Curated Selection Prize 2013: Feast Your Eyes - Food in Contemporary Art Practice

Curated Selection Prize 2013: Feast Your Eyes - Food in Contemporary Art Practice Jenny Parkin, Gainsboro Series, 2012

Susannah Worth, an MA student at the Royal College of Art, selects works from Axisweb around the theme of food, ranging from collective concoctions to gaudy displays of excess

Selected artists:

Katy and Rebecca Beinart, Gayle Chong Kwan,
Owen Griffiths, Jenny Parkin, Merlyn Riggs, Alex Wilde

Take six artworks, add a handful of words and stir. This simple recipe is a proposal, an invitation to engage with the idea of food in art, from collective concoctions to gaudy displays of excess. Artists have addressed the subject of sustenance ever since hunters and beasts were painted on the walls of the Lascaux caves, and while food is far from immune to the flippancies of fashion, the subject itself has endured in art.

There are plenty of parallels between art and cooking. Taste is a key consideration, the nature of consumption is another, and then there are encounters between ingredients, perhaps experimental and alchemical, and of course the processes involved in creating a dish – a flash fry or long slow simmer.

This selection brings together works by artists who are particularly concerned with process, as opposed to dealing solely with material art objects. According to one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorisms, ‘The more abstract the truth you want to teach, the more thoroughly you must seduce the senses to accept it’. It is no coincidence then that this approach combines so well with this most seductive of subjects. Food, by its very nature, opens up opportunities for events, performances, conversations and shared experiences. In using food in their work, these artists employ the stuff of our lives rather than imposing on us their own narratives and definitions.


Owen Griffiths, Cooking Cabin, 2011


Owen Griffiths, Cooking Cabin, 2011

Cooking and preserving: acts of ritual and significance. So reads the label accompanying the beetroot chutney produced in Owen Griffiths’ 'Cooking Cabin', set up in Swansea’s Elysium Gallery in 2010. In some ways these jars of chutney are the outcome of this work – they are certainly the only saleable part – but as the reference to ritual would suggest, they are only one ingredient within the whole.

In a ramshackle cabin, Griffiths set up the bare essentials – stove, utensils, ingredients, jars – to make the winter chutney. In the context of a group show, 'Cooking Cabin' assumed its role as kitchen, creating a warm, inviting, and no doubt delicious-smelling hub, where people could meet and gather in anticipation. Griffiths describes the resultant 14 jars of chutney as ‘limited edition artworks’ – perhaps a wry nod to art’s awkward relationship with money, and parallel ideas of ‘consumption’ across food and art.

View Owen Griffiths's profile >


Alex Wilde, Stone Soup, 2009


Alex Wilde, Stone Soup, 2009

This piece by Alex Wilde takes its title and inspiration from a well-known folk tale, Stone Soup. Just as in the story, the soup begins with a single stone in a pot, but slowly each person becomes convinced that if they contribute just one extra ingredient, there will be soup for everyone.

Staged at CCA Glasgow, this work not only took the form of an engaging and playful event to bring people together but also provided a platform for discussion and debate on the wider subjects which concern Wilde’s practice, such as 'food systems on a local and global level; the means and methods of production, exchange and sustainability'.

The photographs which document this event capture the friendly, inclusive environment created by the piece, even within the white-walled contemporary art gallery, and they do so in a snapshot style that emphasises the photographs’ role, in this instance, as document rather than art object.


Katy and Rebecca Beinart, Offere, 2010


Katy and Rebecca Beinart, Offere, 2010

'Offere' exists here as a series of stills taken from a five-minute digital video. Alongside this information the artist tells of two earlier iterations – two film recordings which failed to print. This telling of a repeated act seems fitting for a piece concerned with a kind of ritual.

In this collaborative piece, the serving of a meal is performed in the surreal setting of a beach, to strangely absent guests. The tableware, furniture and dress seem carefully chosen to evoke an earlier age, perhaps recreating – or reframing – an old family photograph. It brings to mind those old-fashioned household books in which you could find in close proximity recipes for three-course dinners, ointment for grazed knees and potions to lure a lover. The food here is presented as a kind of sacrificial offering, in an attempt to connect with ghostly ancestors, and thereby with a sense of history and identity.

