GOMA Talks Harvest: Politics of food

 
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Production still from Spinning Plates 2012 / Director: Joseph Levy / Image courtesy: Rialto Distribution

During ‘Harvest: Art, Film and Food’, GOMA Talks explores food, its production, consumption, symbolism, and role in contemporary life and continues its partnership with national broadcaster ABC Radio National (RN). We asked Paul Barclay, host of our last GOMA Talks during ‘Harvest’ about the politics of food before Thursday 31 July

Cookbooks, cooking shows and celebrity chefs dominate the Australian cultural and media landscape. We are seemingly obsessed with food. The affluent middle class is embracing organic food and the ‘foodie’ culture, which includes expensive, restaurant-produced ‘designer’ meals, in which the focus is as much on the aesthetics of presentation and where the food is sourced as it is on the taste and the culinary expertise involved in its preparation. Yet at the same time, some say, we have lost the art of making a simple, nutritious home-cooked meal.

Paradoxically, food is also portrayed as ‘public enemy number one’ when it comes to modern ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and others. Collectively, we are overindulging in the wrong foods — those that are highly processed, high in saturated fats, sugar and salt. Eating too much, and the resultant obesity ‘epidemic’, may now be more of a threat to public health, and cost more lives, than malnutrition.

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SUPERFLEX, Denmark est. 1993 / Flooded McDonalds (still) 2009 / RED video installation: colour, sound, 20 minutes, 16:9, ed. 3/5 / Purchased 2010 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artists

Never before has so much ‘good’ food been available to us, yet not everyone is able to benefit from this. Fresh, high-quality produce, purchased at farmers’ markets, for example, can be expensive and out of reach to the average consumer. At the same time, political debates rage over food labelling, and whether ‘junk food’ should be taxed to discourage its consumption. Dieting is almost a national sport, if magazine articles and television shows such as The Biggest Loser are anything to go by.

While we may be in the grip of a cultural obsession, it is legitimate to ask if we are paying enough attention to how and where our food is produced, and do we know enough about the food we eat. In the near future, sustainability is likely to become a priority, as environmental imperatives such as climate change and other factors come to the fore.

GOMA Talks Harvest: Art, film and food

 
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Alexander Coosemans, Flanders 1627-1689 / Still life c.1650 / Oil on canvas / Bequest of The Hon. Thomas Lodge Murray Prior, MLC 1892 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

During ‘Harvest: Art, Film and Food’, GOMA Talks explores food, its production, consumption, symbolism, and role in contemporary life and continues its partnership with national broadcaster ABC Radio National (RN). We asked Sarah Kanowski about her topic… food, art and life before hosting on Thursday 17 July. Our last GOMA Talks ‘Politics of food’ is with Paul Barclay (Big Ideas) on 31 July.

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Tracey Moffatt, Australia/United States b.1960 / First jobs, pineapple cannery 1978 (from ‘First jobs’ series) 2008 / Archival pigments on rice paper with gel medium / Gift of Patrick Corrigan, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

From the austerely beautiful still lifes of seventeenth-century Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán, evoking international trade and the dawn of colonialism through the inclusion of food, flowers and spices, to the contemporary public art projects of Los Angeles-based collective Fallen Fruit, artists have made deep and provocative responses to the aesthetics, ethics and politics of food.

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Fallen Fruit / Fallen Fruit of Brisbane: Pineapple Express! 2014 / A site-specific commission for GOMA

Food is essential to life but culture imagines the nature of that relationship in millions of ways. In the First World, we’ve moved from scarcity to excess, from hunger to hypertension, and our relationship to the land on which food is grown has changed dramatically. Food is one of the many ways we fashion an identity and flex our consumer muscle. We’re surrounded by the competing lures of fast versus slow food, paleo versus gastro-porn. It sometimes seems that food has replaced religion and politics as the territories on which we contest class, status and value.

The artworks brought together in ‘Harvest’ invite us to rethink how we look at food, how we talk about it, as well as how we grow and eat it. Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who trace an ongoing connection between food, country and cultural knowledge, are shown alongside explorations of the global food trade, labour market, and considerations of ecology in food production. Whether it is through our own social history, culture or community, our relationship with food has a role to play in shaping cultural identities.

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Tracey Moffatt, Australia/United States b.1960 / First jobs, corner store 1977 (from ‘First jobs’ series) 2008 / Archival pigments on rice paper with gel medium / Gift of Patrick Corrigan, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

GOMA Talks Harvest: Food Futures

 
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Tomás Saraceno, Argentina b.1973 / Biosphere 02 2009 / PVC, rope, nylon monofilament, acrylic, Tillandsia plants, air pressure regulator system, hydration system / Purchased 2014 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AC, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

During ‘Harvest: Art, Film and Food’, GOMA Talks returns for an exploration of food, its production, consumption, symbolism, and role in contemporary life. Continuing the Gallery’s partnership with national broadcaster ABC Radio National (RN). GOMA Talks Harvest comprises three sessions: ‘Food futures’, hosted by Antony Funnell (Future Tense), ‘Food, art and life’ with Sarah Kanowski (Weekend Arts), and ‘Politics of food’ with Paul Barclay (Big Ideas). We asked Antony Funnell to provide an ‘entree’ into his topic… talking food futures, before 6.30pm Thursday 3 July.

