Tasteless

Editorial for the edition on Food Consumption and Pleasure. Summarises the treats which lie in store for the reader of the issue, linking the disparate approaches of the various writers .

There is a current of nausea – a just perceptible tinge of disgust – running though this issue like a slight but persistent case of morning sickness. Nausea is fundamental to fecundation (in taking our very first food we make our mothers sick) yet this queasiness has perhaps more to do with a dis-ease with the manner in which we take our pleasures than the creative impulse itself. Caught somewhere between the horrors of the movies La Grande Bouffe and Survive! – the one in which a coterie of gourmands eat themselves to death, the other in which survivors of a plane crash perish because they refuse to eat the flesh of their fellow travellers – is the impossibility of reconciling the notions of food as necessity and as luxury. "Nouvelle Cuisine simultaneously appeals to the instincts for indulgence and self-denial", writes Richard Johnstone, and implicit in this contradiction is the knowledge that the expense of luxury is always someone else's misery.

What do food and art have to do with one another? Not much, one might say. For Allen S. Weiss, author of Flamme et festin: Une po├ętique de la cuisine, cooking is an artform in itself. "The gastronomic must no longer serve as mere metaphor for the arts, but must take its place among the muses", he declares, but one wonders whether his enthusiasm has more to do with the exhaustion of contemporary art than with any sudden new culinary artistry. For Gay Bilson, one of the very few chefs who one might say is also an artist (one of her conceptual works – conceptual since unrealised – was a plan to make sausages from her own blood), cooking is most emphatically a craft.

This is not to evacuate all meaning from the relationship or to rob food its ritual meanings but rather to tread carefully between disciplines, mindful of relying too heavily on metaphor to do the work in traversing from one to the other. Pleasure is the necessary complicating nuance that rescues us from pure theory – for surely there is nothing more tedious than earnest discourse on the significance of food.
Daniel Thomas's useful dictum that 'A theme is there to be ignored' has been followed, and rather than exemplification in this issue one finds coincidences and convergences. The chef Anders Ousback, who is also a potter, is in the habit of roasting his chickens in his kiln, and it is this tangential though companionable relationship between the parallel worlds of food and art that is explored.

The most interesting art involving food is often not actually about food itself. The Mayfair restaurant is one of the central tropes of Robert MacPherson's art, which is all about art, and oftentimes paint, and rarely if ever about food: Xxx, for example, is not a picture of a banana, it is a painting of a fruiterer's symbol for a banana. An intense pleasure in colour and composition in Cressida Campbell's woodblock print Oysters perfectly conveys the desire implicit in the subject; like Margaret Preston's Thea Proctor's tea party, it is an unpeopled portrait of friendship and conviviality. Yet as Gay Bilson has commented elsewhere, the viewer's desire is quickened not by the representation of food – in this case the promise of tasting oysters and wine – but by the artwork itself. Campbell's Oysters, like Kevin Lincoln's Aubergines, is not about food but about the carnal pleasures of paint.

The artist Scott Redford, who once worked in a supermarket stacking shelves, often uses packaged supermarket goods in his installations. He chooses things for their shape and colour, much as we foolishly choose the reddest tomato, the least blemished banana or the tinned soup with the best-designed label. Smell, once the barometer of good or bad food, has been supplanted by sight (supermarkets are odourless), and in her article on cookbooks Ingrid Periz examines a genre in which the pictorial may have replaced the culinary imagination altogether. In contrast, in thinking about a Chinese delicacy repugnant to most Westerners – chicken's feet – Yao Souchou addresses the absence of aesthetics in Chinese cuisine, in which taste precedes presentation, savoured as much in the national imaginary as in physical delectation.

Food, like art, offers a way in to other cultures, but should not be mistaken for the thing itself. As Kajri Jain suggests, food has come to stand in for multiculturalism, as though sampling diversity might replace originary cultures themselves. In her mischievous, exquisite installation of seed pods on wheels Simryn Gill makes child's play of the supposedly contemporary notion of hybridity. So much of history seems to originate in the desire for spices, not least the pathways of colonisation, yet this does not account for the maverick forces of chance and nature; as Nikos Papastergiadis writes, "Seeds tend to catch the wind, hitch a ride in the belly of birds and arrive with the shit". Fiona Hall traces these ancient and intricate pathways in her work Cash crop, while looking towards a world in which not only food production but the DNA of seeds can be owned by corporations, a scenario in which food becomes sheer economy. In an important essay on the patenting of Indigenous knowledge Henrietta Fourmile-Marrie describes how indigenous people can reverse the exploitation of charlatan 'bush tucker' men and women by taking legal ownership of knowledge and leading an industry worth millions of dollars.

Antony Hamilton's epic installation I can only look out, like Mr Micawber, "for something to turn up". A view of the melancholy situation of the party Burke, Wills and King of the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860 provides a sobering, though amusing, antidote to Henry Short's 1861 tribute to the hapless explorers, In memory of the lamented heroes of the Victorian Exploration 1861. Short, also the author of the lost painting A civilized Aboriginal boy exhibiting the fruits of his native soil, depicts a lavish cornucopia of ripe fruit and flowers surrounding an urn inlaid with miniature portraits of the three dead explorers. In comparison to Short's bizarre fantasy, Hamilton's work seems almost realistic. Relics of the explorers' last days are placed on the gallery floor, as though on the desert ground: camel hair (they had eaten their transport), tobacco, wirha bush, and and fake ngardu turds from the seeds which they had ground and eaten. In his last letter Wills wrote that he knew he and his companions were on the point of starvation 'not so much for want of food but from want of nutriment'. Now we see a tragic mirroring of this situation, as malnutrition affects thousands of Indigenous Australian children. As Destiny Deacon makes abundantly clear in her gruesomely hilarious videos, nutrition – like taste – is a matter not of race but of class.

As something we ingest, food is ultimately personal, and each of the recipes by the artists and writers who have contributed to this issue is individual. Recipes are secret passwords to the past: like the genes that inform our continuity, there are generations of buried history embedded in their quirky formulae, and in converting these notations to food we enact a secular transaction of word into flesh. Yet as Rosalind Brodsky discovers in her attempts to travel back in time to rescue her grandparents from the Holocaust, you cannot undo history just as you cannot unmake a cake. The terminator gene creates seeds without memory, and its promise is an earth which has forgotten how to replenish itself. The question now is whether we have the wisdom to unmake the future.

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