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Art review: ‘Food: Bigger than the Plate’ at the V&A

27 September 2019

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition about how we eat now and will eat

© Estate of Abram Games

“Use Spades Not Ships. Grow Your Own Food and Supply Your Own Cookhouse”, poster, Great Britain,1941-45, “Food” at the V&A. See gallery for more images

“Use Spades Not Ships. Grow Your Own Food and Supply Your Own Cookhouse”, poster, Great Britain,1941-45, “Food” at the V&A. See gallery for more i...

MY FIRST published exhibition review was for a show at the V&A of Japanese art. I can recall nothing from it at all apart from a carved-ice sculpture of a dolphin that started to glisten as it melted at the press reception. The sushi and sashimi came as sheer delight to a 16-year old schoolboy let out from boarding school, where Matron apparently had to feed us on a meagre 2s. 6d. per capita daily allowance, no matter how much our parents coughed up for the fees. I well understood the Prodigal Son and his pig swill.

I visited the exhibtion on the Friday afternoon when Boris Johnson had chosen to appear in the papers wearing a scarf of pork sausages. That struck an odd note for some of the likely voters whom he was presumably wooing in the leadership contest — in Margaret Thatcher’s old constituency, for instance — and will not have gone down well in many other mixed communities.

As it happens, there is a good deal about the intelligent pig here. The short life-cycle of a Basque piglet, Zelai, from birth to canning factory, has been photographed by Elaine Tin Nyo as if for “Baby’s First Album”, the photos stuck on the side of 182 cans of pork pâté. A later artist/scientist/polemicist, Caroline Neibling, has made sausages without meat; insect salami and apple blood sausage reminded me of the diets, recorded by Bede, of many Celtic monks.

The daughter of a Shropshire vet has used a single cow to make suede and leather luxury goods, including boots and a desirable jacket. Equally creatively, Christina Agapakis demonstrates that any bacteria can be used in cheese-making. The culture for one mozzarella on display was from Professor Green’s belly button, and Heston Blumenthal has allowed his nostril and pubic hair to be used for a Comté.

This might once have been the sort of didactic exhibition that marked the Commonwealth Institute in its heyday, but now it felt more like a hand-me-down from the Science Museum or the Wellcome Foundation, complete with a commercial sponsor from the food industry.

Set out in four areas (Composting, Farming, Trading, and Eating), the exhibition reminds us that we are what we eat and encourages us to relate more closely to the food that we consume; nauseatingly, we are told that “the future is in our hands and nothing is off the table.” Quite. The Bible has a good deal to say about food, both in the Levitical Code and in St Peter’s vision at Joppa (Acts 10.9 -16), texts that might give vegetarians and vegans pause for thought.

There is much, too, about recycling: a wine bottle and its label turn out to be made from grape skins and discarded vine branches (Ludovica Cantarelli), and Julian Lechner has gathered Berliners’ waste of coffee beans to make coffee cups.

Not to be outdone, the V&A café is using the waste from the thousand or more cups of coffee served each day as a nutrient to grow oyster mushrooms that will be sold in the restaurant. What surprised me was how few cups of coffee they claim to sell daily.

In Holland, Niene Hoogvliet recycles used lavatory paper to make cups and bowls. If I tell you that Gianantonio Locatelli manages a herd of 3000 cows, you will have little difficulty in working out what constitutes the “Merdacotta” from which he has carved tables and chairs.

Some of the provocation is entirely visual. The Chicana artist Esther Hernandez has long subverted a brand for American sun-dried raisins to highlight the appalling working conditions of migrant labourers in the United States; and a “Banana passport” tracks a crate of bananas for 8800km over a single fortnight from Ecuador to Iceland (and I mean the country).

The wartime “Dig for Victory” campaign neatly spliced a spade on to a ship’s prow to encourage food production at home: “Use spades not ships” is a famous poster by Abram Games (1914-96). With our forthcoming winter of discontent, that may prove a timely reminder, but what the Two Fat Ladies would have made of this dog’s dinner is anybody’s guess.

“Food: Bigger than the Plate”, sponsored by BaxterStorey, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 20 October. Phone 020 7942 2000. www.vam.ac.uk

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