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FOOD: Bigger than the Plate at the V&A, exhibition review

FOOD: Bigger than the Plate at the V&A, exhibition review A table made from Totomoxtle, a new veneer material made with husks of heirloom Mexican corn, created by Fernando Laposse (FOOD: Bigger than the Plate,18 May –20 October 2019. Sponsored by BaxterStorey)
31 May
An exhibition at the V&A brings together innovations from across the food industry, providing a glimpse of experiments for a more sustainable future

Toilets crafted from cow manure, piggy banks moulded from leftover tea, cow-blood egg cups and cheese made from the armpits of famous musicians – it’s all a bit of a departure from the V&A’s normal style. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a stroll past the marble statues and designer dresses from eras past for this intriguing peak into the future.

FOOD: Bigger than the Plate explores the work being done by innovators and scientists at every stage of the food system. Packed full of case studies from around the globe, it provides an optimistic taste of developments in the industry, from new delicacies on our plates, new cities at one with nature, and new uses for food waste. A combination of visceral videos (ever seen a farmer collect sperm from a bull?) and beautiful design, it offers an attractive way to learn about innovations that could prove vitally important for the future of humanity and the planet.

Installation image FOOD Bigger than the Plate at VA Victoria and Albert Museum London 2More than meets the eye: experiments in bioplastics (Image: FOOD: Bigger than the Plate, 18 May –20 October 2019. Sponsored by BaxterStorey)

The exhibition really starts at the end of the process. Rotting food, orange peel and excrement – it’s all about waste. Here are profiles and exhibits from innovators such as Gianantonio Locatelli, founder of ‘The Shit Museum’ and inventor of merdacotta (literally ‘baked shit’), a terracotta-like material made from the dung produced by Locatelli’s herd of 3,500 dairy cows. Sunglasses made from bioplastic and leather made from pineapple are also available to fondle and – within a big, glass cabinet – mushrooms sprout from bags of leftover coffee taken from the V&A café. Many of these items have a practical use, though there is also a design focus, with attractive bowls, cups and wall-art on display.

The exhibition only provides a snap-shot of these materials – for a wider discussion about the economic viability of any one invention you’ll have to look elsewhere. But videos documenting the impact of certain projects, such as a home-composting system in India, indicate the potential for some of these schemes to change lives in developing countries.

Urban Mushroom Farm GroCycleUrban Mushroom Farm © GroCycle (Image: FOOD: Bigger than the Plate, 18 May –20 October 2019. Sponsored by BaxterStorey)

From waste, it’s on to farming. We are told that in the UK only 1.5 per cent of the workforce is directly involved in agriculture, meaning ‘growing food has become abstract and remote’. At the same time intensive industrial methods are exacerbating climate crisis and reducing biodiversity. More intriguing ideas are on offer to solve these problems, including ‘community’ chickens that boast greater genetic diversity, hoverfly-attracting fake fruit, and Dagenham-based Company Drinks (visitors are invited to sample the firm’s urban-herb cordial, reminiscent of a Christmas cookie, but watery). Again, the scale and viability of these ideas isn’t clear and at this stage many are probably nothing more than that – an idea – but it’s a good introduction to the some of the themes we are likely to hear much more about in coming years.

UseUrban planning for the future by Hedge H.U.G (Image: FOOD: Bigger than the Plate, 18 May –20 October 2019. Sponsored by BaxterStorey)

A short documentary in this section flicks through clips of industrial agricultural and farming techniques. Of all the exhibits, this is the most powerful tool for connecting unaware urban eaters with the source of their food. As workers on their hands and knees cut lettuces, ensconced within a massive machine that moves through the field; or as great lines of apples float in a pool of Olympic proportions, like a giant game of apple bobbing, the visitor gets to spy on practices few will have ever seen. Though the video is entirely non-judgemental, it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable and accountable, particularly when these processes involve thousands of chickens being sucked up a chute, or the aforementioned video of the bull.  

It all gets a little less confronting and a bit more fun from here on in. The exhibition moves on to eating and trading. In one room, a huge white table plays host to bizarre and expensive-looking eating utensils, while jars of fermented vegetables, Instagram shots of symmetrical breakfasts and illustrations of delicious cakes line the walls. At one counter, museum guides prepare canapés for visitors based on a list of preferences keyed into a computer (delicious, sustainable, ethical, etc.). Though it’s less clear here what the message is, these rooms are fun and aesthetically pleasing. Certainly if the idea is to spark interest and debate the entire exhibition is a success – that post-museum lunch may well be a little more interesting than it might have been.  

FOOD: Bigger than the Plate runs until Sunday, 20 October 2019. Tickets cost £17 and concessions apply. For more information visit www.vam.ac.uk

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