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Shirana Shahbazi (Artist) Iran/Switzerland b.1974 and Sirous Shaghaghi (Collaborating artist) Iran / Still life: Coconut and other things 2009 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

In twenty-first-century culture, food is everything. It fills the screens we watch and read. Restaurants now define the character and flavour of our cities in a manner once reserved for parks, architecture and bronze monuments. We are more alive to the artistry of fine cuisine than ever before. It is both our passion and our pastime. And yet, in this new millennium, we are arguably more removed from the realities of food production than at any time in human history. It’s one of the great paradoxes of modern life that we talk so much of food yet understand so little about it. But attitudes appear to be changing, and reconnecting paddock to plate is now a growing global movement.

British design expert Paul Bennett lectures on food security and the future of food. He talks about the need to reconnect with the ‘whole chain’, having said that ‘I actually think we’re starting to see evidence globally that people really are more interested and more concerned about where their food comes from’.1 For urban innovation consultant Jeb Brugmann, a dilemma facing future food production is about space. Brugmann proposes that increasing fuel and energy costs will eventually force producers to rethink their relationship to cities. Urban farming, he believes, will flourish as a result. For Brugmann, given the ecological stresses the planet is under, the only effective way of creating change is to build upward. ‘Verticality’, says Brugmann, ‘is one of the underlying natural resources that comes with building a city’.2

The future of food could be a very local one indeed; a future in which we return to a greater emphasis on regional cuisine, and where much of what we eat is grown in giant vertical farming towers. Certainly food for thought.

Endnotes
1  B Bennet, ‘Future food: urban agriculture’, Future Tense, ABC Radio National transcript, November 2010, viewed 28 February 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/future-food-urban-agriculture/2975274#transcript
2  J Brugmann, ‘Future food: urban agriculture’, Future Tense, ABC Radio National transcript, November 2010, viewed 28 February 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/future-food-urbanagriculture/2975274#transcript

 

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Xu Zhen, China b.1977 / ShanghART Supermarket (Australia) (installation detail) 2007–08 / Mixed media installation (cash register, counter, shelves, refrigerator and multiple consumer product packages) / Purchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

MayKing Tea at GOMA

 
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May King Tsang in Cai Guo-Qiang’s Tea Pavilion

Engagement and exchange with people is a central element in Cai Guo-Qiang’s work. Conceived by the artist as an integral element in the exhibition, the Tea Pavilion is a place within the ‘Falling Back to Earth’ exhibition for visitors to reflect on the works they have experienced, and to engage with one another. Fiona Neill spoke with May King Tsang, Brisbane-based tea consultant and presenter of gongfu ceremonies held 1pm and 2pm every Sunday during the exhibition. Free tastings of cold compressed Tie Guan Yin tea are available daily in the Tea Pavilion.

Fiona Neill | What led you to pursue a career as a tea specialist and why are you so passionate about tea?

May King Tsang | I was asked by a friend to go into business to open a coffee shop with him. For research I popped into a large coffee chain, I stared at the menu, perplexed at what to order. I was uninspired with the tea selection and I didn’t know anything about coffee, but I love tea and have been drinking it forever. This was my ‘eureka moment’ and when I decided to start a career in tea. Travelling to the United States on several occasions, I graduated as a Certified Tea Specialist (CTS) from the Specialty Tea Institute, becoming the only CTS from the UK and Australia, and one of their top 50 recommended speakers of tea in the world.

Fiona Neill | In what ways does Chinese tea culture connect with the history of the country and is it a vital part of the culture?

May King Tsang | In my humblest of opinions, the Chinese tea culture is undoubtedly connected with the history of China. The tea you sip is likely to have come from a derivative of the original camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub or tree from which the beverage is cultivated, which was discovered in China over 4000 years ago. The tea culture is an integral part of Chinese culture; I grew up watching martial art films where battle plans were drawn, allies met, business deals sealed and friendships cemented, all of which was done over a sip of tea. Historically, Chinese culture is also about balance. With conflict comes harmony, with yin there is yang, and in tea there is caffeine balanced out by its calming companion, theanine.

Fiona Neill | Generally tea culture, tea rooms and tea ceremonies are associated with Japanese culture, although tea drinking originated in China. What differentiates Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies?

