The New Art Gallery
West Midlands

Food is a subject close to my heart. And if the slew of TV programmes, magazines, celebrity chefs and obesity articles is anything to go by – it is to everyone else too. As the exhibitions co-curator, Cynthia Morrison-Bell says, food is our current national obsession. With its concept of each curator choosing a guest artist to bring a ‘dish’ to their dinner party I was high with anticipation before visiting this exhibition as to what would be served.

Exiting the lift, your senses are immediately barraged with the intense scent of chocolate, and so this demands your navigation of Pot Luck, your nose leading the way to figure out where this sensuous smell is radiating from. However before discovering the source of the smell, the surrounding visuals draw you in.

Lia Anna Hennig is an artist I had never heard of, but both her pieces in Pot Luck impressed me, the bizarreness of raining salami, and the grotesque video of Hennig ‘drawing’ an image on the screen by licking away a cream like substance in a cat like manner, and adding part eaten food, like a bird feeding its young. It may be grotesque, but like the smell of the chocolate that is starting to get a little overwhelming by now, it is hypnotic and I stand transfixed for quite some time. ‘Play’ seems to be one secondary theme to this exhibition, as I notice a stool behind the raining salami that I assume to be for an invigilator before realising its seat is a large victoria sponge. I enjoy its subtle humour and am amused as I imagine accidentally having sat on it.

Another secondary theme is fantasy. Gayle Chong Kwan’s Cockaigne series fits the exhibition perfectly with its fantastical landscapes for gluttons made entirely out of food. We have Babel made from dried meat, Republic from crisps. However there is perhaps a darker underlying message to these fantasies. Chong Kwan’s ideal worlds are initially enticing, but on closer inspection verging on repellent. They are also only able to last for so long. Though having long rotted and crumbled away into nothing they are now immortalised by photography. As you finally reach the source of the intoxicating chocolaty smell, the fountain and giant pool of melted chocolate that is Helen Chadwick’s Cacao, you are actually feeling quite sick from it, and your fantasy of a swimming pool full of chocolate suddenly seems a lot less appealing, as Cacao bubbles away in front of you, like pulsating warts in a pool of congealed excrement. A piece that stimulates both pleasure and nausea, it is a mesmerising and a brilliant piece of work.

To continue on through the exhibition we have to walk through Karen Tam’s Miss Chinatown, a full scale replica of a Chinese Restaurant in Canada. It includes placemats decorated with animals of the years on, but instead of informing you about yourself it tells you what eating these animals can do for you. It then has two videos, one of a man cooking in the kitchen, and one of the owner telling us about running a Chinese restaurant. It’s interesting enough, but I’m not really sure what the point of the piece is, I don’t come away from it feeling like I’ve gained anything, which is a shame when it’s such a focal point of the exhibition. Chinese food must really be a big aspect of our food culture, as opposite Tam’s piece is Anthony Key’s China Garden, an installation of a Chinese takeaway made entirely out of foil Chinese takeaway containers, and another piece by Gayle Chong Kwan, the Spring Roll Taster booth, playing a tape of people’s spring roll memories. Key’s piece is cold yet striking, and I’m not sure of the curatorial choice to put it directly opposite Tam’s piece as Key’s is more accomplished.

‘Play’ and an element of the absurd continue with the two main videos, by Manuel Saiz and Han Bing, both of which I see as highlights of the exhibition. I couldn’t suppress laughter when I turned the corner to see a llama in a completely empty supermarket in Saiz’s Parallel Paradises Ecuador. Investigating all the packaged foods on the shelves, it’s not really sure what to do. I imagined a ‘bull in a china shop’ syndrome but the llama doesn’t cause any trouble and just wonders aimlessly. Waiting for something to happen, you begin to notice how eerie the place is without anyone or anything else there, and the unnaturally bright colours and lights, as well as realising just how many packaged foods we must eat: the llama doesn’t eat a thing. The feeling of wanting to giggle, as well as waiting for something to happen, yet being totally captivated, continues in Bing’s Walking The Cabbage. Shown on three different screens are three different videos of Bing in three different places (Times Square New York, China, and Japan) doing the same thing – taking a Chinese cabbage for a walk – on a lead. It’s his way of challenging symbols of economic wealth, replacing a current one – the pampered pooch, with the one of his childhood in China – the cabbage. It is a truly bizarre image, made by the combination of fellow pedestrian’s bemused faces, and Bing’s completely disaffected expression and stance.

The final room contains three of the five big hitters of Pot Luck – Damien Hirst, Mona Hatuom and Anthony Gormley. As with Bing, Gormely also uses food as a medium to comment on economic issues, with Bread Line. The work is contrived, Gormely saying of it “Bread Line is a measuring of life, the distance we go, the distance we travel in a body, a moment at a time”. This seems a grandiose statement for what is literally a line of pieces of bread on the floor. I felt it was an unnecessary addition of the show, its only use being another famous name to add onto the programme. Hatuom’s work however is another highlight to the show. Grater Divide is a human-sized, fold out cheese grater, which takes on the appearance of a room divider. Architechtural and practical, but also threatening and intimidating, with its potentially hazardous razor-sharp sides.

Accessible, as well as challenging at points, Pot Luck is an exhibition full of humour, absurdity, fantasy and revulsion. It is has a few questionable choices but overall is well thought out & enjoyable exhibition which manages to avoid many of the food / art clichés that one could have expected. I leave lingering over some of the ‘dishes’ and still laughing about others, but with a total lack of hunger – just how one should feel after a decent dinner party.