Showing at the Art Gallery of NSW until mid-June, The Way We Eat is a provocative exploration of the inspiring pleasures, angst, and centrality of food in our lives. A mosaic of artistic mediums represents four thematic categories in the exhibition: ‘Essential’, ‘Exchange’, ‘Excess’ and ‘Enchanted’. They divulge the differences between foods; how it is sourced, cultivated, and stored; the kinds of instruments used as vehicles for our ritualistic consumption; the cultural and social significance of food; and its symbolic value and meaning. The intimacy of this exhibition encourages a personalised consideration of experiences with food; my journey through it prompted reflection on my grandmother’s immigration from a remote, war-torn Greek village to Australia.
‘Essential’ showcases a collection of utensils and crockery used to gather, cook, and store food. In this section, the aesthetic longevity and physical durability of the pieces are emphasised, inviting comparisons with more contemporary, disposable tools. Some artefacts of note include an Ewer with chicken head and dragon handle from the Sui-Tang dynasty in China. The stoneware is coated with a clear glaze and features intricate animal carvings. The Chicken cup from the Qing dynasty – Yongzheng-Qianlong periods – is porcelain with blue underglaze and doucai overglaze enamels, decorated with a family of brightly painted chickens.
The exhibition unites these items in appreciation for the artistry of lacquerware and ceramics used in the making and serving of food, the innovation and skill required in their building, shaping, and decoration. This recognition has always had its place in my childhood. My grandmother’s kitchen was lined with Grecian vases and jugs that we were never allowed to use or touch, unofficially repurposed for exhibition. The Way We Eat conveys how these works of art relegated to display and disuse have been sacrificed for the convenience and affordability of unsustainable disposables.
‘Exchange’ displays more serving dishes and food wares, highlighting their trade both internationally and intimately among individuals and families. This is embodied by the Bencharong ware tazza: porcelain decorated with five-colour enamel, made in Jingdezhen, China, from the 1700s to early 1800s. This piece encapsulates the international trade of food wares, generated to be exported to Thailand. However, placed in proximity to other ‘serving’ pieces such as Large dish with design of two dragons, a Ming dynasty piece of earthenware, a subtext of intimate food-sharing emerges.
Food-sharing rituals have always been important in my family, my grandmother taking pride in sustaining the traditions of her childhood. As a family, we have never known mealtime to be anything other than a communal practice, sharing dishes of food as well as space, wisdom, and appreciation.
The exhibition continues with ‘Excess,’ exploring food waste and equality of access. The painting State Banquet and Civilian Food by Shen Liang features twenty-one “mouth-watering” recipes painted with watercolour and acrylic on handkerchiefs, juxtaposed against 21“dull” dishes. This incredible, large-scale piece divulges the serious and growing issues of food inequity, despite modern technologies designed to produce mass amounts of food as entire communities starve.
This mantra had its place in dinner-table discourse with my grandmother. Her family only ever tasted meals they could reliably grow themselves, upon which quantity also depended. Immigration only compounded their poverty; my grandmother certainly never had enough food to fill a modern table. Instead, she recalls eating slices of bread for entire meals, and sharing a single bowl of soup with seven other family members. Most interestingly to me as a child, the first time she had even heard of a banana was on a boat ride from Rhodes to Australia. A fruit I could easily drive to a supermarket and purchase was, for her, an entire continent out of reach. The Way We Eat prompted meditation on the traumatic intergenerational prevalence of food anxiety and the scarcity my grandmother experienced.
Finally, ‘Enchanted’ coheres our understanding of the cultural and symbolic significance of food; the traditions it maintains and togetherness it fosters. Food preparation and consumption are a kind of familial ceremony, showcased perfectly in the ‘Fu’ ritual vessel of the Qing dynasty, Tongzhi period. A bronze-imitation vessel used in ritual ceremonies, this particular instrument is coloured yellow for worshipping earth and agriculture, symbolic of luck and prosperity in Chinese culture.
The Way We Eat embraces anxieties and pleasures of food simultaneously, expressing its cultural, socio-political and ecological importance. Intending to evoke strong and personal interpretations, this exhibition felt like an ode to my grandmother, and her particular experiences with food. Furthermore, the exhibition invites greater reflection on our role in the way food shapes “lives and times”, contrasting contemporary experiences with that of our ancestors and the growing issues of overconsumption, food waste, inaccessibility and inequity.