May King Tsang | The Chinese gongfu tea ceremony (also known as Gong Fu Cha, where ‘Cha’ is Chinese for tea) is less formal than its Japanese counterpart. It is performed in a relaxed setting and there is a lot more interaction between the performer and the attendees. While the tea equipment is clearly defined in Gong Fu Cha, the execution of the ceremony is a personal interpretation delivered by each Tea Master.

Fiona Neill | How have you adapted the traditional Chinese gongfu tea ceremony to suit your style, and for contemporary audiences?

May King Tsang | When I first started to perform Gong Fu Cha people would share their Chinese tea experience with me complaining that they were waiting a long time while the tea was being made and then they were charged a fortune for a thimble of tea. Being a BBC (British Born Chinese), I grew up on the Western style of making tea, which involves popping the kettle on, toddling off to watch TV, returning to the kitchen to stick a teabag in a mug, add boiling water and milk and sugar if desired. There is no thought that has gone into the tea-making process. In Gong Fu Cha, however, the preparation and making of the tea is just as important as the final product. For those who had experienced Gong Fu Cha in China, I likened their experience to watching a foreign film that has no subtitles and therefore they weren’t able to fully appreciate the ceremony. I modified Gong Fu Cha in order to bridge the gap between Chinese and Western culture, explaining each step and encouraging audience participation: it helps contemporary audiences to better appreciate what is being presented.

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May King Tsang preparing tea and demonstrating the process for Gallery visitors during a gongfu ceremony in GOMA’s Tea Pavilion

Fiona Neill | Cai Guo-Qiang selected organic, cold-pressed Tie Guan Yin, an oolong tea from the Fujian region (his home province) to be available for daily tastings during the exhibition. Can you tell us a little about the Fujian province as a tea-producing region and the qualities of Tie Guan Yin tea?

May King Tsang | Fujian is a province in China directly opposite Taiwan (another great tea-producing country) and is home to some of the most famous teas in China. It is a region with a subtropical climate which equates to very hot humid summers and mild winters. There are many high mountains in Fujian, which is where a lot of the great teas can be found. Teas grown in high mountains not only in China but in Taiwan and Sri Lanka are often highly sought after. It is said that there is plenty of organic matter found in the soils if this region which makes it ideal for growing tea and is home to some of the best white, red and oolong teas, and Tie Guan Yin, of course.

May King Tsang | There are varying qualities of Tie Guan Yin. There is a huge market for consumers used to drinking ‘milk and two sugars’ tea, as I like to call it, and so offering a tea that looks familiar to them will not push people out of their comfort zone too much. So a Hong Kong-style Tie Guan Yin will appear a lot more attractive to them. The heavier roast and almost charred style of this tea is perceived to be cheaper and inferior quality to the style made predominantly in Cai Guo-Qiang’s home town. It is also widely available in local Asian supermarkets and often accompanies Yum Cha. The tea found at GOMA, by contrast, is much greener in the leaf, offers a light honey colour in the cup and doesn’t have the roasted flavour that its Hong Kong counterpart does. It is more likely to impart a floral note reminiscent of osmanthus flowers and orchids, a lightly earthy character with subtle vegetal notes.

Fiona Neill | There seems to be a real focus on coffee culture at the moment. Do you think that tea has been overlooked?

May King Tsang | On the contrary, I don’t think tea is being overlooked anymore. From my personal experience with my business and from reading tea news from around the world, tea has been on the rise exponentially for the last five years both here in Australia and globally. Takeovers of small tea companies by big brands demonstrate a growing interest in our beloved beverage. In my personal experience as a tea consultant, I have assisted start-up tea businesses around the world and my clients have increased dramatically within the last two years, especially here in Australia. Tea is the new coffee and the last few years certainly seem to suggest that.

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Fiona Neill | Finally, for those of us who are tea fans, please give us some tips on making the perfect cup of green tea!

May King Tsang | There are several things to consider when making tea:

Warming of tea ware: to make sure the tea temperature is constant.

Quality of tea: Better quality means being able to use the same teaspoon of leaves to make several cups of tea.

Amount of tea: One for the pot and one per person for most tea types.  Some oolong leaves are much bigger, so you can get away with one teaspoon per person and none for the pot.

Water temperature: Many people new to green tea will have experienced a bitter cup of green tea. Making green tea with 100-degree water means you will burn the tea. You can’t go back once it’s burned. It is better to use 70 to 85-degree water, or add a dash of cold water at the bottom of your teapot or cup to bring down the temperature of your freshly boiled water.

Steeping tea: Green tea as a guideline should only be steeped for two to three minutes. People new to green tea may think there isn’t much colour in the cup, as they are used to black tea, so they may leave the teabag in for five minutes. But the colour still won’t change to the dark colour that they are expecting. Instead, steeping green tea for too long will make it taste bitter.

Presented by Tourism & Events Queensland & Santos GLNG Project, ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ is on view at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 11 May 2014.