Fruiting Bodies: Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery is pleased to present Fruiting Bodies, a group exhibition curated by Sam Rauch, on view at the gallery in New York from June 23 - July 29, 2022.
You are what you eat is an aphorism so often repeated, the power of its proposition hides in plain sight. Nevertheless, food is a powerful vehicle for storytelling, inextricably connected with the construction of personal and collective identity. In this exhibition, food functions as a medium and subject. Artists mine food’s cultivation, exchange, consumption, and the social and cultural rituals that accrue to it, as a means to examine complex intersections of history, politics, language, psychology, and natural science. A uniquely embodied form of knowledge, food offers fertile ground for artistic and intellectual inquiry into the human and more-than-human realms.
Visitors arriving to the gallery entrance first encounter a suite of four videos from 2017 by the Berlin-based Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, formulated as fictive TV commercials for Sufferhead Original, a craft beer conceived for documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany, and subsequent exhibitions, as a gustatory expression of the experience of African migrants in Europe. A proudly dark and spicy stout, Sufferhead Original pointedly transgresses the restrictive tenets of the Reinheitsgebot, an active German law dating back to the 16th century which strictly limits the allowable ingredients in beer. In a rejoinder to the racist and xenophobic social mores that such a “purity law” evokes, Ogboh’s irrepressibly catchy videos feature elaborately costumed actors of African origin, set in a series of venues–Basel, Frankfurt, Baden-Baden, and the Hofgarten Munich, site of Adolf Hitler’s infamous 1937 “degenerate art” exhibition–that allude to Germany’s troubled history of ethnic discord and the contemporary echos that reverberate across Europe in an era of increasing migration.
Continuing to the main gallery, concepts of migration and transgression reappear in the mixed media installation Seed Mast, by San Francisco-based multidisciplinary artist collective Futurefarmers. An expansive wooden sailing ship’s mast and boom extends from floor to ceiling, a variety of heritage grains spill out from the base of the mast and are contained in a series of glass bottles arrayed along the length of the boom. The installation and accompanying printed matter are artifacts of Futurefarmers’ 2016-2018 project Seed Journey, in which members of the collective sailed from Oslo to Istanbul in a c.1895 wooden rescue ship, on an epic reverse-migratory voyage to return a diverse collection of ancient grains to their points of historical origin. These “heterogeneous, unstable, and indescribable” grains, having largely fallen out of production more than a century ago, now boast a kind of outlaw status, resisting the narrow genetic parameters for commercial viability imposed by the increasingly monocultural and globalized agribusiness industry.
Food opens as a window into a different sort of outlaw psyche in Frank McFarland, Gary Miller, and Jeffrey Barney, three still life photographs by British artist Mat Collishaw that depict the final meals of prisoners on death row in the state of Texas. Exactingly reproduced and rendered in the darkly mysterious style of Flemish master paintings, Collishaw’s images evoke the memento mori and vanitas genres of still life, sobering reminders of the shortness and fragility of life and the futility of worldly possessions and pleasures. Whether as an indulgence or as a quiet gesture of defiance, these meals offer poignant testimony to the final acts of agency exercised by those condemned to die.
A sumptuous feast sustains a number of tiny, precious lives in American artist Dana Sherwood’s installation Confectionary Lives of Snails. Inside a glass vitrine, snails slowly graze on their surroundings–living on, and eating from, a hybrid pastry/topiary sculpture consisting of soil, live plants, and a variety of flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables assembled to form a luscious confection. Known for investigating the convergence of wild nature and domestic culture, Sherwood frequently uses food as an inducement to interspecies collaboration in a practice that spans painting, drawing, video, and mixed-media works. Within Sherwood’s microcosmic installation, life is nourished and unfolds before us at a snail’s leisurely pace.
Slower still is the proliferation of fungi, an abundant and mysterious form of life with a complex and highly contextual relationship to humankind. Certain fungi (e.g., truffles) are highly prized in the culinary realm, collected or cultivated where possible; other forms show uncanny intelligence and compete with us, consuming our food in the form of mold. The distinction between “good” fungi that can be eaten and the “invasive” forms that cause our food to “go bad” is an ideological one, an anthropocentric system of value that neglects to account for the vital role fungi play in supporting critical ecosystems. Divorced from its pejorative connotations, the normally repellent aesthetic of food rot becomes alluring in Copenhagen and Beijing-based Liu Shiyuan’s Almost Like Rebar No. 5 and American artist Kathleen Ryan’s Bad Lemon (Eclipse). Liu’s large-scale photo-collage features close-up images of foods in various states of decay, arrayed across a gridded background, collectively revealing the visual and textural nuances of decomposition. Ryan’s bejeweled sculpture gives physical form to this phenomenon, with nearly two dozen types of semi-precious stones creating an exquisitely intricate and vibrant surface of “mold” enveloping a larger-than-life halved lemon.
Only in recent decades have humans begun to map the massive subterranean networks of mycorrhizal fungi which form a living web of connections between plants, allowing both exchange of vital nutrients and inter-species communication. Virtually all fungal activity takes place beyond human view; only the reproductive “fruiting bodies” that surface in the familiar form of mushrooms and mold hint at the vastness of this foundational form of life. Mold itself is the medium in Mur de concentré de tomate, a work by Monaco-born, L'Île-Saint-Denis-based artist Michel Blazy, on view for the first time in the United States. Known for using living materials in conceptual works that question the authorial status of the artist, Blazy’s installation consists of penicillium fungi that have bloomed on the surface of a wall coated in double-concentrated tomato paste. A meditation on the generative potential of decomposition, the form of the work cannot be predetermined or strictly controlled, only encouraged and allowed to flourish. By allowing the tomato paste to mold, we decondition a product transformed by the food industry, returning it to the uncontrolled cycle and time of living matter. The tomato paste thus escapes a timeline dictated by habits of commercial consumption, released from its “sell by” date and freed to interact with the apparently aseptic biotope of the gallery (humidity released by visitors, spores in suspension, insects and other microorganisms). Over time, the fungi inhabiting Mur de concentré de tomate create a kind of slow-motion action painting, an organic abstraction that reveals itself according to its own unknowable prerogatives.
Occupying the entire rear gallery is the immersive video installation The Contest of the Fruits by Slavs and Tatars, a Berlin-based collective devoted to mapping the literary and political geography of Eurasia through a wide-ranging practice spanning books, lectures, and exhibitions. Emblematic of their multidisciplinary, research-based approach, The Contest of the Fruits reconceives a nineteenth-century Uyghur allegorical poem as an animated Turkic rap battle between anthropomorphized fruits, subtitled in English and Chinese. Thirteen native fruits ranging from mulberries to jujubes, their bodies composed of calligraphic treatments of their names spelled in the Uyghur alphabet, vie for supremacy through a ribald exchange of taunts and boasts. A satirical take on munazara, the Muslim tradition popularly translated as “debate,” The Contest of the Fruits foregrounds the importance of language preservation and social ritual for ethnic self-representation and cultural resistance. The use of food as a literary device, characteristic of the artists’ combination of scholarly rigor and irreverent presentation, is a potent strategy to disinhibit viewers from engaging with the sensitive and politically charged ideas that reside at the crossroads of language, religion, and identity in a pluralistic world.
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Sam Rauch is the Director, Commissions & Special Projects, at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
Original support for The Contest of the Fruits was provided to the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities, Haverford College by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia.
All installation images above: Photo by Dan Bradica