To Taste the World Anew
Roy scoops a serving spoon of mashed potatoes onto his plate. He watches transfixed for an instant before doubling back down and dipping the spoon back into the bowl, going in again and again, heaving dollops of gluggy mashed carbohydrate on his plate like a kid would making mud pies from sand at the beach. Around him his family stare. The camera cuts back to Roy who has now carved loose, fork line indentations along the sides of his plate-size potato fortress, building its center into a flat-topped mountain.
Roy’s grin at his mastery of this culinary gypsum gives way to a slow grimace and tears roll down his face as his children begin to cry around him. He looks up, removing the hand from over his eyes and makes contact with his fellow diners and utters ‘Well… I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.’ He goes on, ‘I can’t describe it… what I’m feeling… what I’m thinking.’1
Roy Neary, played by actor Richard Dreyfuss in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, perfectly encapsulates the paranoia of the dilemma faced by artists in reconciling the attempt to commune with some great other with the chaos and domesticity of family life. In Willing’s work there is a similar sense of food play. The humble process of potato printing — most relegated to childhood — is used as a way of exploring the material texture and experience of eating food. While Roy’s playing with his food is met with horror by his family, the similar artistic pursuit in Willing’s work is a quiet invitation to explore food intimately and our relationships to it.
When I spoke with Willing, she spoke of her long use of Kipfler potatoes in this process. She’s experimented with other varieties but confessed she appreciated the form and incongruency of using a luxury foodstuff for the relatively innocent and typically childlike activity. Willing’s potato prints have been elevated to a sophistication through her refinement of this process and compositional dexterity. I’ve not knowingly eaten a Kipfler before, so I visited the supermarket to take a look.
In this setting, Kipfler potatoes appear luxuriantly unwashed, their tender skins brushed with dirt, fresh from the farm and cradled appealingly in a rustic pine box. Adjacent is the crème gold variety, scrubbed within an inch of their life, luminous and bald, tumbling haphazardly amongst the rubberized mats cheaper by three dollars a kilo. It is a reminder of the scale of agricultural production that has seen vast tracts of country converted for mass production and in the midst of this industry of scale, a growing desire for a humbler, home grown existence. Organic and small batch production, and its accompanying larger costs, have become the luxury alternative. I wonder at the luxuriant potato growing with alacrity in my kitchen cupboard at home. Its roots and limbs and humble little green shoots reaching out with tender affection toward the similarly persevering garlic bulbs.
Potatoes, like many root vegetables, are tubers. Eyes sprout and seed, spreading in all directions, everywhere all at once. Each potato is a daughter copy of the mother, efficiently replicated, resulting in a crop that has a high yield. Civilizations have risen and fallen off the back of the potato and their propagation is the story of colonial imperialism writ large.2 They are wormy and strange and come in all shapes, sizes and colours, each with different cooking potentiality. They’ve been bred and refined over hundreds of years and have travelled vast oceans and plains, adjusting to new soils and shores. Now in this new season of our planet, (what feels like to many the finale) you can get potato in just about every conceivable form. As a gently curved pringle, densely compacted and loaded with salt, shaped to the palate of the roof of the mouth, as a crisp and crunch of crinkle cut chip, and as the soggy excellence of newspaper wrapped fish and chips. Gnocchi and potato bread, thinly sliced scallops preserved in cheese and as hard-boiled mayo covered salad. Potatoes have a fitting ubiquity ripe for artistic enquiry.
For the past decade Elizabeth Willing has explored intimately the psychology of hospitality and our relationship to food. Her works are deeply researched and based on both her own personal and familial relationships to food as well as a dedicated enquiry into the produce of contemporary mass consumption. From luxe large-scale painterly colour field works, which on closer inspection reveal themselves to be edible walls of individually wrapped chocolates,3 to curating tea drinking scenarios in the gallery,4 her work has typically shucked the normative assumption that the gallery is an environment empty of digestion. As well as her gallery-based practice, Willing has also collaborated with several culinary businesses and service providers to curate particular Concept Dinners, acts she has described to me as: ‘not allowed to do within a gallery space.’5 These dinners have often involved creating custom scent-infused cutlery designed to tantalise and confuse the senses and other olfactory experiments.
