Eat Your Art Out

Edible artwork ruminates on corporeal and visual consumption at Root Division in SF

Addy Hbasin/Staff

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“Materials are consumed in two ways,” said contemporary artist Adrienne Keahi Pao of her photography, which is based on the relationship between humanity and food. Her photographs, currently part of an exhibition titled “Edible Ephemera” at Root Division in San Francisco’s Mission District, represent only a small fraction of artwork inspired by the evanescent nature of food.

Pao’s statement directly reflects the exhibition as a whole. Inspired by the idea that the state of food is always in flux, most works of art on display are made from food products, resulting in the possibility of both visual and corporeal consumption. Lynne-Rachel Altman’s “Phantom Sugar Feet” is one such example. Her ghostly sculptures of feet made from sweeteners look like crumbling Roman relics — haunting and poignant. Though we may see her sculptures as an edible creation, Altman hints that the opposite may be true.

“Each year, Americans consume an average of 152.4 pounds of caloric sweeteners, and about 65,000 people lose a lower limb due to complications … One amputation every eight seconds,” Altman said. Her artwork evokes both the fleeting nature of food and the transitory condition of health.

The tone of the rest of the exhibit is not as solemn. One of the most compelling works is Paolo Salvagione’s “The Olfactory Narrative,” which weaves two separate stories relying on the viewers’ sense of smell. Sterile-looking test tubes with pumps attached to the wall allow for an interactive sensory experience. The first series of tubes tells a silent story of innocence. Scents of popcorn, cotton candy, Cinnamon Red Hots and Juicy Fruit invoke a tale of first love and childhood memories. On the other hand, the second series of tubes deals with the Old World, as gallery-goers are transported to the Age of Discovery with smells of clove and pepper, among other spices.

Continuing with the exploration of multiple senses, “Edible Ephemera” includes a corner in the gallery dedicated to taste and emotion. “Apothecary,” by Claudia Tennyson, includes two shelves stocked with mismatched glass bottles and decanters filled with jewel-toned drinks. These bottles are all labeled with various abstract concepts and feelings like memory, happiness, curiosity and delight. Visitors are encouraged to choose their own three to have mixed, so they are able to taste the intersection of their feelings.

“‘Apothecary’ is loosely based on the pharmacies in parts of Central Europe, where I lived for a couple years,” Tennyson said. “(They) seemed a kind of space held for public healing to take place in the midst of a hectic world.” Her work does indeed reflect this notion of communal therapy. Ordering your choice of liquid emotions is similar to collecting a personalized prescription, and drinking an individualized drink in the company of others is soothing. Tennyson’s isolated corner allows for quiet contemplation of emotions, taste and synesthesia.

Other works include both large-scale paintings of watercolors with crystallized salts and framed portraits of citrus rinds. This association of food and ephemera is not a novel concept, however. Still-life paintings called vanitas, from the 16th and 17th centuries in the Netherlands, often played on the meaninglessness of earthly delights and material objects, such as lavish dining wares and ostentatious displays of extravagant food. Though the artists at Root Division may not have had this inspiration in mind, it is interesting to note that “Edible Ephemera,” like the vanitas paintings, indicates the delicate nature of life.

Using innovative displays to illustrate a traditional theme, the pieces seem to urge viewers to understand that what is eaten for sustenance and nourishment is ephemeral, very much like the consumers themselves.

Contact Addy Bhasin at [email protected].