Breadline: Women and Food

Since the advent of 1970s feminism, the joining of women food and art has been about mixing a metaphoric concoction of consciousness raising, community and corporeality. Looks at women's art movement practice in South Australia

Put food out in the same place everyday and talk to the people who come to eat and organize them. – Jenny Holzer, from the Survival series 1983–85


Food and art. Women, food and art. We're not talking conventional cooking here. Rather, since the advent of 1970s feminism, the joining of women, food and art has been about mixing a metaphoric concoction of consciousness raising, community and corporeality.

One of my most vivid art memories, still, is encountering a contemporary art apparition in the Ewing and George Paton Gallery in the late-ish 1970s. Where McCubbins, Streetons and Condors were alleged to be hanging instead there were eggs, gauze and smeared yolk and whites all over the wall. And a pretty unpleasant odour. My first instinct was that someone had significantly run amok and I feared for the safety of the Australian paintings which were nowhere in evidence.

And yet the whole effect of the eggs and gauze tenting seemed, despite its provocative chaos, to have a more controlled deposition than a mere random attack. Although I was not well tutored in issues of essentialist symbolism, it occurred to me that the eggs might imply fertility and the deflated diaphanousness of the gauze tent might be a bit post-birth-womb-like, and that the smearing on the walls could have been a messy kind of after-birth dementia. Well that was my first go at essentialist, feminist, symbolic thinking. I think. To this day I am completely uncertain of the purpose or point of the installation which has more to do with foggy memory than the work itself, which has remained sufficiently rupturing for me to return to it here, and now and then in other contexts.
Giving a lecture a few years ago I made mention of the egg episode and later Anne Marsh, the performance art historian, informed me that I was probably describing an installation titled Previous Eggs, Life, Pain, (1979) by Jane Kent, one of the formative figures in performance art practice in Australia, who, like Anne herself, had been part of the growing number of artists in Adelaide devoted to creating a movement which concerned itself with art, politics, feminism and the body - not all necessarily combined - under the description 'performance'.

The women's art movement, particularly active in South Australia, followed a similar art-menu to that of their West-Coast North-American counterparts in California, notably in Los Angeles and San Francisco where collectivity and the rituals linked to domesticity  cooking, cleaning, entertaining and creating environments of community  emerged as a distinctive modus operandi.
Judy Chicago's notoriously promoted Dinner Party, a setting of vulvic ceramic plates named for great real and mythic women, often stands in as the example par excellence of West Coast early feminist practice. But more cogent to the Australian experiments are the important but poorly documented, humbler scaled performances by artists such as Suzanne Lacy, Eleanor Antin, Barbara Smith, the Waitresses and Martha Rosler. Commonly Lacy, Smith, Antin and the Waitresses, like many of their counterparts at the Womanhouse and the Woman's Building centres, would dress up and play-act roles specific to a liberationist critique of issues such the position of women in history and women's socially prescribed role of servitude. Nurses, Pilgrims, Beauty Queens, and 'American Pie' cheer leader types came in for special attention.

While Lacy, Smith and the Waitresses tended toward a provocation based on street actions and community theatre, served with mashed potatoes and lashings of women's lib irony, Rosler's video Budding Gourmet: Semiotics of the Kitchen (1974–75) stands as an alternative proposition for practice in Australia. Illustrating an awareness of the emerging feminist concerns informed by psychoanalytic-based theory, Rosler's video turned up the heat on more homespun dramas. Semiotics of the Kitchen indicated the sway film theory, common amongst the UK-based Screen collective and linked via the artistic personalities of American artist and writer Judith Barry and UK theorist and film-maker Laura Mulvey, was beginning to exert on a growing number of artists concerned with the signified and the signifier. Rosler's film of kitchen semiotics, performed as the theatrics of a cooking demonstration, discoursed on the links between domesticity, commodity and ritual which inherently trap woman in a conformist role, antagonistic to self development and self fulfillment. Rosler was concerned with issues beyond the kitchen, such as economics and the social structures which dominate the lives of women. As she wrote: 'Food is treated as a necessity reinvented as commodity and cooking is presented as a metaphor, as an internalised value and as a colonising strategy.'

Using the methodology of the direct address, borrowed from TV chefs, Rosler's video forecasts the interests of Australian-based practitioners such as Lyndal Jones and Bonita Ely whose projects moved on from the idea of collective theatrics to more studied and singular, conceptual presentations.
Linking fundamentally to Rosler's Budding Gourmet in format, but extrapolating the cooking demonstration format to satirise scenarios of the natural environment as well as the domestic ones, Bonita Ely's Murray River Punch (1980), performed in Melbourne as a part of the Ewing and George Paton Gallery's performance and discussion program Women at Work, and in the Adelaide Festival in the public thoroughfare of Rundle Mall, marks a subtle shift in the program of feminist performance.

Dressed as the typical CWA-suited disciple of home economics, the paragon of rationality, Ely proffered her Murray River Punch, a foul and toxic cocktail of phosphates, chemicals and animal waste, for sample tasting to unsuspecting passers-by. Her performance illustrated the extent to which Australian women had already, by the early 1980s, moved out of the kitchen and into the public realm to take on the larger issues of land degradation and environmental collapse, a theme explored by many Australian women artists including Jill Orr. While Rosler, in the mid 1970s, was still firmly entrenched in the kitchen, Ely had, by the beginning of the 1980s, made the escape to the public arena as a spokesperson, using the role of matron as a form of authority, as well as an alternative to the generally forgiving and ample figure of an essentialist mother nature, nature/mother.

