It’s a tradition in the United States penal system that a prisoner gets to request his favorite food before he is executed. The practice says a lot about the primacy of food in this culture, that a good meal is used for torment, as a reminder of all that will soon be snatched away.
Just as clothing does more than cover a runway model, food is used for far more than nutrition in all societies. The photographers featured in Excess: Food as a Metaphor and Other Strategies of Consumption are quite aware of that fact.
Excess, at the Fine Arts Center Photography Gallery at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston from September 16 through October 28, is being presented in conjunction with this year’s Honors Colloquium, "Food &Human Rights, Hunger & Social Policy." (The opening reception will be on Thursday, September 16 from 4:30 to 6 p.m.)
The prison motif came into play right away, when URI galleries director Judith Tolnik first started thinking about doing a colloquium-related show. Celia A. Shapiro began her "Last Suppers" series in 1999, recreating the requested final meals of executed prisoners.
"I discovered these Celia Shapiro images in Aperture and I said, ‘Wow!’ " Tolnik recalled. "I mean, this is a whole other dimension. The last meal, the last supper and the connotation of coming at a societal question through food, obviously, and economics. That was the springboard, really. Once I could secure the loan of these photographs, I knew I had some genesis, and a peculiar genesis that rooted in the notion of excess."
Peculiar was a virtue because she wanted the show to get away from usual ways that food is depicted in photographs. To surprise our expectations, she went so far as to include stereo images requiring hand-held viewers.
"When I first heard of the colloquium, I knew that it might mean trouble," Tolnik said. "Because the first thing one thinks of is pictures of starving Biafrans, and I knew I didn’t want to do that."
So she didn’t. Shapiro’s "Timothy McVeigh, 11-06-01" (2001) simply shows a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream dripping little light green puddles on a blue plastic tray. The image packs in an ironic vulnerability as well as graphic finesse. Similarly multi-dimensional, Anthony Goicolea’s "Feastlings" (2001) is about more than an impending food fight. The artist has composited himself as nine antic public school 15-year-olds mobbing a banquet table in a stately hall, dour portraits above them — staring in understanding or disdain?
A last example: a New York Times 2000 campaign photograph by Stephen Crowley shows the then-governor Bush, wealthy son of a father who didn’t know what a checkout scanner was, playing just plain folks behind a drug store lunch counter; our lack of cognitive disconnect when we look at the image should be frightening.
The most significant way Tolnick found to get away from usual suspects was to invite along Marquisa LaVelle to explore potential inclusions and co-curate the show. "I saw her quoted in an obesity issue in Time magazine and said, ‘Who’s this person at URI that I don’t know?’ " she said.
LaVelle is a professor of anthropology, a specialist in human variation, growth, development, and aging with a self-described interest in "the extremes of human adaptability."
She begins her essay in the show’s brochure — which is, incidentally, designed like a menu — with this observation: "When faced with a meal, humans dine; whereas all other animals merely eat. That is, we humans define, develop, procure, prepare, present and consume our food within the deeply layered realms of our cultures. From the perspectives of anthropology, we think our food and we dine our culture. As such, food and foodways are steeped in magic, medicine, power, family, identity, class and gender, as well as artistic expression."
LaVelle learned from her counterpart’s observations. "What has struck me is the power of the photographer to evoke a very complicated set of ethical dilemmas in a deceptively simple photograph — that talent I was not aware of. I mean, when you think of photography, you think of someone taking a picture of a hungry kid or a helicopter or a crowd scene, you think of them as anonymous recorders."
Both curators complemented each other’s perspective. There was a world of images to select from, and a world and a half when they started exploring the Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson & Wales University.
"Judith would get all excited about something, hold it up," LaVelle recalled. " ‘Yeah, that’s very arty.’ And I would hold up something absolutely dreadful looking — I’m looking at the cultural content, but she’s looking at the composition and the movement. It’s got to have both."
Issue Date: September 11 - 16, 2004
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