An arty meal: when food goes beyond the edible

Art and food are intersecting in interesting ways, from the inedible beauty showcased on Nigella Lawson’s ‘The Taste’ to Abigail O’Brien’s bread exhibition – although not all art-food experiments end happily

Crazy golf featuring the ‘seven wonders of London’, designed by jellymongers Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, at Selfridges. Photograph: Tim Whitby/Getty Images

A number of years ago the term “the art of food” probably described a twiddly garnish, like the dragons that chefs sometimes carve out of carrots in Asian restaurants.

Go back further in time, however, and art and food have very close connections. Still lifes from the Dutch golden age, by the likes of Rembrandt and de Heem, show the sheer opulence of abundant food, a symbol of wealth to a newly wealthy, more secular class.

Like sex and death, food never exactly left the artistic agenda: just think of Andy Warhol's 1962 Campbell's soup cans, and the lovely pot of gleaming mussels by Marcel Broodthaers from 1965. More recently, food and art seem to be coming remarkably close again in a way that sheds fascinating light on how we feel about who we are and what we eat.

Part of this is down to food's move into the realm of relatively pointless spectacle ("pointless" isn't necessarily pejorative: the best art usually has no purpose other than to excite, incite, delight and provoke). So when Nigella Lawson's show The Taste takes food beyond the Masterchef zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of the beautiful inedible, maybe its ultimate parallel is art. After all, both are about creating something that transcends the immediate use of their raw materials, and, although Masterchef works to preserve the myth that the goal of the food includes nourishment, in The Taste all you get is a single spoonful.


Looked at that way, cooking to make something sustaining becomes the equivalent of making bricks from straw and rough pots from clay, whereas celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s alchemy is closer to the art that transforms materials and abstracts them from everyday experience: the kind of art we go to galleries to see.

Food on TV: the ultimate art?
Somehow food at this level has managed to do what art hasn't quite achieved. It has made the jump from a rarefied pursuit for a certain elite to a mainstream entertainment (even if that means buying cookbooks we will never use, and eating processed gloop on our laps while watching Lawson or Blumenthal). Food on television is perhaps the ultimate art: we can't touch, taste, smell or eat it, and yet we continue to look.

On the other hand, if it is art, it is failing in one crucial respect. Food on television doesn't make us think about the world anew. It doesn't change how we feel about ourselves, or question deeper ideas about love, life and the universe. That's what the best art does – although not everyone agrees. In his new book, The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think, philosopher Julian Baggini writes that the problem with art is that "it can fool us into forgetting that we are mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures". Art, he later writes, "flatters us into thinking we have depths that our animality cannot explain".

For a counter argument to that, just go and look at the work of Irish artist Abigail O'Brien. There's her deliciously gruesome How to Butterfly a Leg of Lamb (see panel), and her current exhibition, With Bread, which opened at the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda last year, and is now on tour at The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim. With Bread looks at the miracle of food, and then gets down and dirty with its making and meaning. Grand Dame is a brilliant and witty film of what happens when a sourdough starter gets going; then there are silver-cast loaves hinting at bread's fundamental role in life, as well as food's move beyond the edible.

O'Brien cites the story of King Midas, who starved to death because everything he touched turned to gold, in a way that makes one think of The Taste. A series of photographs taken at McCloskey's (Ireland's oldest bakery) in Drogheda, Barron's in Co Waterford, and the Bretzel and Il Valentino in Dublin, are named for women artists around the world. This is an homage, says O'Brien, but also an allusion to how women are still primarily considered cooks while men get to be chefs, and a nod to the still-shocking statistics in the art world: "84 per cent of the work in Tate Modern is by men," says O'Brien.

Not all art-food experiments end happily. When artists directly collaborate with restaurants, the results aren’t always so positive. Damien Hirst’s work with the London restaurant Pharmacy didn’t ensure its success, although after it closed in 2003, Sotheby’s auctioned Hirst’s fixtures and fittings for £11 million.

My favourite story of failure, however, is the union of minimal abstractionist Mark Rothko and the Four Seasons in New York. Commissioned in the 1950s to make art to grace the upmarket Park Avenue restaurant walls (a place the artist described as being "where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off"), Rothko produced a series of dark, menacing works. "I hope," he said, although not directly to his clients, "to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room". The work was never hung in the Four Seasons, Rothko returned the money, and some of those amazing, even stomach-churning paintings, with their undeniable depths of animality, now hang in the Tate.

Abigail O'Brien's exhibition With Bread is at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, until April 5, and will tour to Limerick City Gallery in 2015. Julian Baggini's The Virtues of the Table is published by Granta


Abigail O'Brien and Mary Kelly Working in collaboration, Kelly and O'Brien's How to Butterfly a Leg of Lamb video and photographs from 2002 show how food, like sex and death, may be a messy, visceral business, but
at its heart it's all about living., mary

Bompas and Parr Are they artists or food designers? The London-based duo, known for jelly sculptures of the world's great monuments, designed fireworks you could taste and smell for the London New Year 2014 celebrations: the public were showered with bubbles of orange-flavoured smoke. The recently opened Tasting Rooms at Dublin's Guinness Storehouse are their work.

Mick O'Kelly In 2005, this Irish artist caused a stir when he installed a food wagon for the homeless in the Temple Bar Gallery with his Artwork for an Imperfect World. Was it exploitative? Was it even art? Temple Bar has since been a magnet for foodie-artists, most recently Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wollf's Art Soup kitchens (2012); and Fiona Hallinan's The Hare cafe, and Jim Ricks's surplus seating for the McDonald's across the road (both 2013).

Rirkrit Tiravanija This multi-award- winning Thai-Argentine artist makes a meal out of art, and has served soup at the Grand Palais in Paris, and Thai curry at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Jeremy Deller followed suit with his free café at last year's Venice Biennale.

Félix González-Torres The Cuban-born artist, famous for his sculptures made of sweets, died from Aids-related complications in 1996. At one show, gallery-goers were encouraged to help themselves to candies, a metaphor for the shiny promise of love and the spread of a virus.