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The Way We Eat at Home

An installation view of ‘The Way We Eat’ exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo © AGNSW, Jenni Carter

The exhibition

‘A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into; the other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards … I think it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.’

– George Orwell The road to Wigan Pier 1937

Food is central to our lives, but it is far more than a simple daily necessity. What we eat and drink, the utensils we use and the way we consume food define our lives and times.

The Way We Eat brings together works of art related to food – that ancient source of inspiration, pleasure and anxiety. Historical treasures and dramatic contemporary artworks in a range of media are displayed under four themes: Essential, Exchange, Excess and Enchanted. These themes consider how food is made, stored and consumed; the evolution of culinary wares; cultural exchange; and the ritual and symbolic meanings of food.

The works of art in the exhibition are drawn from the Gallery‘s collection, as well as private lenders including the White Rabbit Collection. Some are sourced directly from Sydney-based artists, including Ah Xian, Tianli Zu and Jason Phu, whose artworks incorporate references to food in diverse and remarkable ways.

 

Essential

An old poem says: ‘Good food is not equal to good utensils’ … Plates are suitable for fried and sautéed food, bowls are suitable for soup. When they are mixed, lustre arises.

– Yuan Mei Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suiyuan shidan) 1792

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Exchange

This [Jingdezhen] is the place where emperors sent emissaries with orders for impossibly deep porcelain basins for carp for a palace, stem cups for rituals, tens of thousands of bowls for their households. It is the place of merchants with orders for platters for feasts for Timurind princes, for dishes for ablutions for sheikhs, for dinner services for queens.

– Edmund De Waal The white road: a pilgrimage of sorts 2015

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Excess

Even if his rice is of the finest quality, he does not gorge himself; even if his meat is finely minced, he does not gorge himself … Even if there is plenty of meat, he should not eat more meat than rice. As regards wine, however, there are no restrictions, as long as he retains a clear head.

The Analects of Confucius c400 BCE

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Enchanted

Cabbages in late autumn are written
in the lines of famed gentlemen.
Chives in spring rain can be
meals to entertain friends.
How can they be compared with
the rich flavour from a pickled jar?
We view pickles as tasty as the
meal of a striped pig.

– Huang Yunxiang Pickled vegetables Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

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