In the age of social media, images of food have become almost a visual cliché. A cursory glance at any friend’s Facebook feed or Instagram account will very quickly reveal that it has become seemingly de rigueur that people share their culinary experiences via the internet. From proud home cooks to would-be travel bloggers, anyone who has spent any time cultivating the finer points of their online presence will have shared at least one meal as part of their ‘brand building.’ This strange phenomenon has reached such comic levels, that only a few weeks ago I overheard two of my colleagues making fun of a third’s attempts to do just that. His crime? He had taken a photograph of two rather ordinary looking takeaway containers of soup and posted the image on his Facebook wall under the enthusiastic caption “best soup in Budapest!” In their view, the images suggested the soup just simply wasn’t visually appealing enough to warrant documentation; he was ‘doing it wrong.’
What is lost somewhat in discussing the social media frenzy to post immaculate images of one’s culinary pursuits is that food to one extent or another has always entailed a kind of ritualistic element. The performativity of both food preparation and consumption can entail everything from grabbing a burger on the way home from after-work drinks on a Friday, to the basic mechanics of the Holy Communion, and more besides. The notion of ‘breaking bread’ with someone connotes hospitality, generosity, cultural exchange and interaction, and often includes some element of shared cooking and eating.
With that in mind, artist Susannah Worth has taken salad as a starting point to create a site-sensitive installation in the Project Space, situated in Jerwood Space’s Café 171 in South London and programmed by Jerwood Visual Arts. Building on her previous research into the way food is translated into text and language (explored in her first book, “Digesting Recipes: The Art of Culinary Notation [Zero Books, 2015], this new body of work looks at images of food, and the significance of recording ‘culinary performances’ for others to see.
The installation consists of three parts. The first is a series of tablecloths designed by Worth featuring images of different salad dishes created during an event entitled Do Things with Salad (a play on Austin’s ‘How To Do Things With Word’ and a reference to the artist’s previous focus on food and language). This communal cooking exercise was held in November 2015 at Open School East and entailed participants preparing salads from a variety of recipes and ingredients collected by Worth. The tablecloths are the documentation of this performance, augmented here by a ceramic plate inscribed with a list of the ingredients and the participant’s names, as well as a sound work.
The sound work itself is particularly interesting. Played on two sets of headphones hung up alongside the text of the work, the resulting piece is a collage of cooking sounds alongside a kind of floating narrative. It’s described in the press release as an ‘audio essay’ that combines “the sounds of labour and leisure, food preparation and consumption, analysis and anecdote, exploring some of the social, political, aesthetic, personal and historical significations of salad.” The illusion to the creation of a salad is perhaps overstated here, but the substance of the chronicle itself is certainly engaging, combining historical and personal experiences with recipes and preparation notes. It’s the clearest indication in an installation that perhaps lacks for its brevity of the depth of Worth’s research and engagement with food as source material.
In a peculiar twist, the relationship between the work and space occasionally suggests they are strangely at odds with one another. On the one hand, placing the work inside the café nicely touches on the kind of ritual of the gallery going experience; the parodied ‘exit through the gift shop and grab a coffee afterwards’ approach. However the placement of the headphones in the very narrow space between two tables and the separating wall on which they hang somehow makes this central component of the exhibition feel if not like an afterthought, than at least peripheral to what is happening.
Reading through the text of the sound work is what brings home how loaded these simple images are, arranged in neatly ordered squares on the tablecloths. Questions over our relationship to food imagery and performance are slowly teased out through the subtle interplay of these different audio strands. Individually some suggest longer stories reaching back through personal or family histories, others focus on the food itself and its mechanics. Collectively they paint a more complicated picture, one which warrants extended time with the piece to really begin to unpick these different elements.
As a body of work, what Worth has done here feels most satisfying if viewed in terms of her previous work and research. Food is heavily laden with cultural signifiers, and the emphasis on specific ingredients and also the ethnic background of recipes as well as some of the characters in the audio essay help open up cultural economies not necessarily so obvious in the age of globalisation and trendy eating establishments. On this point in particular, Worth’s exhibition feels like an engaging progression in an equally interesting field of research.
By Will Gresson