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A healthy helping of bad news

"Eat It: Artists Explore Food & Consumption" 

A healthy helping of bad news

During the Industrial Revolution, we moved systematically away from traditional, deliberate ways of feeding ourselves. And as this basic element of survival slipped from ours into bureaucratic hands, we became less reliant on our communities for genuine needs, and our relations grew brittle for lack of practice. There are attempts to reverse this, but we are mostly isolated, rabid consumers, unaware for the most part of where our goods come from, what goes into making them, and under what conditions they are created. The new show at Rochester Contemporary showcases contemporary artists who address these issues through diverse methods and media.

At the front of the gallery space hang several large, colorful prints from the "Garden of Eden" series by Ontario, Canada-based photographer Andrzej Maciejewski, whose opulent images of food allude to Dutch Master painters both in subject matter and aesthetic. These altar-like, lush wonderlands of ripe fruit, legumes, and simple, sturdy tableware glow softly as they emerge from obscure backgrounds, marked here and there with the ubiquitous round stickers that name dubious, exotic origins. The works speak at once of our detachment from those origins and the beauty and goodness of real food.

The fact that we even need a photo session to point out the dignity involved in accepting help is a crying shame. But here we have Rochester-based Brady Dillsworth, a seasoned photographer who has turned his focus on the crucial issue of food security in Rochester. The artist teamed up with Foodlink for its capital campaign, putting faces and stories to the beneficiaries of the Rochester-based hunger-relief organization. Dillsworth visited Foodlink partner Calvary St. Andrews on Averill Street to create portraits of families and individuals who are struggling with food shortages.

Each subject stands proudly, presenting bags and mini-carts full of needed goods. Some are working hard to support families through unexpected hard times. One single man simply holds a carton of eggs and a pineapple, taking no more than he needs to supplement his menu, and trusting that the assistance will remain. Some people being helped also volunteer there. The subjects were enthusiastic about sharing their stories and ensuring that supporters know they are making a huge difference, says Dillsworth. Other images show families enjoying the autumnal outdoors at the Foodlink farm stand on Conkey Avenue, which for the past few years has offered fresh, real food to residents who don't otherwise have access to produce.

In the alcove at the rear of the gallery, a video by New York artists Stefani Bardin and Brooke Singer, collaborating as "The Counter Kitchen," underscores our pitiful understanding of food ingredients and chemicals. In "Market Research," people on the street respond to the challenge to pronounce the ingredients of foods we eat as they are listed on the labels. Baffling chemical names overwhelm the straight-forward-sounding ingredients, and confounded faces are amused, embarrassed, or startled. One of the lingering questions is what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration means by "modified."

Perfectly paired with the previous video and sharing the space is "Commodity Cropism," another work by Bardin in which a pair of hands shed the natural wrappers of various foods to reveal embedded images of the products of which they are a part of in a modified form. Viewers gain an idea of the vast collection of names soy, sugars, and corn hide under, and learn a bit about modified foods that are subsidized to be produced at alarming rates, tinkered with in countless ways, and slipped into our out-of-balance diets.

If you're grossed out by the playful works of Geneva, New York-based artist Christine Chin, which showcase imagined hybrids of inanimate objects and perfected biological elements, look into the disturbing, long history of humans tinkering with the life forms that we consume.

This exhibit features works from Chin's current project, "The Sentient Kitchen." Countless creatives have envisioned the future of humanity aided (or tormented) by sentient robots who take on unsavory tasks, thereby enhancing human life. In Chin's clinical photos of biological/tool hybrids, she imbues man-made objects with complex biological qualities meant to perform a simple specific task that depreciates the user in value.

A few of the specimens encourage laziness in developing tastes, or deny the ability to overindulge. "Sensitive Salter" is a shaker capped with a mouth that the photo boasts "dispenses salt to provide consistent gustatory salinity," while the "Tasting Spoons" are familiar pieces of flatware, the bowl of each a limp, wet muscle covered in taste buds, which guarantee "gustatory sophistication," according to Chin.

The "Shuttling Shakers," which hold parmesan cheese and have a clump of fingers at their bases, make manners obsolete by responding to simple commands. The artist really kicks you in the teeth with wisps of hair growing from the fleshy bits of each work. Also included are glossy mock cookbook pages with recipes such as "Eavesdrop Soup," a dish which features aurally sensitive greens, complete with anecdotes and preparation directions.

New York artist Tatiana Kronberg links our relationship with food to other kinds of consumption in a satirical video. The infomercial-style work, "Cooking Chanel," markets a kit for creating a cast of a designer handbag using gelatin and meat stew ingredients, in a mold of the iconic quilted purse. Accompanying the video are two queasy-making photographs of finished works, molded to perfection down to the stitching and double Cs of the brand. The useless bag provokes countless associations, including pouring resources into fashion, with disgust toward the lack of meaning behind these empty status symbols and their dubious origins.

How easy is it to feed yourself from the leavings and rejected edibles of Rochester? How safe is it? You can find out by joining an experimental scavenge-for-dinner and installation event to be hosted at Rochester Contemporary on May 3 by national research and design collaborative Spurse. The group organizes public events and exhibitions that bring together diverse stakeholders in the urban environment. The Spurse installation at RoCo builds upon its recent project, "Eat Your Sidewalk," and includes deceptively simple diagrams and charts that delineate courses of action toward shifting our resource-distribution paradigm, as well as a grid of organized inedible objects scavenged from the Rochester landscape. Much of what we fear is what we have yet to attempt. To RSVP for the limited-space dinner call 461-2222. Learn more about the project at thecivilappetites.org.

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