When Food Turns to Art: an Interview with Jorge Menna Barreto

by Carla Ingrasciotta
October 5, 2017
Carla Ingrasciotta

On the occasion of Frieze Week opening, Fundaçao Bienal de Sao Paulo in collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery presented “Restauro” an environmental installation which discusses art and nutrition by the Brazilian artist and researcher Jorge Menna Barreto. The aim is to raise environmental questions and taking the audience into a sensorial experience.

During the day-event the artist developed a program including the tasting of wild edibles as a site-specific food, provoking the reconnection of the human body to the wilderness and the landscape around us.

Carla Ingrasciotta: How was the idea of Restauro born?

Jorge Menna Barreto: It came up during a the research I was doing as a post-doctoral fellow at the State University of Santa Catarina in 2014, when I investigated possible relations between art and agroecology. The concept that united those two areas was site-specificity, which has been in the center of my practice as an artist for more than 20 years now.

C.I.: “Restauro” encourages awareness about how we use our land and the consequences of our choices globally.
What about the event at the Serpentine gallery. What was the reaction of the public?

J.M.B.: “Restauro” is an ongoing research of around 4 years now and it has had different moments when it becomes public. Two of these moments happened at the Serpentine Galleries: one was the public event on the 30th of September, called “Londelion”, which took place at the pavilion; and the other one was Restauro dinner, which was at Zaha Hadid’s restaurant building by the Serpentine Sackler. Both appearances are deeply interconnected, even though they are quite different in terms of format: one was a workshop and the other was more like a dinner party. The one thing that links them is how they address the public, relating food and environment. The idea in both situations is to connect people to land and territory through their digestive systems. In the first case, by eating a plant that grows spontenously in the place we were, Hyde Park; and in the second, by eating produce that is local to London and region. Both suggest food is one of the most important ways to relate to place and landscape. The public in both events was quite receptive to the ideas and to the plant based recipes we served, which was really nice.

C.I.: In a statement you said “Human civilisation has replaced foraging for supermarketing and, with it, has lost its sense of place and belongingness”. Could you tell us more about this concept and how do you translate your perspective on this theme in your art?

J.M.B.: For millions of years we have eaten what grows around us. In that sense, food has also played and important role on how we relate to environment and landscape. The plants we ate responded to the same weather, microbes, soil and conditions in which we lived, thus creating an immediate link between food, land and our bodies. Our intestines may be one of the main interfaces in our relationship to space. If you were to flatten out our guts and all its folds, we would have a surface that is the size of a football field. That is much more than our skin or our lungs together, in terms of area. That attests that our intestines, event though engaged in a relationship which is not visible to our eyes, might “very well be our primary interface with the outside world” (Dr. Michael Greger). Now imagine living in London and eating kiwi that comes from New Zealand. How do our bodies relate to that? What are they able to read? Food is deeply ingrained with information from the soil. It is almost as if that food that travelled so far spoke a different language, or a completelly different alphabet. The feeling of being a foreigner, or displaced, could very well be a result of eating food that was grown elsewhere. On top of that, we can also add the environmental damage of transporting food from so far away. The funny thing is that food that grows sponteneously around us, such as wild edibles, have become invisible and is not even considered food, like dandelions. I don’t consider what I do art, in terms of having an artistic DNA per se. I understand I approach certain issues or aspects of society through art, using concepts and theories that are from the art field. That enables you to approach my work through different areas, such as ecology, nutrition, economy or geography. The plasticity in my work is in the way you look at it. Its artistic catch is in how you read it. I like, for example, to think of Restauro as an environmental sculpture, referencing Beuys social sculpture and Helio Oiticica’s environmental program, artists I feed from when thinking about art in the expanded fiel.

C.I.: Which were the main challenges or difficulties you found in presenting the same project in two different realties like Sao Paulo and London?

J.M.B.: There were some production challenges, but in general we found more similarities than differences in those contexts. First, the food industry is international nowadays, so the problems we have in Brazil concerning the complexity of food and environmental impact is something the English have also been concerned about. One thing that was really nice to look into was British artists who have a strong relationship to landscape: Constable, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Long, Anthony Gormley…these examples show how British art has a strong connection to place, so that also created a fertile ground for me to plant my project. Another interesting thing was how similar we found organic farmers to be in Brazil and in England. The ethical relationship to land is something they share, and from that comes abundance and generosity. It is quite interesting how that made me feel at home when visiting those farms.

C.I.:  Are you working on any upcoming project we could look forward to see?

J.M.B.: My challenge at the moment is to think of how “Restauro” can be translated into a book. There is vast discursive material to be shared, but the formats which we have been using up to now are more experiential, addressed to the body. As “Restauro” sprouted from an academic research, there is also a lot to say in terms of texts and images that have not yet been shown, and I think the format of a book would be ideal to do that. The challenge, though, is to think of a book that not only is a support for our thoughts, but that is an extension of the project, almost like a non-site of Restauro, to quote Robert Smithson.

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