LEEDS, England — Light streams obliquely through tall windows, diffusing over the still, slightly dusty surface of a gallery floor flooded with milk. Four old-fashioned milk churns lie overturned or stand empty, as if forgotten about or abandoned in frustration. The liquid looks like marble or poured resin, turning the room into a gleaming white cube. There is a contemplative air to the space; the calm after a storm. 

“Lake” (2021) is an installation at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, UK, by Spanish-Welsh artist Rafael Pérez Evans. The work is inspired by the farmers’ protests Perez Evans witnessed as a child, growing up in a farming community in southern Spain. To challenge the devaluation of their produce, farmers would dump large quantities of fruits, vegetables, or dairy products in conspicuous urban places. “Lake” evokes the aftermath of a protest by disempowered dairy farmers against the artificially repressed price of milk. 

Installation view of Rafael Pérez Evans: Handful, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 2021 (photo by Jerry Hardman-Jones / Henry Moore Institute)

The flooded gallery and overturned churns are reminders of the traces and stains left by our food as it travels from plant to plate to trash. Puddles left after a protest or squashed produce on the floor after the market closes are framed as physical manifestations of the reverberations sent by industrialized agriculture through livelihoods, bodies, and the perceived legitimacy of landworkers’ knowledge about food production and ecosystems. 

The exhibition attempts to draw attention to the commodification of food as well as the deliberate obfuscation surrounding food production and economics. The food we need to survive on an individual human scale is evoked by “Handful” (2021), a small heap of grain lying unobtrusively on a simple white shelf. This “handful” presents food on a modest, (literally) graspable scale, in contrast with the invisible, imaginary landscapes of the “grain mountains” and “milk lakes” that have been under discussion in Europe since the 1970s. The result of government interventionism, these “mountains” and “lakes” are stockpiles of staples like butter, grain, and milk, created to stabilize (and usually drive down) prices for farmers and consumers and to ensure a constant supply in spite of yearly weather and labor variations. 

“Handful” is a poignant counterpart to “Mountain” (2021), which consists of two enormous stainless steel grain silos that have been installed outside the institute’s façade. These sculptural entities are essentially found objects, manufactured to a standard industrial design. The ethics and politics at play here are complex and often ambiguous, touching on the deliberate wedges driven between producer and consumer, between the rural and the urban. The shiny rocket-shaped silos have a sci-fi air about them, hinting at the alienation inherent in our contemporary relationship with food and its sources, especially in urban areas. 

Installation view of Rafael Pérez Evans: Handful, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 2021 (photo by Jerry Hardman-Jones / Henry Moore Institute)

Although the silos are potentially functional, these are empty, their tiny windows dark. This marks a striking departure from some of Perez Evans’ earlier works, including his intervention at Goldsmiths University for his graduation show last year. “Grounding” (2020) consisted of 29 tons of carrots dumped in the courtyard outside the university in the style of the farmers’ protests-through-produce he witnessed as a child. The work raised fierce debates about visualizing versus contributing to food waste, and about the labor involved in maintaining and cleaning up after an installation. A group of Goldsmiths students protested the work, claiming it was inappropriate and insensitive to ostentatiously dump edible food in a local borough with a high reliance on foodbanks. 

In his project for the Henry Moore Institute, Perez Evans demonstrates an increased awareness of the ethics around the labor and social implications involved in his work. In this show, the quantities of edible food used are tiny – a handful of grain, a small amount of milk mixed with preservatives to help it last the three-month exhibition period. Handful combines simple ingredients to create a forceful impact, challenging the invisible curtain that hides the plants, processes, and people that are involved in producing our food. 

Rafael Pérez Evans: Handful continues through August 29 at the Henry Moore Institute (The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH) through August 29, 2021. The exhibition is curated by Laurence Sillars.

Anna Souter is an independent art writer and editor based in London. She is particularly interested in sculpture, women's art, and the environment.

One reply on “Spilled Milk and Other Acts of Protest Visualize the Politics of Food Production”

  1. Plants, processes and people? How do you neglect to include the fact that trillions of cows and calves lives are taken by the dairy industry for THEIR milk and all the animals and sea life humans enslave and slaughter unnecessarily to consume their flesh and secretions? The archaic, cruel, unnecessary enslavement and exploitation of animals continues to be the real issue. The food humans need to survive is 100% plant based.

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