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The Art of Food Waste

By Alice Bradshaw

For Waste Less Live More Week 2013, artist, curator, researcher and writer Alice Bradshaw has compiled a selection of artworks using food waste to highlight the many ways artists work creatively with this medium which we are seeking to reduce in times of unprecedented consumption and waste.

One of the inevitabilities of human life is that we all produce waste. It is an inescapable condition that our bodies turn food into waste and eventually become waste themselves.



The consumption process is highlighted through mechanisation and automation in Wim Delvoye’s digestive machine Cloaca (2000). The Belgian artist constructed this room-sized installation at the Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp, after eight years of consultation with experts in various fields ranging from plumbing to gastroenterology. Named after an ancient Roman sewer, Cloaca literally turns food into waste. A first class chef prepares two meals a day in an attached kitchen and the machine is fed: Food passes through glass jars filled with water and stomach enzymes that break down the matter to produce daily, realistically smelling, faeces which Delvoye sets in resin at his studio then signs and sells, revelling in the absurdity of the process.

Artists also examine the properties of food as they naturally biodegrade, experimenting with the visual and olfactory sensations that rotting food in a gallery setting can create.

In 2003, British sculptor Anya Gallaccio was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and exhibited Because I Could Not Stop (2002) – a cast bronze tree stump with real apples tied to it which decayed and dropped to the ground over the course of the exhibition. The contrast between the transient, rotting organic matter and the permanency of the bronze highlights the difference between the stuff in the real world and the copies or representations created for the art world.

Austrian photographer Klaus Pichler deals more directly with the issue of food waste through studying rotting organic matter with his project One Third. The title refers to the UN cited figures that a third of all food produced globally goes to waste, but contrastingly 925 million people around the world are starving. Pilcher photographs fruit and vegetables in states of decomposition and supplies production information alongside as means of their description; including place of production, cultivation method, time of harvest, transportation distance, means of transportation, carbon footprint, plus water requirement and price per kilogram. The beautifully photographed still life compositions Pilcher produces draw attention to the global waste issue through combining visual impact with analysis of the often overlooked detail of where our food comes from.

Three tea

British artist Jared Szpakowski also examines the decay process – of an Emirates airline chapatti – by blogging the scanned food item every month; April, May, June and August.

The circular form is reminiscent of Petri-dish experimentation as we see a the transformation through time lapse. Saved from a 24 hour flight from Australia to the UK, the chapatti has literally travelled half way around the world, and with this in mind, the image becomes globe like, or a map of a world; one with different (bacterial) cultures living and breeding until the natural resources are depleted and can no longer sustain life any more.

Infamous British artist Damien Hirst also looks at the grotesque in food waste and consumption in Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (1990-91) – one of his early fly breeding/killing life-cycle vitrines. The vitrine is split into two halves; one half containing a steel barbecue covered in raw meat with trays of maggots where the coals would be, and in the other half the abandoned leftovers of an atypical family outdoor meal complete with a cow’s head underneath the table and an Insect-O-Cutor above the table with its collecting tray removed. The hatched flies from the barbecue pass through a hole in the separating glass panel and are killed by the Insect-O-Cutor, falling into the food left on the table.

Another artist looking at the remains of the meal in a completely different way is Romanian born Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri. Well known for his leftover meal assemblages he began in the 60s, dubbed ‘snare-pictures‘, Spoerri takes the remains of meals eaten by individuals, including the plates, silverware and glasses, fixes (snares) everything as it is found to the table, and then displays it, rotated 90 degrees, on the wall. The new orientation of something very mundane is captured and presented to be inspected and contemplated on the gallery wall.

As how we consume food becomes less about family mealtime around the table and more about snacking on the go, artists have found rich inspiration from the increasing tendencies for eating, and wasting, in the public domain.

Chris Gittner’s Street Food is an ongoing series of close up, ground level photographs of various food items left discarded on the streets.


His choice of perspective and magnification draws attention to each scrap of food he finds whilst going about his day. Photographing it in situ begins to create a narrative of how the food; as we imagine/re-enact the child dropping an icecrem cone and the drunk spilling a half eaten kebab after a night out.

In a similar vein London based Slinkachu photographs various rubbish items, including food, but also adds tiny model people to create playful, fictional narratives in his photographs, such as Local amenities for children (2008).

From food waste in the public domain to the food waste of elusive galleries and museums, artists have also examined what these institutions produce.

