Food, better lives, and a bowl of cherries

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Fallen Fruit (David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young) / Pineapple wallpaper Brisbane at Dusk 2014 / Image courtesy: The artists

The Gallery’s major exhibition and film program ‘Harvest: Art, Film and Food’ presents a selection of works from the Collection, alongside feature films and documentaries, depicting food across the ages and exploring food production, distribution and consumption from multiple perspectives. Here, Frances Bonner looks at connections between feminism, permaculture and food futures.

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Fallen Fruit (David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young) / Fallen Fruit of Brisbane: Pineapple Express 2014 / Image courtesy: The artists

‘Harvest: Art, Film and Food’ looks at the conjunction of food and art — not just the static moment of the still life, but the much wider picture of food’s production and consumption and its movement between those two sites both in colonial and contemporary times. It is concerned with the connections food can make, at the dinner table for instance, or in Aboriginal ties to country, and the disconnections when food choices can emphasise otherness or differences in status.

The very word ‘harvest’ can lead both to visions of excess and to the possibility of failure and famine. In the ‘Harvest: Food on Film’ cinema program, such features as La Grande Bouffe 1973 and Babette’s Feast 1987 or the documentary Supersize Me 2004 demonstrate the first, and Distant Thunder 1973 and Bitter Seeds 2011 the second. Unsurprisingly, inequities in the global distribution of foodstuffs are more to be found in the program’s documentaries than the features, but political statements about the circulation of food and associated objects are equally to be found in the artworks of the exhibition itself. Malaysian artist Simryn Gill’s Forking Tongues 1992 provides a telling instance: a spiral of cutlery and chillies curves around on the floor, reminding us both of the worldwide spread of the powerful food plant once it was taken by colonial powers from its homelands in South America, and the cultural specificity of cutlery as ‘tableware’. Not everyone eats at table, not everyone uses cutlery. The forks and the chillies placed on the gallery floor are both, to an extent, out of place.

Food is particularly linked to the feminine; its preparation is overwhelmingly women’s work and this theme arises in the exhibition. Outside the home, in the public world of restaurants, the gendering shifts, as does the status. The film program’s documentaries show this very well, with works such as El Bulli: Cooking in Progress 2011, Kings of Pastry 2009, Step Up to the Plate 2012 and Jiro Dreams of Sushi 2011 all stressing the masculinity of high-end cooking across different cultures. One could even extend this to Remy, the rat hero of the animated feature Ratatouille 2007. Ang Lee’s early feature Eat Drink Man Woman 1994 collapses the distinction though, by looking at a Taiwanese family whose patriarch is a master Chinese chef but whose more important domain in the film is his family, the daughters for whom he cooks each Sunday.

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Production still from Jiro Dreams of Sushi 2011 / Director: David Gelb / Image courtesy: Curious Films

Food security and alternative production practices are important concerns in ‘Harvest’. A key work here is Emily Floyd’s Permaculture crossed with feminist science fiction 2008. Floyd’s work often engages with the texts of alternative, even utopian movements, especially ones with links to the 1960s and 70s. This particular installation work draws on two movements that flourished in the 1970s, and which had clear links with 1960s counterculture: permaculture and feminism. The term ‘permaculture’, a compound word derived from ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’, was coined by Tasmanian Bill Mollison during talks about alternate ways of producing foodstuffs, before he and David Holmgren published a guide to its practices in 1978. Feminism (or Women’s Liberation, as it was called then) engaged in many practical political activities, which continue to have real effects, centring on women’s work. One of feminism’s many cultural expressions includes the often forgotten feminist science fiction.



Emily Floyd, Australia b.1972 / Permaculture crossed with feminist science fiction (installation views) 2008 / Laminated timber, timber, vinyl, polyurethane varnish / Purchased 2009. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

The path from 1960s counterculture — alternate lifestyles, the Whole Earth Catalog (1968–72) and such — to permaculture is clear, as is shown by The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005), a documentary on a North American variant. Mollison was never as flamboyant, nor as persecuted, as farmer John Peterson, but the trajectory from ‘hippie’ margins to an organic mainstream is shared. Feminism’s relationship with the counterculture was more fraught. Sexual liberation had had little effect on everyday sexism; men still called the shots and women did the housework. Women’s Liberation grew out of disenchantment with the mainstream as well as the counterculture, but utopian elements of the latter were carried through. At first, activities were centred on practical issues — self-help manuals were key publications. Existing literary works by women were read with awakened eyes. For some, these works included contemporary science fiction novels, like those of Ursula Le Guin. Here was a genre that imagined different ways of being, one that used extrapolation into both better and worse futures in order to comment on the present, and to try out visions of how things might otherwise be. By the mid 1970s, feminist science fiction was thriving.

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Production still from The Real Dirt on Farmer John 2005 / Director: Taggart Siegel / Image courtesy: Antidote Films

Permaculture can now be found on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia, and feminism is, according to recent work from the United Kingdom, up to its Fourth Wave (Women’s Lib was its Second). Neither movement has been as successful as its 1970s exponents had dreamed, but Emily Floyd’s work is significant in that it brings the texts of that time into a world that has, in part, been altered by them both.

Floyd prints quotations from these texts onto blocks of reclaimed timber, which are then piled up over a sizeable area of the gallery floor, around a much larger wooden egg — the symbol of life and a source of food. She distinguishes the blocks by the use of different fonts. According to QAGOMA’s Julie Ewington in her Optimism catalogue entry on this work, ‘Heavy Heap’ marks the permaculture ones; while ‘Neuropol’ is used for the feminist science fiction.1 ‘Heavy Heap’ is more rounded and incorporates countercultural swoops as serifs; ‘Neuropol’ is comparatively angular and sharp. They are actually not that different, which is surely part of the point: a viewer has to look and read closely.

