From its symbolic value to the thematization of the relationship with one’s own body, the representation of food in contemporary art documents cultural belonging, interpersonal relations, hierarchies and consumption. In The Sociology of the Meal (Sociologie der Mahlzeit, 1957), Georg Simmel states that “of all the things that people have in common, the most common is that they must eat and drink”. All people are equal in their need to eat and drink. At the same time, social hierarchies and injustices are outlined by our eating habits and the unequal access to certain resources. The theme of meal and food can be traced through its complexity and simplicity – from physiological necessity to a stylized stage act and a pretext for social criticism.
Wheat as a symbol of fertility, generosity and rebirth dates back to the dawn of Western civilisation, when the cultivation of wheat and other grains facilitated the development of cities and complex societies. In Ancient Egypt, Osiris, the god of vegetation and rebirth, taught people how to grow wheat and make flour and bread. The Greeks saw bread as a “product of civilization” along with olive oil and wine. In Ancient Rome, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, fertility and motherhood, is symbolised by the ear of wheat. She had the power to fertilise and multiply plant seeds and animals and her rites protected all agricultural activities. Within this context, the creative power of wheat is associated with female fertility. It is not by chance that wheat and bread become symbols of life and generosity. In Perpetual Harvest (by Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan), ears of wheat are interwoven to form rockets of different types launched from the walls of the exhibition space. By juxtaposing the ears of wheat, symbols of life and fertility, with the destructive and threatening power of missiles, the work comments on the absurdity of war and the limitation of food resources as a weapon in military conflicts.
Bags of flour by Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor starts from the same basic need – food – represented, not accidentally, by flour. The bags of flour are overwritten with text fragments from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, translated into different languages. If we talk about food, we talk about human existence. Nutrition is one of the basic needs of mankind. The right to life is the most important human right and includes the obligation of states to take measures to protect life and eliminate threats to it, such as malnutrition. By the use of text fragments, the work draws attention to the abstract value of this text, which remains just a nothing but a statement and reveals its utopian character. Moreover, the expiration dates on the flour bags seem to remind us of the precarious and unstable nature of this fundamental right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not guarantee access to food. Hunger remains a worldwide issue, and the new relations of production and the free market have not created an equitable society.
Palianytsia means “bread”. The word became a sign of distinction at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as the Russian occupiers were unable to pronounce it correctly. Palianytsia, bread, is an important symbol in the Judeo-Christian tradition and at the same time a sign of hospitality and charity. In the context of the Eucharist, bread is the body of Christ, salvation through sacrifice. According to Ukrainian folk custom, you should not eat a piece of palianytsia after another person. This could take away their happiness and power.
Zhanna Kadyrova and Denis Ruban carve stones taken from the river closest to their home in Western Ukraine, where they took shelter due to the military situation in Kiev. Their series of sculptures, whose shape resembles that of sliced bread, become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, of life and generosity. The sums collected from the sale of the works are donated to volunteer organisations and the territorial defence forces of Kyiv.
Nutrition is essential to physical and mental fulfilment and well-being. Moreover, food should function as a source of comfort and soul healing. “Our daily bread” refers to both physical and spiritual food. Palianytsia represents life, generosity, hope. Not by chance, the materiality of the works – the stone – transforms the bread into a non-perishable, indestructible matter. For Kadyrova, palianytsia is a source of optimism and hope: “During the first two weeks of the war, it seemed to me that art was a dream, that my twenty years of professional life were just something I had seen in my sleep, that art was absolutely powerless in front of the merciless military machine that destroyed peaceful cities and took human lives. Now I no longer believe that. Now I feel that with every artistic gesture make we make we become more visible and our voices are louder!”