View Katy Beinart's profile >
View Rebecca Beinart's profile >


Merlyn Riggs, Let Them Eat Cake, 2007


Merlyn Riggs, Let Them Eat Cake, 2007

This image is just one page from Merlyn Riggs' 'Let Them Eat Cake', a recipe book with photographs. Riggs’ work largely exists far from traditional gallery spaces: a recipe book is one example, while her 'Talking Tearooms' (2009) are another, and in 2011 she set up a tea table on a high street to engage the public in conversations about domestic abuse.

Riggs’ work stands within a long tradition of feminist art which places great value on building communities and places for conversation. While tea and cake may seem old-fashioned tools – especially considering feminism’s complex relationship with domesticity – it appears that Riggs sees their value in bringing non-traditional art audiences together to talk.

The power of this image is in its violence, but also in the humour of its title and the self-portrait’s clown-like appearance: laughter, like food, can be a great leveller and has long been a valuable tool in feminist activism and art practice.

View Merlyn Riggs's profile >


Gayle Chong Kwan, 7.58, Paris Remains (series), 2008


Gayle Chong Kwan, 7.58, Paris Remains (series), 2008

There is something alchemical in the transformations Gayle Chong Kwan enacts on her found materials. For the 'Paris Remains' series, discarded food from the streets of Paris became her medium for recreating the city in miniature. This instant of transformation, prior to complete deterioration, was then captured in shadowy photographs. These landscapes, already in a state of rot and decay, seem like the illustrations to a gothic fairy tale.

The bricks of 'Paris Remains' are the waste products of urban life, but more often than not they are fruits and vegetables – citrus peel, apple cores, banana skins – as opposed to the processed and junk foods which are commonly used to point to the ills of modern city living. Chong Kwan finds there is vitality still to squeeze from these items, even after society has cast them away.

View Gayle Chong Kwan's profile >


Jenny Parkin, Gainsboro Series, 2012


Jenny Parkin, Gainsboro Series, 2012

Jenny Parkin’s 'Gainsboro' series is a sticky, decadent display. Lashings of whipped cream are daubed explosively around blue and white porcelain figurines, sprinkled with ‘hundred and thousands’, glacé cherries and oozing pools of strawberry syrup.

The images conflate the gratuitous abundance of a Knickerbocker Glory with an antique depiction of drunken flirtation, symbols respectively of greedy modern western society and an equally frivolous 18th-century aristocracy, as implied by the title’s art historical reference and the style of the figurines. ‘Twas ever thus, these images seem to suggest.

The abbreviation in the title – a kind of ‘Gainsborough lite’ – reads as a nod to the brands and advertisements that employ such slick imagery to greatest and glibbest effect. In evoking the language of consumption, Parkin draws parallels between the extremes of wealth disparity in the 18th century, and the aspiration and greed that advertising fuels in our own modern-day capitalist society.

A concern for the culinary unites the works in this selection, and while their diversity exemplifies the breadth and enduring significance of the subject, there are strong thematic strands woven throughout. One of the most powerful aspects of the subject of food is its ability to bring art into direct dialogue with the everyday. Performances, events and actions outside traditional art spaces harness food’s capacity to create community and conversation, where the subject raises numerous important issues, from the ritualistic nature of cooking, meals and their associations with family life, to more violent renditions of domestic life, and the wasteful excesses of contemporary western societies.

View Jenny Parkin's profile >

About Susannah Worth

Susannah Worth is a writer and editor. She was Editor for The Future of a Promise produced for the 54th Venice Biennale collateral exhibition of the same name, and in 2011 she collaborated with artist Jonathan Hoskins on the Political Pop-Up Restaurant. She is currently working on exploring the nature of the recipe as a mode of writing.

Feast Your Eyes - Food in Contemporary Art Practice is the first in our Curated Selection Prize series, curated by Susannah Worth, MA Critical Writing in Art & Design, Royal College of Art, London.

 April 2013