Broadsheet vol 29 no 4 Dec 2000, Jan & Feb 2001

Oscar's Painting ( and how we came to fear the protein pill)


Food is to be one of the central concerns of the forthcoming Adelaide Festival. The following text consists of partial thoughts on the changing and protean positions and representations of food in contemporary culture.


When I was a student at art school there was, in the painting department, an alcoholic ex-boxer student. Lets call him Oscar. He was a compulsive painter, red hot on exploring those concerns themes and formal tropes that painting had traditionally explored. He had a particular passion for painting still lives. He would start a vast canvas, setting up in front of his easel a pyramid of apples and other fruit. He was a meticulous worker, but prone to infrequent but extended interruption when he launched on one of his benders which took him away from the studio: indeed he worked at such a considered pace that the fruit would always wither, fold into itself and grow brown spots and rot faster than he could record their appearance on his canvas, so he was doomed never to finish a single painting. The time he tried painting a decapitated chicken the smell was indescribable.


At the time I found something comic in this, as well as something I am ashamed to say, demeaning. Without knowing it I was an avowed modernist - this was the late seventies, a time when such attitudes were still largely unchallenged - and certain that specific approaches and certain forms had a de-facto superiority to those which Oscar was using, or trying to use. I was making performances and videos. These were inevitably more 'advanced', whilst, in act and conversation, the ex-boxer's articulated agendas were passionate but reactionary; but what I didn't recognise was that in his attempts to paint he was coming up with a work far more resonant than those that I was attempting, and that his still-life undertaking was exploring an intersection between life and death that art has long explored. And I thought that they were only fruit.


What Oscar was enacting was a performed vanitas, and, even had I seen this at the time I would have seen this as taking place almost despite the still life painting that he was trying to make. I was not aware that in the most conservative still life painting of food or vegetables or fruit there is as part of the warp and weft, a warning that all things must pass: encapsulated in the French phrase for still life -'Nature Morte'. That the bounty of this world will in the end all turn to dust. Or spotty rotten apples - that at the point of perfection is the seed of the inevitable demise - at least this was there until the still life turned into just another formal pedagogic exercise. It was this dark atavistic subtext that made the still life so resonant for artists such as Picasso, and which makes its disappearance from contemporary art so strange and so surprising. But disappear it has: were you to walk around a group show of art contemporary to the 1890's and then walk round one of art of the last ten years you would think that the outcome desired by sci-fi writers of the 50's and 60's had been achieved, and that the messy shitty matter of food had been replaced by the silvery protein pill. In contemporary Western art perhaps the last time that representations of food and foodstuffs played any big part was during Pop -the early to mid sixties - where representations of soup cans, hamburgers, hotdogs, ice-cream sundae's came to represent the abundance and modernity of a hallucinatory America. These are foodstuffs that are processed, the result of technological transformation: part way already to being a pill. It is interesting to ask whether it is coincidental that this is the time that the baby-boom cult of youth is becoming embedded in the social imagination, leaving less demand in the psychic market place for the reflections that the vanitas is meant to prompt. There was perhaps no room either for food or death when travelling the shiny trajectory of utopian modernism.


This disappearance of food from visual representation in art has coincided with other, seemingly contradictory shifts in the positioning of food and contemporary Western culture. The ability to cook has now become so partial and eroded for so many people, (because people no longer learn from their mothers, and it is no longer taught in schools) that community kitchens have been set up in some council estates in the UK so that people can learn to prepare fresh foods - the economics of the sink estate of late capitalism meaning two things: supermarkets and markets are unwilling to locate themselves there, therefore people cannot get access to fresh, unprocessed food, at the same time the purchasers incomes are such that they cannot properly afford or find high quality processed food so are reduced to a diet of starches salt, additives and sugar: they are feasting on the foodstuffs celebrated by Warhol, Oldenburg and Rosenquist, to their detriment. The kitchens aim to pass on the skills to cope with fresh food to save money and improve health, and to stimulate a demand that the suppliers - the shops and supermarkets - will (hopefully) have to meet. It is through such weird logics such as those that the kitchens seek to address that in surreal reversal to the start of the last century, in the west, obesity is now a problem for the poor: it is the rich who are thin and lean.


Coincident with this inversion, is the plethora of images and texts in publications - their photographic representation shaped by the traditions of painting that Oscar was working with - aimed at a middle class readership, which feature recipes, techniques and diets that are regional, seasonal and drawn from peasant rural cultures. These dishes usually reflect a regionality, locality and class grouping which are alien to the majority of readers of the Australian or Sydney Morning Herald Saturday supplement: but they have become global connoisseurs of regional produce in emulation of the food writers; experts both on olive oils and Thai spicings, and who can pass judgement on a risotto or a congee with equal authority.


