By Stacy Davies
There’s a growing awareness in our nation, finally, regarding what we put in our mouths. From Oscar-nominated documentaries like Food, Inc., which reveals the horrifying effects of corporate farming (pesticides, inhumane conditions for harvested animals) and The World According to Monsanto, which examines the company’s genetically engineered seeds, bovine growth hormones and its monopoly on seeds, we are no longer completely in the dark about where our food comes from.
First Lady Michelle Obama is tackling childhood obesity, as best she can—up against fast food corporations and blowhards who, we are to assume, prefer lethargic, moody, unhealthy children—and every week some friend of mine reminds me, yet again, that I really need to stop drinking Diet Coke. I know. . .
The good news is that being healthy and thinking about what you stick in your mouth besides your foot is no longer niche idealism (remember the ’70s when wheat germ made you laugh out loud?). Society at large is embracing the concept of eating better, even though we’re the fattest we’ve ever been, and some people are so vocal about their exceptional dietary habits that you really wish they would just choke on a chicken bone—you know, like, once.
In an examination of all the edible things we call “food,” the Wignall Museum’s new exhibit “Food for Thought: A Question of Consumption,” curated by Rebecca Trawick, strikes many interesting chords, from activism to cloning, to good old-fashioned farming and inner-city harvesting projects.
Edith Abeyta’s series of earthenware, Black Panther Lunch Club, revisits the activist organization’s efforts in the war on hunger among African Americans. Looking much like a school mascot, the panther is painted onto plates in various poses, creating a feeling of unification and a team effort to win, in this case, a very important battle that extends far beyond scholastic bragging rights. It’s the placemats that tell the story, however, and the quote issued from the Black Panthers in 1969 that addresses their efforts, particularly when it comes to feeding children who have been passing out in class due to hunger. It’s touching and moving (especially if you’ve ever witnessed it firsthand, as I have), and it’s a problem that was not helped by Reagan declaring that ketchup is a vegetable or, more recently, Congress deciding that 1/8th of a cup of tomato paste is equal in nutritional value to a half cup of vegetables (although The Washington Post points out that it’s true, all that other garbage that goes into a pizza, including preservatives, puts it leagues below the “less nutritional” raw apple used in the Post’s study).
“Fallen Fruit,” a collaborative project by David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young, includes a video piece documenting the group’s Neighborhood Fruit Forage, in which members and supporters troll the streets of L.A. and pick fruit that hangs over residential property lines and fences, considering it “free.” In a bold move, the group put their video on YouTube and in the finished product include critical posts from viewers, many of which are racist, homophobic and sometimes, hilariously on the money. Remarks such as “only white people would ever think this is legal,” and noting that all of the group members are, indeed, white (therefore unafraid of being arrested?) are actually worthy critiques, but examining culturally inbred white privilege is a topic for another show. More effective than taking fruit one does not need, is the group’s advocating of the planting of fruit trees on public property, and some of the installation pieces of kitchenware engraved with YouTube viewers more hostile statements induce a rather chilling effect when read on the blade of a very large kitchen knife.
Jessica Rath’s photo series of cloned fruit trees and porcelain sculptures of rare apples (including one from Kazakhstan, where the edible apple originated) are visually appealing, but require reading the background text in order to resonate, and Anne Hammersky’s photos of farmers utilizing alternative food systems are not only revealing in content but compositionally exceptional.
The collection that might make the biggest impression, however, is Mark Menjivar’s portraits of the interiors of people’s refrigerators. One ice box is filled to the frosty top with piles of a 12 point buck that was shot on the family’s property, and the image might give even the proudest of carnivores pause. Truly frightening, however, are the shots of fridge shelves that belong to a man who lives on $432 a month (wasabi mayo and a black bag), and a botanist who keeps water in an old Pepsi 2-liter bottle and eats hamburger buns plain—none of which would be so bad if it weren’t for all of the dirt and hair that resides alongside the food inside these Frigidaires. Less troublesome, but only slightly, are the images from a gallery owner who apparently survives on only organic milk, beer and five tubs of whipped cream cheese, and a social studies teacher who keeps a dozen unrecognizable items in mason jars. At least she’s not a biologist, I guess.
All of it is fascinating, to be sure, but I wager that none of it will change your eating habits. It will give you much more to think about, of course—if only that you never, ever want to look inside anyone else’s refrigerator without first giving them a few hours fair warning.
“Food for Thought: A Question of Consumption” at Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, Chaffey College, 5885 Haven Ave. Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 652-6492; www.chaffey.edu/wignall. Open Mon.-Thurs., 10AM-4PM; Sat., noon-4PM. Thru March 24. Free.