To be a host and perform hospitality is to invite and welcome the ‘stranger’.6 It is to defer your own interests and be of service to someone or something outside of yourself. Hospitality in Willing’s work extends past the moment of the hosting itself to encompass the manifold responsibilities and duties that are required for its performance. Intention also plays its part in this dance, whether hospitality is entered into ‘for pleasure […] or born out of a sense of duty’.7 In Willing’s practice this distinction is explored through the artist’s fascination with both the perceived masculinity of haute cuisine culinary performance and the pleasure of performing hospitality within the home.
Willing acknowledges the labour and burden inherent in this performance through enacting hours of repetitive and painstaking printing, stitching and embroidering, embedding into the surface of linen the physical equivalences of performing hospitality. The Linens, as this series of works is called, was developed by Willing out of a desire to repay her hosts. They are pragmatic and singularly beautiful object paintings. Inspired by the decorative traditions of tapestry design and construction, whose historic manufacture were designed to warm and make cold environments more inviting, these works meld tablecloth and table setting design with printery textile tradition. They are compact and transportable, the perfect travelling work.
Elizabeth Willing’s new work Roost (2023) is her largest linen piece to date. The work is a stew of past experiences and encounters with a healthy dash of awareness of site added in. A field of ceviche-thin stamped potato prints, hugged by a crisp machine embroidered edge, centres around a robust embroidered motif that reinterprets the architecture of PICA’s front entrance. The mass of red wormy and writhing intersecting forms created from cutting vegetables in halves whose inner surfaces stamp paint to page, is pareidolic. It could at once be seen as fields of clouds or seas, minced meat, bacterial yeast or something altogether more internal and unseen as our own bowels and bodily interior, or even the very cellular building blocks of life itself. In this work the central motif of PICA’s wrought iron gates become mouth and oesophagus and intestine, delicately reconstructed through long stitch, thread wrapping fabric to create form.
The mouth is the gate to the body. When we spoke, Willing commented on how the architecture of PICA is different to the spaces she has previously worked within. There is a liveliness to this space, where the permeations between brick wall and outside air are looser than most galleries allow. Roost hangs within PICA’s stairwell space, a bridging between upstairs and down. This vantage allows glimpses through its long windows to the brickwork outside, to the same red pigment as the cellular prints within the work. Accompanying the work is a decorative wallpaper in the foyer that mirrors the embroidered design of the gate. Here is the gullet and the gallery is the gut. This space, more than any other in the building, is performing hospitality. It is where introductions are made and patrons are welcomed. New flavours mesh and jar, friction and some awkward anxiety live here too. It is an appropriate setting for a work which speaks to the labour of playing host.
In crisp machine stitched words, Willing describes an olfactory journey through the environment surrounding PICA. Starting early in the morning, she undertook several walks around the building and its abounding streets, before journeying outward, ending at the mouth of the Derbal Yerrigan (Swan River) to watch and smell the sheep ships leave the port in Walyalup (Fremantle). This is a found poem, describing the spice and zest of Northbridge with its filled food halls and the fresh scent of flowering herbs and edibles in the gardens near the train station. The machined nature of these words speaks to the process driven methodology many hospitality venues lean into in order to perform service. This aspect of the work is an invitation to consider senses other than sight and to make your own journey through following your nose.
Our brains are finely tuned instruments. The olfactory centre is so intimately neighboured to the hippocampus that to smell is to remember. This is the power of Willing’s work. Like the potato and its expansive growth pattern, when I look at these works my mind goes everywhere all at once. When I read hot chips in this work I think to a recent time spent in the sun overlooking the ocean.
In the last week of the last month of the last year I ate the best fish and chips of my entire life. We ate as the sun scarpered away over the curve of the horizon, touching the scuttle cloud sky to gold and pink and lilac and then a deep and brilliant violet. The chips were the kind that were clear with grease, glassy and made transcendent through their oily bubble bath. I liberally doused them in brown vinegar and fluorescent yellow chicken salt but made sure to leave an unadulterated patch for mum who abhorrers vinegar. As the sun set and the potato chilled, the taste transformed into something not lesser but different. The very air altered flavour.