In Rolf de Heer’s new film Charlie’s Country there are four food moments: deep-fried fast food; tinned and packaged food (abandoned when the car runs out of petrol); cooked-in-coals barramundi; and green, yellow and red gaol slosh. Each of these food sequences captures so succinctly Charlie’s (David Gulpilil) state of mind and body — and for the audience too, it is a visceral experience.
But why should we react so strongly to images of food? This weekend saw the opening of an exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) – Harvest — Art, Film and Food – that is dedicated to food.
Are we what we eat?
Scottish art historian Norman Bryson in his theorising of still life painting notes that while we might be able to escape events in world history, there is no escaping our “conditions of creaturality” that is our dependence on eating and drinking.
But as food sociologist Margaret Visser reminds us in her book, Much Depends on Dinner, “food is never just something to eat” for, its selection, preparation, serving, and the quantities consumed, constitute profoundly cultural discourses.
Right now television and lifestyle media seem to be obsessed with massaging these discourses. Food television programs occupy prime-time viewing, enjoying a popularity spurred on through the infatuation with celebrity chefs and reality-style competitions. What has taken commentators by surprise however is that the audience for food television is extremely diverse and cross-generational.
This is the very audience museums all over Australia seek.
It is then perhaps not surprising that GOMA would develop an exhibition and public program around food. Los Angeles County Museum of Art did in 2010 with Eat LACMA. Brisbane is doing it in 2014, but importantly expanding the focus to a broader consideration of food, its politics of production, distribution and consumption.
Harvest has, as the Los Angeles County Museum did, commissioned the artist collective Fallen Fruit to contribute to the exhibition. They have developed a rococo-inspired patterned wallpaper of local fruits, and a program of public events, which at GOMA will be centred around the fabulous pineapple. These artists focus their entire practice around fruit, which symbolises, they say “bounty … fertility, beauty and hospitality”.
Food and art has come to us through still life painting – which by the early 1600s in Europe consisted of paintings using a repertoire of fruit, dishes, baskets, bowls, bread, seafood, game, goblets, flowers and vases, without the human form.
Bryson refers to this as the “culture of the table”, characterised he says by both change, and resistance to change. Change occurs through adjustments to the fast changing economies of consumption, and yet despite this, there is little change to the philosophical form of still life.
As well, at the core of still life is the drama of the increasingly shifting tension between nature and culture.
Let’s consider a group of the still lifes in the exhibition.
For instance Alexander Coosemans’ Still life (c. 1650) consists of a lavish display of peaches, plums, grapes, lemons, a pumpkin, and pomegranates caught in the setting sun.
It is as if this plentiful display has tipped out of a pewter plate spreading across, not a table, but a stone pathway. It is in nature, but not of this nature.
The fruit, despite looking as if it has been just harvested that day, with tendrils, leaves and twigs of growth still attached, is not derived from the depicted landscape. For this is a display not of the fruits of nature but rather of trade, and as fruit was not part of the national Dutch diet, it was an unabashed dream of wealth.
Another still life in this exhibition invites a different reading and speaks to both the continuity of still life and its discontinuity.
Painted in Melbourne almost 200 years later, Henry Short’s Fruit and flowers (1859) is a lavish display of countless varieties of flowers, in an ornate carved marble vase surrounded with grapes, strawberries, a pear, a peach and a pineapple!
There are three other vessels — a pitcher, lidded vessel and glass vase nestled into this display, and again, as with Coosemans’ still life, there is a distant landscape at sunset — this time though viewed through an ivy leaf surround to a window.
Short had arrived in Victoria as an English immigrant artist, seven years prior, and this work seems almost like a calling card displaying his erudite knowledge of the symbolism of Dutch 17th century flower painting, Greek and Roman mythology, and his painterly skills.
It is a painting of specimens – all with empowered meaning. But could the small red feathery blooms at the top of the arrangement be bottlebrush? And what of the pineapple?
Pineapples brought to the West by Columbus in 1493 were symbols of exoticness, and as they defied attempts to grow in the West, they became symbols of great rarity, and therefore when offered to guests, signs of extreme hospitality and privilege. Over 300 years later in 1830, Lutheran missionaries brought pineapples to Queensland.
When Short painted Fruit and flowers it is unlikely pineapples were widely available. Was the pineapple then a sign of Short’s own adoption of Australia – or an enticement to prosperous Australian art patrons?
Chaos at the table
There is a strand of Dutch still life painting, which Bryson calls “the still life of disorder”.
The video work by Superflex, a Danish collaborative artist group, titled Flooded McDonalds 2009, I think fits fully into this tradition of still life.
In Dutch still life disorder implied a breakdown of moral values. Chaos is seen to take rein in a household when food is strewn about, or wine is spilled, or plates overturned and implements abandoned or out of place. No doubt in 2009 there was a McDonald’s scandal somewhere in the world.
The chaos represented here is an analogy of bad governance, bad trading and bad faith. The culture of the table is as laden today as ever.
Harvest – Art, Film, and Food is at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art until September 12.