On paper, the V&A’s new exhibition about the future of the global food industry has all the appeal of a harangue by a finger-wagging, virtue-signalling eco-warrior.
In fact, it is executed with such charm, panache and wit that, by the end, there’s a strong chance you will renounce meat and start buying clothes woven from hemp.
Full of marvels and curiosities – including edible water bottles and cheese produced using microbes sampled from the armpits and belly buttons of celebrities such as the Blur bassist Alex James and Suggs from Madness – FOOD: Bigger Than the Plate is always mindful of an exhibition’s remit to entertain as well as inform.
As a result, when it comes to hard-hitting arguments and radical ideas, this show of more than 70 food-related “projects”, commissions and collaborations, by contemporary artists and designers, will cajole even the most ardent sceptics of environmentalism into engaging with them with an open mind. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, after all, and in this case almost literally: the first 200 visitors to the show on Saturday will be issued with edible tickets made from icing sugar.
If even a fraction of the show’s analysis of the devastating environmental effects of the global production and consumption of food proves correct (apparently, one third of food produced globally is never eaten), then the dose of medicine required to nurse the planet back to health is going to be gigantic.
Two unrelated works, from the middle of the exhibition, illustrate one of the most important observations made by the curators: that today there is a profound, disquieting disconnect between the way we tend to think about the food we eat, and the harsh, mechanised, slaughterhouse realities of industrial farming.
In Supernatural, one of the exhibition’s new commissions, German artist Uli Westphal presents a series of hyperreal bucolic landscapes composited from imagery found on packaging in British supermarkets including Waitrose, Morrisons and Asda. Plump, placid black-and-white dairy cows graze lush green pastures, while puffball clouds in bright blue skies waft over picture-book snowy mountains. The colours are sickly and oversaturated, the atmosphere saccharine. Westphal’s unsettling pastoral vision has an obviously fake, repulsive quality.
Of course, these fantastical scenes have little to do with the actual production of the food they advertise: rather, they are so much shiny, myth-making marketing tripe.
Nearby, a 13min-long loop of clips from the well-known 2005 documentary film Our Daily Bread lays bare the realities of modern food production: blood-soaked animal carcasses in stainless-steel abattoirs. In one memorably sinister scene, like something out of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, a yellow crop-duster plane flies straight at the camera, as though attacking it, while unleashing a storm cloud of pesticide upon a field of golden sunflowers.
Confronting our laissez-faire disregard for Earth’s infinitely subtle ecosystems, including the creatures – our fellow sentient animals – we farm and eat, could make for a relentlessly grim, off-putting experience. Aware of this, the V&A’s curators work hard to showcase projects that are ingenious and optimistic, rather than doom-and-gloom. Consider those edible water bottles – or, more accurately, pouches derived from seaweed, capable of storing liquids (in the manner of detergent capsules for washing machines): they biodegrade in three weeks – unlike the 700 years it takes a single-use plastic bottle to disappear.
“Composting” – the first of the exhibition’s four sections, which wittily reverse expectations of the cycle of food production, by first tackling “waste” before moving on to farming, trading and, finally, eating – is packed with similarly original ideas and propositions, designed to counteract the mindless throwaway culture of contemporary “flush-and-forget” capitalism.
Here, we encounter reusable coffee cups, made from discarded coffee grounds in Berlin, and ceramic vessels glazed with human urine. Satisfying objects formed from bovine blood discarded from industrial slaughterhouses resemble Neolithic ritual artefacts. One chunky disc turns out, poetically, to be a record that plays the heartbeat of a cow.
In another eye-catching, pleasingly cyclical display, suspended containers resembling punch bags and filled with nutrient-rich coffee grounds from the V&A’s own café (where, apparently, visitors drink more than a thousand cups of coffee a day), provide sustenance for oyster mushrooms that will eventually be harvested for use in the café as ingredients.
Occasionally, the exhibition can feel a little like a trade fair featuring unusual products: early on, for instance, a lot of real estate is given to a display of rustic tableware fashioned from cow dung, and marketed as “Merdacotta”, by an Italian dairy farmer who realised that his herd produced more manure than milk. Thankfully, though, there is usually a broader point to be made – as with Fernando Laposse’s decorative “Totomoxtle” marquetry veneer, which transforms the husks of heirloom corn varieties from Mexico, reminding us that biodiversity is under threat from the profit-making imperatives of industrial agriculture.
Several works follow a single animal from birth to death and on into commodified afterlife. This Little Piggy, by conceptual artist Elaine Tin Nyo, documents the short life of a French piglet called Zelai (Basque for “Meadow”), whose one-year-old flesh, weighing 158kg, ended up preserved in 182 cans of pate, sausages, and meat. Adroitly, Nyo compares her work to “a baby album that turns into a cookbook”. Elsewhere, a pair of Icelandic artists apply a similar approach to a banana, filming its journey from Ecuador to their own country.
Throughout, contemporary works like this are offset by historical items from the V&A’s own collection, such as Joseph Bazalgette’s meticulous plans for his monumental 19th-century sewage system in London, which kick off “Composting”. An enormous poster advertising Bovril, printed around 1905, featuring a bull gazing mournfully at a pot of beef extract alongside the caption, “Alas! My poor Brother”, appears at the start of “Trading”.
The design of the exhibition, meanwhile, is uniformly delicate, and often beautiful: cascading wisps of translucent, peachy-pink material, for instance, demarcate the first section, about waste. Loosely meant to evoke the coils and twists of a human gut, they are as diaphanous as lingerie, and create a surprisingly pretty effect.
What visitors will most remember, though, is the quietly bonkers originality of the many experimental projects on display. At one point, we are invited to chat to a plant hooked up via electrodes to a computer. Reader, I can report that small talk with a strawberry plant proves to be delightful.
From Sat May 18 until Oct 20; information: vam.ac.uk/food