Food Art Exhibition at PIFO New Art Gallery, organised by the international charity Oxfam as part of their global “GROW” campaign, aims to raise awareness of poverty in relation to production and access to food, but the art exhibition on show raises issues concerning the effectiveness of this form of presentation.
Although art shows undertaken to promote charitable issues have worthy intentions that should in most cases be supported, there is a troublesome tendency for the art to be the least considered part of the affair. In the face of the important or urgent issues raised, the artworks often appear irrelevant or ineffectual, and there is a tendency to favour unproblematic or vague artistic responses to avoid distracting from the subject matter. Given art’s potential as a creative medium, one would hope that it could play an important part in productively contributing to the issues, rather than simply acting as a background or window-dressing.
When an organisation chooses to collaborate with artists to promote their cause, there is on the one hand the possibility of a bland presentation if the art avoids dealing directly with the issues; on the other, of a troublesome outcome if the art attempts to address the often-complicated issues in an overly penetrating or ill-informed way. To my mind “good” art asks difficult questions with the hope that by addressing them a solution can be found, but this is perhaps not appropriate when it is brought in to play a supporting role. It almost seems childish to criticise the artworks themselves when important issues are at stake. But—beyond value judgements concerning their potency as artworks—if they do not effectively deal with the issue, does that mean they have “failed”? It might be argued that viewing these artworks from a new perspective, the perspective of the issue behind this show, can provide new insights into these artists’ works–and that is certainly possible. But that does not really seem to be the point of this show–the point is to look at food from the perspective of these artworks.
Although curator Xia Yanguo’s wall text briefly contextualises the show as his and the artists’ reaction to the fact that “one in seven of us in the world are hungry,” nevertheless the artworks mostly take an indirect approach to the subject. Some works, while at first sight appearing simplistic, do reveal a possibility of more layered meaning upon closer inspection: a duo of naked bodies made from seeds and chilli powder by Xiao Yu, takes on a certain frisson given its title of Who cares whose seed it is! It’s my pregnancy. The question then becomes, how relevant is that meaning to Oxfam’s project?
Dai Liang, Wheat; Courtesy of the PIFO New Art Gallery and the artist.
While one could take a positive view of that piece, Qiu Jingtong’s bronze, a larger than life-size sculpture of a begging, disabled child seems dangerously close to exploitation of the subject. Wheat by Dai Liang is a single gold wheat-sheaf encased inside its own museum-like display case effectively raising the fraught subject of the value of subsistence food products in an almost tragically beautiful way; but Li Bo’s piece with its long trays of small glass beads and urea (according to the label) entitled Your guarantee is not underfoot, seems too obscure, as does the piece 3.25pm by Ma Yongfeng here represented by twin watermelons linked by an arc of neon tubing, representing a bit of an anomaly from this usually astute artist.
A standout work is Bi Guangrong’s words by Chen Xinpeng, set in amongst Liang Shuo’s maze of sticks. Chen’s piece is a water fountain made up of stacked and pierced paint tins. On the tins is stencilled the words of a friend’s assistant, describing their decision to give up farming and become a decorator many years ago because of difficulty of making a living on the land. This address of a specific reality of farming and food production makes perfect sense in this show. The somewhat whimsical, slipshod presentation of the tins of this makeshift fountain is questionable, but does add a touch of pathos to the text. The discovery of this piece in amongst Liang Shuo’s work is a nice feature, although Liang’s work in itself seems to have little relevance to the show.
Chen Xinpeng, Bi Guangrong's Words; Courtesy of the PIFO New Art Gallery and the artist.
On top of issues with individual artworks, I feel a show in a gallery fatally restricts the audience and effectiveness when dealing with subjects that extend beyond the art world. The white box-type gallery is designed to enforce the division between outside and inside, in a way which seems counter-productive in this context. The result at PIFO Gallery is mixed bag of a show. Most works skirt the issues if they address them at all, amounting to a presentation of objects that in many cases suffer from being isolated in a gallery without an adequate connection with the issues or a wider audience.
[Author’s note: I acted as an unpaid consultant for the GROW Campaign at an early stage, however I have had no involvement with this show at PIFO Gallery.]
(Image on top: Qiu Jingtong; Courtesy of the PIFO New Art Gallery and the artist.)