Food and the idea of domestic provision also featured in the work of Lyndal Jones, whose interest in semiotics and post-modernism extended further than Rosler's tentative semiotics. Lyndal Jones commenced her series of At Home projects first at the La Mama theatre, Melbourne, then at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries, utilising the combined aesthetics of minimalism and feminism as prescribed by Lucy Lippard  repetition, fragmentation, grids, and reduction  to infer both a conceptual and psychoanalytic terrain for a feminist-based performance practice.

Drawing upon the repetitions and rituals which governed the role of women in Australian society and the social constructions which see women as providers to the community of men, Jones' Ladies, bring a plate ironically became less homely and more starkly conceptual in its program, indicating an even further divide between early liberationist, essentialist propositions and the more recent interests in theoretically informed and shaped practice.

By 1981 when Lyndal Jones wrote her important LIP contribution, Performance, Feminism and Women at Work, an analysis of women's performance work and its reception by the women's art movement, the division had become clear. Her search for a performance practice based on a theoretically rigorous combination of artist - performer - image - space - time - sound - audience - historical/political, social and aesthetic contexts, reveals a link to the time/space, artists/audience considerations also at play in the project-based practices of other performance and non-performance avant-garde artists who were equally interested in art as a multi-sited, multi-disciplinary approach.

In the 1990s it has been part of the ongoing and sometimes halted development of feminist art practice, now viewed with a certain critical suspicion by a younger generation who do not wish to be so definitively annexed, to attempt a more rigorous reconciliation between the personal and the political, the compassionate and the conceptual.

Anne Graham's 'situations', which at once contain performative elements and register interest in a multi-sited, multi-disciplinary approach, bring these elements together. During the 1990s, Graham has pursued a public/community based performance in which she sets up shelters and provides food to the displaced in urban society. Such situations have been established in, for instance, the final Sculpture Triennial, Melbourne, during which Graham set up camp in various sites around the city to provide nourishment and shelter to those who sought it. Now more than a political gesture, and informed by the real-time, real-life politics of displacement and need, Graham's art refers to and combines the earlier breadline symbolics of emerging liberationist practice with the aesthetics of conceptual rigour, while recognising the genuine and desperate needs produced by a fundamental shift in a socially unequal, uncaring society in which children often significantly outnumber others in the community of destitutes.

Graham's breadline differs significantly from that of Bonita Ely's earlier New Zealand performance, Breadline, in which the artist moulded shapes of her body in bread dough, then baked and served it as she washed off in a bath of milk, as a critique on woman as a consumable product of culture. Graham places the woman's body back on the front line of responsibility for providing assistance in a double generational flip which reinstates woman in the role of nurse/mother for which she has sometimes been strenuously critiqued by those who have worked against this proposition.

Like Graham's increasingly socially conscious projects, Martha Rosler's recent works have involved community and issues of protection for those disadvantaged and displaced in the urban situation. The semiotics of the kitchen have evolved back to the fundaments of providing kitchens. Rosler's DIA Art Foundation project If you lived here has become one of the exemplary proposals of late-century community-oriented and integrated art.

So from the semiotics of the kitchen, and the dangerous Murray River punch, through the refined repetitions of domestic rituals and back again to street-level in aesthetically organised shelters and socially active projects we see food emerge as a metaphor and a meal. At the heart of the issue remains the body: the social and political body and the emotional and corporeal body.

And so it is a very different kind of cooking in the connection between art and food and women which I want to briefly dwell upon. One which is, like early performance practice, inscribed on and in the body, and one which combines issues of community with conceptualism and, as well, extends the dialogue between art, object, performance and theory via the modus operandi of minimalist disguises. I write about the home remedies, homeopathic and women's lore recipes which are now commonly found as provocative admixtures in the works of Susan Norrie.

Always one to exhume the gothic, gory bits of the body, Norrie has ventured into the kitchen drawer to find its tattered book of passed-on recipes, from which she has cooked paintings which literally ooze corporeality. Since the Room for error installation of 1991, which included her series of body-organic coloured panels, we have seen the canvases of Norrie as volatile bodies upon which a kind of alchemical cooking is performed.

Embalming recipes, fly-paper formulas, and, most recently, jam making, have all appeared in Norrie's projects to suggest the body as a fluid, organic and fragile site upon which society writes its wrongs, whether through a kind of social mummification or a dangerous liaison with the lethal environment in ecological breakdown, as in Norrie's most recent installation ERR, in which she investigates the horrors of nuclear accidents and atomic testing.

If we have in Bonita Ely's Murray River Punch the first signs of environmental collapse and toxic shock - the symptom - then Norrie's most recent object from the installation ERR 1999, an oversized jar of 'anti-radiation' jam, is the home-spun, and somewhat hopeful, yet probably hopeless antidote. Made from an ancient Ukrainian recipe of berries, Norrie's jam jar, presented perversely sealed and therefore unadministerable, is the coda in a sequence of home cooking which demonstrates food as a metaphor of political potency in the work of artists who are women.

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