, courtesy Estate Marcel Broodthaers) (photo by DR) (all images courtesy MuCEM)

Food, broadly defined, is a necessary sustenance that may also incorporate artistic practice — cooking, cuisine, and presentation. The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) in Marseilles is currently hosting Food: Produce, Eat, Consume, an exhibition funded by ART for The World, an NGO associated with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, that encompasses a three-year, transcontinental project. The exhibition, which I’m curious about but haven’t seen in person, seeks to use its stated subject as an entry point into, as the press release explains, “the values linked to food in our contemporary society.” The topic has varied political implications — the release lists “themes directly or indirectly linked to food, such as the consequences of climatic change, poisoning of agricultural produce, unequal distribution of food, but also the preservation of our nourishing Mother Earth, the choice of foods, different cuisines, the rituals and ceremonies around food … ”

The notion that a particular category of human life may be analyzed to understand a society likely has its roots in anthropology — for example, studying a culture’s types of housing as a window onto its organization of family life. This method has been applied to the study of history in recent books like Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, both of which take one small element of human life and use it as a thread to unravel the course of human civilization. The trend also exists in exhibitions: Tools: Extending Our Reach, currently on view at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art’s online Design and Violence project search for deeper meanings by examining objects that blend function and aesthetics. And, obviously, an anthropological lens is a longstanding trend in exhibitions dedicated to ancient cultures.

Marina Abramovic, The Onion, vidéo, 1995 // Dist. LIMA, Amsterdam © Marina Abramovic, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives / ADAGP, Paris 2014
Marina Abramovic, “The Onion” (1995), video, dist. LIMA, Amsterdam (© Marina Abramovic, courtesy the Marina Abramovic Archives / ADAGP, Paris 2014) (click to enlarge)

From browsing the artworks included and reviewing the exhibition materials, Food: Produce, Eat, Consume does not seem to have precisely the same type of anthropological lens; rather, it’s focused on art that incorporates food, not on food-as-art. Examples can help illuminate this distinction. “The Onion” (1995), a 10-minute video by Marina Abramović, shows the artist eating an onion while a voice expresses various dissatisfactions: “I’m tired of career decisions, the openings in museums and galleries, endless dinners … ” The onion in this video does not need to be an onion. It could be any unpleasant edible. Mircea Cantor’s “Underestimated Consequences” (2011) features a square bin (100 cm³) of garlic. Viewers may understand the work to be a comment on overabundance or on the industrialization of food production, but it also has aesthetic references, suggesting a hybridity of Minimalism and Arte Povera.

Grouping works of art under the banner of a functional category to which they may or may not primarily refer makes for easy socio-politicization, especially when they’re joined by pieces that do use food in an explicitly politicized way. General Idea’s “Nazi Milk” (1979–90) portrays a young, blonde boy with a glass of milk in his hand. The boy’s carefully parted hair and white turtleneck suggest military rigidity, and he has a milk mustache in the shape of Hitler’s mustache. The message that milk is good for children takes on a sinister tone here, as does advertising that uses health concerns to promote a mass-produced product. “Nazi Milk” doesn’t reflect a set of actual historical or contemporary concerns regarding fascism and milk, however; it creates a general mood of unease. This seems to be the crux of the problem with Food — its pieces often suggest sociopolitical issues, yet they are art, functioning outside of factual, thematically unified references. Food appears to operate in opposition to its stated goal; rather than reflecting on “issues directly or indirectly related to food,” it offers those as lenses through which to view and understand particular works of art.

Mircea Cantor, Underestimated Consequences, 2011 // Courtesy Mircea Cantor et Yvon Lambert © Image courtesy de Mircea Cantor et Galerie Simon Lee, London / Ph. Todd White
Mircea Cantor, “Underestimated Consequences” (2011) (courtesy Mircea Cantor and Yvon Lambert) (© image courtesy Mircea Cantor and Galerie Simon Lee, London, photo by Todd White)
General Idea, Nazi Milk, 1979-90 / Collection du Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain Languedoc- Roussillon © Courtesy General Idea et Image FRAC Languedoc Roussillon/ Ph. Jean Luc Fournier
General Idea, “Nazi Milk” (1979–90), collection du Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain Languedoc- Roussillon (© and courtesy General Idea and Image FRAC Languedoc Roussillon) (photo by Jean Luc Fournier)
Meret Oppenheim, L'Ecureuil, 1969 // Collection A.L'H., Genève © ADAGP, Paris 2014, Ph. Annik Wetter
Meret Oppenheim, “L’Ecureuil” (1969), collection A.L’H., Genève (© ADAGP, Paris 2014) (photo by Annik Wetter)
Miralda et Dorothée Selz, Traiteurs Coloristes, 1968 / Collection Mina et Jacques Charles © ADAGP-Paris 2014, Ph.Nicolas Fussler
Miralda and Dorothée Selz, “Traiteurs Coloristes” (1968), collection Mina et Jacques Charles (© ADAGP-Paris 2014) (photo by Nicolas Fussler)
Eduardo Srur, Supermercado, vidéo, 2014 //Courtesy artiste © Eduardo Srur, Ph. Fernando Huck
Eduardo Srur, “Supermercado” (2014), video, (courtesy the artist, © Eduardo Srur) (photo by Fernando Huck)
Ernesto Neto, Variation on Color Seed Space Time Love, 2009 // Courtesy Galerie Bob Van Orsouw, Zurich © Courtesy Ernesto Neto/ Ph. Gard A. Frantzsen
Ernesto Neto, “Variation on Color Seed Space Time Love” (2009) (courtesy Galerie Bob Van Orsouw, Zurich, © courtesy Ernesto Neto) (photo by Gard A. Frantzsen)
Shimabuku, Kaki and Tomato, 2008 // Courtesy Shimabuku et Air de Paris, Paris © Courtesy Shimabuku et Air de Paris, Paris/ Ph. Marc Domage
Shimabuku, “Kaki and Tomato” (2008) (© courtesy Shimabuku et Air de Paris, Paris) (photo by Marc Domage)
Gianni Motti Spauracchio 2012 / Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, Paris © Courtesy Galerie Perrotin Paris / Ph. Olivier Oberson
Gianni Motti, “Spauracchio” (2012) (© Courtesy Galerie Perrotin Paris) (photo by Olivier Oberson)
Subodh Gupta, Curry 2 (3), 2005 // Collection Privée © Photo Art & Public, Cabinet PH, Genève; Ph Imari Kalkkinen
Subodh Gupta, “Curry 2 (3)” (2005), collection privée (© Photo Art & Public, Cabinet PH, Genève) (photo by Imari Kalkkinen)
Nari Ward, TranStranger Café,2012 // Courtesy de l'artiste et Galleria Continua San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins © Ph. Nari Ward
Nari Ward, “TranStranger Café” (2012) (courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins) (© photo Nari Ward)
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