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Harvest Review (GOMA, Brisbane)


For those of us old enough, the first experience of entering the Harvest exhibition at QAGOMA is like a trip back to the glorious days of that iconic Queensland emblem, the Big Pineapple at Nambour.  Plastic pineapple key rings, pineapple-shaped jugs and drinking glasses, even a pineapple crocheted tea-cosy. It’s great for a snigger and a nudge, and an opportunity to sneer at how vulgar it was, but it would be sad if that’s all we got out of it, because it also displays some enchanting wallpapers that aren’t the least bit kitsch, featuring pineapples, of course, but also bananas, wreaths of lemons, and veritable cornucopias of the produce of the Garden of Eden.  This initial installation by Fallen Fruit, an art collaboration originally conceived in 2004 by David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young, which has developed fruit and art-related projects around the world for more than 10 years, sets the theme for this blockbuster that you have when you’re not having a blockbuster.

The LNP government has, in its first two years, not shown itself to be especially friendly towards the arts. One of its first acts after winning the 2012 state election was to axe the $245,000 Premier’s Literary Awards. The newly-appointed arts minister at the time, Ros Bates, sneered at a commissioned massive, million-dollar sculpture of a bronzed elephant standing on its head looking at a water rat as “a waste of tax-payer’s money”. She said it was: “this kind of reckless spending that drove Queensland into a spiral of debt” (under the Bligh Labor government). The elephant has since proved to be one of the favourite exhibits with the gallery’s thousands of visitors (maybe because it’s not in a room?), and we have a new and cultivated arts minister in Ian Walker.  But the slashing of $12.4 million from funding for the arts in the LNP’s first budget has not gone unnoticed, although the Super Star Fund is very welcome.

The Super Star Fund is a $3 million commitment over four years to bring international artists to Queensland, to cultivate local talent and build local capacity.  So with “Superstar physicist Brian Cox” arriving to take Brisbane on a Journey through the Cosmos with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; who-knows-how-much to attract British director Michael Attenborough to spend heaps of money on a dazzling production of Macbeth; the high cost of a Queensland-exclusive Australian premiere of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Romeo and Juliet currently playing; and another international block-buster about Japanese high fashion at the end of the year,  there’s not much money left for GOMA to play with.

But they’ve done their best. Using art works already owned by the museum, a very resourceful group of curators led by QAGOMA’s Ellie Buttrose have found a theme and found the works to accompany it.  The theme is a celebration of food in art, a modest enough aspiration, but intellectualised almost out of existence by curator-speak.

They write: “Harvest will consider how globalisation makes available emblematic regional specialties from around the world. Beyond the stories of what the colonial period brought to Europe, this exhibition will also touch on food moving from north to south, and the impact that this has had on food production in communities, as well as the alternative modes of production often developed from local knowledges (sic). The labour involved in the production and distribution of what we eat is another important area of consideration for contemporary artists — from rice farmer to gleaner, and factory worker to the housewife. A discussion of labour also counterpoints the question of the status derived from food; the exhibition will explore the role of food as a symbol of prestige — whether through exclusivity or sheer excess.”

Well, yes. What this says to the ordinary weekend punter is anyone’s guess, but without taxing my brain any more than just reading the descriptions of the exhibits targeted specifically at children, I had a fun afternoon of it, because there was plenty on display to shock,  and even sometimes to awe in every conceivable medium. “Everything has a moral, if only can you find it,” as Lewis Carroll’s Duchess so wisely said, and my ethical sensibilities were most confronted by a simple video clip of a MacDonald’s restaurant slowly being inundated by flood waters, with cash registers being swept off the counters, soggy chips, sagging drink containers and dead burgers floating in the rising murk, and even Ronald MacDonald himself falling over and drowning without losing his fixed grin. Food for thought indeed, but not for eating.

There were, of course, more traditional exhibits, such as some fine paintings from the collection ranging from one of those perfect still-lifes by the 17th century  Dutch master Alexander Coosemans; through another still life by Hans Heysen featuring zinnias and, guess what! — a pineapple; to four Yam Dreamings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, all speaking more of beauty than of politics, though.

Some of the installations were puzzling, especially a large gallery space where the floor was carefully strewn with beautifully crafted wooden blocks immaculately lettered with miniscule writing, mysteriously entitled Permaculture crossed with feminist science fiction, which even the artist’s talk couldn’t clarify for me, although I longed to get down on the floor and play with the blocks.

There are two supermarket installations, one you can wander into where all the goods on the shelves are empty packets, and another with a number of people busy pulling a different supermarket to pieces, shredding boxes, packets, labels and even the shelves, another wanna-do-it exhibition. These exhibitions certainly make you think, if that’s what you want.  There’s everything here in every possible medium, and although some of the explanations are strong on the wank-factor, you’ll enjoy it. Like all canny exhibitions, it has added extras, like special meals at the Gallery café for $20, a lovely hard-cover companion book, fun stuff in the gift shop, although not all of it made in Australia, and best of all, free screenings of some of the best food movies ever made.  Think Like Water for Chocolate, Babette’s Feast, La Grande Bouffe — and they’re just the beginning.

There are talks every second Thursday (July 3, 17 and 31 at 6.30pm) with guest panellists and ABC RN hosts, if you can’t cope with the printed explanations; and a hands-on make-your-own-pineapple workshop.

But I’m not going to try the recipe for kangaroo beetroot in the souvenir book — the first of eight steps requires making tiny balls from a fresh beetroot with a melon baller, boiling them in sugar and water until tender, and dehydrating them overnight until they have the texture and appearance of a raisin.  And that’s before the soaked bone marrow and the Binchotan coals.  And that’s before the fresh munthari berries which you place on the plate at 2 o’clock and cover with grated beetroot.  Why does the W-word keep coming to mind?

Harvest runs until September 21 at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). Free admission. Main image: Helen Mirren in 1989’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover which is screening in the Harvest film program.

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