One drive behind this embrace of diverse 'others' must be a desire for the 'real', a wish for a profound engagement with place and nature that has necessarily been removed from the quotidian life of the urban professional, and which becomes more and more attractive as social anxieties and stresses are racked up and thing become more uncertian with each technological change to the means of production. In previous times the regional and the seasonal were seen as constraints to be overcome once one had the wealth and means to do so: now they are seen as possessing strange powers, almost like mysterious local gods or totems, that might momentarily giv the benefit of their protection to the western twentieth century traveller made giddy through an excess of wealth and means. Here in Australia ideas of locality and regionality have a particular poignancy and complexity as the everyday diet of white Australia must be one of the least shaped by the indigenous foodstuffs and cuisines of the land of any country in the world. Compare Australia to the Americas and the wholehearted adoption of the corn cob, the turkey, the potato, the chilli etcetera; here there are hardly any unique foodstuffs in common use in the kitchen, the macadamia, kangaroo meat, the yabby and wattle seed are commonplace only on restaurant menus.


Another reason for the embracing of foods that are of a pre-urban, pre-industrial society and production, is the recognition that somehow our own immediate world has become toxic. We eat Cretan to avoid cancer, we anoint ourselves with Ligurian olive oil for the sake of our hearts, we eat Sushi and Sashimi seeking a diet high in Omega 3's: 'our' modern food in contrast, at best,now makes us large, pink, misshapen, with rotten teeth: at worst it gives us fatty arteries and cancerous bowels and an early death. Alarmingly the forces of capital and technology that were to have delivered us the protein pill, the assured technological future, seem now to be pulling us back towards a messy physical entropy: we cannot look at an arrangement of certain processed foods in advertising or supermarkets without thinking of the chemicals and additives, of unnamed growth internal tubes, or the stabbing squeeze of a heart in spasm. The vanitas, the memento mori, has returned, in our understanding if not in representation: but now it seems not only to offer a reminder of the cycles of growth and decay but a sci-fi techno death as well.


Our 'white bread' reflections are only at the start of our recent awareness of how deep the corruption runs: the European agribusiness transformation of cows into carnivores through the re-cycling of sheep meat and nervous tissue - for economic reasons only - into cattle-feed, caused the 'mad cow' epidemic, and its fatal and hideous cross-over into the human species, CJD, the ultimate scale of which still remains a mystery. Although we may have avoided British or European Beef, our resistance to antibiotics may be crucially boosted through their overuse use in the prevention of contagious disease in overcrowded battery hens. We have an US government that chooses to see French resistance to beef loaded with growth hormones as an 'anti-competitive' stance rather than an issue to do with health. Food currently is right at the forefront of the debate on the contemporary relations between the individual and capital: the cultural struggle between the corporate body and the personal one, between the market and the nation.


Over recent years some new developments in food have become directly interwoven with shifts in ideas of culture, ownership and production. The ideas of 'intellectual ownership' that are the legal foundations which allow corporations like Monsanto to own, and therefore make money out of, the descriptions of genes and D.N.A sequences, are identical to those which were being fought for by artists writers, and organisations such as the National Association for the Visual Arts in the eighties and nineties: before the gene technologies were more than a blip on the event horizon. Then people thought that they were fighting the 'appropriation wars', that we were standing up for the right for the artist to have ownership of that which they had created or described. One does not have to be a gibbering conspiracy theorist to think that maybe the artists and the liberal and intellectual middle classes were used by some brightspark lawyers with an eye to the future, as a Trojan horse to establish securely the ideas of 'intellectual property' in contradiction to the alternative free and uncontrolled circulation and use of knowledge. Copyright became hip, and so we travelled from the culture wars to the terminator gene in one easy lesson.


I don't know what Oscar's thoughts were on intellectual property. I don't know if he is still making paintings today: if he is, he might even get one finished as the apples are now treated with chemicals and sometimes radiation to slow down change and decay - unless of course he's bought organic, but I doubt that, Oscar never had too much money and what he did have went on paint and drink, not fruit - but I do know that Oscar was right, no matter how wrong headed his operations my have seemed: Food and its roles and relations to us - physically, psychologically, psychically - to self, to culture, to state, to corporation, remains too important, too contemporary, too central, to be allowed to disappear.