In 2003, Breuk Iversen and Jan McLaughlin co-founded Offal – defined as “the by-product of a process” – a collaboration involving collecting trash from galleries of the Williamsburg Gallery Association in Brooklyn, New York. Unbeknownst to the galleries, the artists used covert, undercover methods to retrieve objects from their trash and displayed them on framed 2 feet squares under plastic resin, titled with numerical compositions of the address, street, date of extraction, zip code and time. They were displayed alongside photographs of the gallerists, also taken covertly, capturing and revealing a portraiture of the 18 galleries subjected to the pseudo-forensic investigation. In the example above, a lobster shell is depicted next to a newspaper which juxtaposes luxury with the everyday, with a reference to Surrealism as inspiration.

In another look at waste and the institution, Richard Wentworth, who was invited by the British Museum to create an installation for a multi-site exhibition entitled Collected, produced Questions of Taste in 1997. Wentworth collected empty drinks containers discarded in and around the museum and displayed them in a vitrine alongside selected ancient Egyptian drinking vessels from the museum’s collections. Museum labels described both drinks vessels, including details of the manufacturing process and where each item was found, highlighting the differences in the handmade and mass-produced and also the ascribed value these same-purpose objects.

The human connection to our food rubbish is often explored through art, as the food and waste industries are increasingly adapt at sanitising this dirty little truth as if we have no part to play in the mass-production of food waste. David Shapiro used the waste from every item that he consumed over a two year period in a a work entitled Consumed (2003). Two years of boxes, bags, bottles and cans were installed in supermarket style aisle upon aisle of shelving. Where artists such as the late Francis Bacon have notoriously never thrown anything out and hoarded stuff in the studio, Shapiro purposefully chose to focus on his food and drink consumption habits to create a different kind of self portrait.

As our food and drink becomes increasingly over-packaged and consumed in also increasing quantities, artists have an abundant source of free, and conceptually loaded, material available to create new works of art.

British artist Richard Shields has utilised paper coffee cups and cardboard pizza boxes as his ‘canvas’ for drawings and paintings.

In Slurped (2008), specific people have been drawn in (found) Biro on used coffee cups – which link conversations over coffee in the real time with browsing glossy magazines of the stars of an era over coffee breaks. Shields’ technical skill in rendering the famous and lesser known characters on these throwaway commodities questions society’s judgement of value and taste as we consume vaster amounts of both celebrity culture and over-priced caffeinated beverages.

Mexican artist Martin Soto Climent uses empty beer cans in volume to create Impulsive Chorus (2010). Several blue aluminium cans of the same brand are in varied crumpled states but all seemingly facing in on each other in a huddle. The mass-produced cans, all individually drunk, squashed and carefully positioned take on anthropomorphic attributes – with the ‘mouths’ of the cans open as if singing, in chorus, as the title suggests.

Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui also uses alcohol waste products – namely liquor bottle caps – in Tapestries of Trash (2013). The foil caps are flattened and stitched together in quantity to create visually stunning ‘tapestries‘ with obvious inspiration from his Ghana roots.

Drinks lids are also utilised by Texan sculptor George Sabra who exclusively uses collected discarded trash for his sculptures. Plastic Cap Sculpture

is on quite a monumental scale, photographed amongst the skyscraper buildings of ‘progress’ and also shown in the short video clip swaying in the breeze; almost organic in their non-uniformity of various sizes and colours.

Plastic waste from the food industry has long been known to contribute to the vast plastic pollution congregating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and damaging marine life to extinction with massive global consequence. Elliott Mariess’ Waste (2012) uses plastic cutlery to create human skeletons; articulating a direct correlation between plastic food waste and death. The carefully crafted life-size models look uncannily real from a distance, and up close the plasticky brilliant white surfaces reveal the detail of shaped and moulded throwaway forks of convenience food.

Junk food and food waste may not be far off being exactly the same thing, but they are certainly proportional. Japan born, New York based Yuken Teruya draws attention to the relationship between junk food and waste in Golden Arch Parkway McDonalds (Yellow) (2005) which is made from a paper takeaway bag with a tree carefully cut out of the side and displayed as a miniature diorama.

McDonalds is oft-cited as being one of the worse offenders in the food industry for damaging the environment and life on every level from deforestation and global warming, to the terrible treatment of animals used in the food, to consumer nutrition and poor employee working conditions.

Copenhagen based artist collective Superflex’s fictional short film Flooded McDonalds (2009) is a poignant, near-prophetic, reminder of devastation dealt at the hands of the polluting multinationals. A life-size replica of the interior of a McDonalds burger bar, devoid of customers and staff, gradually floods with water until the space is completely submerged. The absence of human life is eerie, as after life has vacated the building the food waste remains; submerged in a fate of it’s own making.

See more of Alice’s research on artists using various waste materials here: http://contemporaryrubbish.wordpress.com/


About the author

The Museum of Contemporary Rubbish was founded in 2010 by Alice Bradshaw. The MoCR is dedicated to collecting, cataloguing and exhibiting contemporary rubbish.


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