Floyd draws on two authors for the science fiction component: Le Guin and Doris Lessing. Neither was quite central to the feminist science fiction project; they were, however, the most substantial women writers of the genre being read by feminists (though obituaries of Lessing following her death in November 2013 only occasionally mentioned her science fiction writings). Floyd draws from Lessing’s Canopus in Argos (1979–83) series as well as her near-future dystopian work Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). Le Guin is one of the most highly regarded science fiction writers, male or female, having won the genre’s two highest prizes twice: a Hugo and a Nebula, with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974). Floyd quotes from both.

One of the most striking of Floyd’s wooden blocks carries a quotation from the first, announcing: ‘The King is pregnant’. This signifier of the science fictionality of the novel is largely why it interested feminists. Le Guin had devised a race of androgynous humans who become male or female for only a few days a month in the fictional world of Gethen. The king happened to become pregnant during such a phase. For the rest of the time, sex and sexuality were not evident and sexual difference had no impact on social organisation. Le Guin has since written that she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness as a feminist thought experiment about a world without gender, and which, perhaps because of this, had never experienced a war. She claimed it was not a depiction of a utopia, because ‘it poses no practicable alternative to contemporary society’.2 Her principal narrator was, however, a male visitor from a world much like our own, as is typical of utopian fiction. The Dispossessed’s subtitle, An Ambiguous Utopia, indicates her more formal exploration of that particular type of writing.

Feminists admired The Left Hand of Darkness, but criticised it for its male narrator and Le Guin’s decision to use male pronouns for the androgynous characters. More explicitly feminist science fiction writers wrote from the female characters’ perspectives, or made up new pronouns to avoid stereotyped responses. Defending herself in the essay ‘Is Gender Necessary? Le Guin expressed distaste for made-up pronouns, while admitting that she regretted showing her Gethenians engaged in conventionally male rather than female activities.3 She was not alone in creating controversy among her followers: Mollison and Holmgren discussed pest control by noting that ‘blackbirds can become table meat’ and advocated shooting wild possums and marinating their flesh in wine.4 Their suggestions were not widely welcomed.

Compared to much feminist art, like Emily Floyd’s, food and the work of harvesting and serving it was a minor thread in feminist science fiction, mentioned for the most part out of necessity or as a cause of duress, at least in Le Guin’s texts. However, Always Coming Home (1986), the third of her books from which Floyd quotes, is different. It depicts a sustainable agrarian society through a collection of rather whimsical and poetic ‘anthropological’ documents, including recipes. Floyd’s piece otherwise earns its place in ‘Harvest’ for its permaculture component. Floyd ‘crosses’ the two movements, allowing us to see them, in opposition and hybridised.

The tone of Le Guin’s and Lessing’s novels is sombre. Much feminist science fiction depicts a dystopia, where things have become worse for women. Yet there are also many complex works that combine strangeness and joy. The spirit of these, like Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) or Carol Emshwiller’s later surreal Carmen Dog (1988), in which women inexplicably become animals and female animals women, is wonderfully similar to artist Mika Rottenberg’s ‘Harvest’ work, Mary’s Cherries 2004: false red fingernails become glacé cherries as they pass down a three-woman production line. Rottenberg’s combination of sex, flesh, treadmills and confinement does not speak of utopia by any means, but the resulting bowl of cherries, far more abject than an ordinary one, still reminds us that this is just what life ‘is’. It also shows elements of that 1970s verity — female solidarity. The continuities between the walls of the box in which the video is presented and the walls surrounding Mary and her fellow workers draws us into the production.

Mika Rottenberg, Argentina b.1976 / Mary’s cherries (stills) 2004 / Single-channel video installation: 5:50 minutes, colour, sound, 4:3, 28” CRT monitor and mount, media player, speakers, wood, carpet, stucco, fluorescent light, fan and concrete blocks / Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / Images courtesy: The artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York / © The artist /The presentation of Mika Rottenberg’s Mary’s cherries in ‘Harvest’ is supported by Council on Australia Latin America Relations

Floyd could have chosen works more at the heart of feminist science fiction, like those by Russ or Emshwiller, but Le Guin and Lessing are likely more recognisable now. Furthermore, Le Guin, like Mollison, allows us to see the utopianism of the 1970s as subject to debate: there was no settled agreement on how a better world would look. However, while the blackbirds and marinated possums quietly disappeared from subsequent permaculture manuals, feminist science fiction remained a perfect site for exploring options. Proposals for better worlds should be revisited and revised, and by crossing permaculture with feminist science fiction, Emily Floyd invites us to do just that.

Associate Professor Frances Bonner is an Honorary Researcher in the School of English, Media and Art History at the University of Queensland. Her most recent publication is Personality Presenters: Television’s Intermediaries with Viewers (Ashgate, 2011) and she also writes on celebrity, adaptation and science fiction.

1  Julie Ewington, ‘Emily Floyd: The seed, the egg and the spaceship’, Contemporary Australia: Optimism [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2008, pp.86–9.
2  Ursula Le Guin, ‘Is gender necessary’, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, Berkley Books, New York, 1982, p.158.
3  Ursula Le Guin, ‘Is gender necessary, redux’, Dancing at the Edge of the World, Paladin, London, 1992, p.15.
4  Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements, Corgi, Melbourne, 1978, pp.32, 35.