When artistic discourse uses gastronomy to weave in discussions on geopolitics, socio-cultural norms and the environment, it's a feast of the senses — taste, smell, sight, and yes the mind too. And so it was at the recent In Context: public.art.ecology: Food Edition III in Delhi's KHOJ Studios that showcased art that was both tangible and perishable.
As part of its newest exhibition, KHOJ Studios continued its curation of dialogues of "ecological issues surrounding food". The dialogues pushed forward were on issues as diverse as the environment, health food, bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, abstinence and social survival. The outcome of a month-long residency of eight artists, the artworks ranged from visual installations to recipes, food walks to board games.
Central to all these 'food-fuelled' artworks was the anthropological push. For Mumbai-based raw food activist Mona Gandhi, for instance, that search took the form of engaging with strangers through what she terms is the 'uncooking' of food. "I wanted to invite people to a felt experience, if not a verbal one, where we talk about our food: are there too many chemicals in them, is it too processed for our bodies, is it harming the farmer who is breaking sweat to cultivate it, and generally, the politics that surround our food," says Gandhi, a cancer survivor who turned to raw food 16 years ago at the behest of her yoga teacher.
Gandhi is part of a community farming group that works with peasants. As part of her artwork, 'Eat Future Tense', Gandhi cooked a cashew-based Burmese khao suey that had boiled sprouts topped with pomegranate, shallots, lemon and celery. Visitors stood around her and were rewarded with a taste of the final product.
"What is food today might not have been food for our grandparents. Instead of protesting against corporates, I attempt to re-engage with them on newer terms. Activists usually band together and the knowledge does not permeate into the circles where it needs to be discussed. I want to engage in difficult dialogues," says Gandhi.
Artist-activist Ravi Agarwal's 'A Feast of Sorts', a triptych of videos of food discussions placed on the three sides of a wooden table that sported a collage of food-related words — nourishment, calories, taste, hunger, genetics — explored the aspects of abstinence, immersion or cognizance of food. Sufi, Sikandar Ali Baba, talked of employing food as a form of denial through fasting in the search of a higher self.
Gandhi discussed how the agricultural act of eating has its consequences on our health and on ecology. Linguist Rukmini Bhaya Nair delved into the complex, intertwined world of cognition and languages. A black and white video of a man slowly sipping his soup glared down as visitors watched the videos.
Agarwal's other artworks in the series include 'Gandhi' — a moving black and white image of Mahatma Gandhi fasting with the tagline 'I'm loving it' flickering at the bottom of the screen.
For Pakistani artists Rabbya Naseer and Hurmat Ul Ain, the search for "reciprocity on issues of displacement, post-partition psyche and conflicting self-identities" employed food in different ways. In 'Tea Break', they hosted a tea party to address their immediate experience of being in Delhi while constantly negotiating the boundaries between 'us' and 'them'. In 'Crow Effect', they invited strangers for a home-cooked Pakistani dinner in countries outside Pakistan to explore the boundaries of hospitality and exchange across cultures.
"Food has a value placed on it in the contemporary context as a gift, and in a socio-religious context, of a blessing. When artists decide to engage with food as a medium in their art, they are using all these inherent implications and coding of food that comes with it to their advantage. Our work builds on ideas of politicising this exchange by playing with the notion of expectation, gratification and gratitude," says Hurmat.
Italian artist Leone Contini, who has been borrowing the tools of contemporary anthropology for a while to research on intercultural frictions, conflict and power relations, took his search to the archaeological ruins of Satpula, a Mughal-era dam barely a kilometre from Khirki Masjid and close to the exhibition venue. He found a smelly sewer that merges with the Yamuna downstream and learnt that it was once a stream considered sacred to both Hindus and Muslims. He came across a lot of vegetables cultivated at this corrupted farming landscape and picked up some lauki (bottle gourd) and sent it to a chemical laboratory to "search for the possible presence of heavy metals". Upstream, he came across Majnu-ka-Tilla, a Tibetan settlement in north Delhi where he picked up bok choy and sent it for testing too. On the day of the exhibition, as part of the Bottlegourd Bokchoy Ballet, he invited people to taste a meal cooked with both the ingredients, as he revealed the results of the tests that found a high content of mercury and chromium in both the vegetables. He did not expect people to come forward but they did.
"I started using food in Tuscany as a relational device to involve Chinese migrants in public art projects, and to rethink the identity patterns of the local Italians. My practice is related with this familiarity that I built in Italy with vegetables from the otherness," says Contini.
Simran Chopra's 'Appetite', a board game on a thela chequered with red and white squares that involves a player making his way by eating various types of food, tried to look for the consumerist equation we share with corporates. When the game ended, Chopra informed that the red squares were the corporations while the white ones were farmers. "The thela is a platform where consumers first chance upon the food," she says.
Conceptual gastronomist Ryan Bromley, who was part of a talk during the residency preceding the exhibition, feels that though India has ignored critical discussions on gastronomy, the move of food into the art world must be welcomed. "In an artistic context, the role of food in art is very different from molecular gastronomy, yet in both the areas, the sudden surge of enthusiasm will push for a larger cause. In India, the move in the expectation of dining is pushing stylists to come up with challenging stuff," says Bromley.
Food formed the fulcrum of societal exchanges in this creative discourse. But, if all goes well, this is a conversation that has just begun.