“Will there be anything to eat when we get there?” asks Grandma Josephine at the end of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), a story exploring the hidden dimensions of a fantastical confectionary factory. Though hunger is a force that drives us all, after four of the five children who enter the factory end up in sticky situations, most would think twice about eating any of the sweets on offer. The children in the book demonstrate the flamboyance, overconsumption and excess of the 1960s and yet, over fifty years on, this is a world not so dissimilar to our own.
Polyculture, a collection of energetic new and existing works by artist Jonathan Trayte at The Tetley gallery, also explored food production; its processes, yields and manipulations. Just as Dahl presented Willy Wonka’s unbelievable food inventions in a succession of immersive worlds, each room at The Tetley showcased a different process with multicoloured ingredients. Trayte’s sculptures are not only about the physical process of making food but also the seductive ways it is presented to us: ripe and ready to eat, bursting with a vibrant palette and glimmering surfaces. However, like Wonka’s duplicitous invitation, these sugar coated morsels are not the innocuous offerings they appear to be.
Trayte’s work is filled with conflict, real versus unreal, production versus provocation. His cast forms slump grey and heavy against the floor or stand erect and bright, rising up from the humble origins of the smaller vegetables they are cast from. Some are gleaming and desirable, coated with a thick gloss, tempting visitors to touch or even lick them (though unfortunately, licking the sculptures is strictly prohibited) to verify that they are in fact bronze and not supersized gobstoppers, enormous pearls of endless sweetness.
Entering the main space, we are greeted with a crowded field of ashen concrete weights in the form of former prize-winning marrows, engorged lifeforms with overfamiliar pet names like Little Sugar (2014) and Baby Boo (2016). In the absence of a doting gardener, the gargantuan gourds crowd together for comfort under Sweethearting (2016), an unforgiving sentinel of a cantaloupe hanging sun-like on the wall above them. The hum of an electric fan, inflating one massively oversized nagaimo yam, Ogi (2016), resonates through the double-height atrium, resembling the incessant drone of supermarket refrigerators. The atrium, full of these oversized and bloated concrete marrows, becomes a final resting place for vegetables whose sole purpose was one of garden show competition, overdevelopment and display, a life cycle removed from normal production and consumption.
The Tetley’s smaller galleries contain similarly improbable and garish assemblages. Smaller objects, patent, alluring and, with the addition of light bulbs in some, literally glowing with charm and deceptive fragility. The colourful and playful groceries become more abstracted, less like clear representations of food. Their bold artificial colours, borrowed from food packaging, show how deeply our perception of food is warped and manipulated. They conceal the grim over-processing of our consumables with their desirable or distracting exteriors.
Across the floor of one room snaked Boerewor (2016), a thick, ridged, translucent length of plastic tubing, both attached to and spilling out of a pastel pink metal frame. Clean and unused, it is nonetheless a disturbing sculptural nod to the method through which much of our food is processed, moulded and carried to its destination. Exposed cables leading to two TV monitors also referenced the complex laboratory and factory processes from which slick packaging seeks to disengage us. Titled Looperator 1 & 2 (2016), each screen shows a factory conveyor belt moving meat products. The monitors almost face each other, slightly skewed, seemingly unable to watch their own sticky image on repeat. The repetitive clatter and hum of machinery emanating from the videos is echoed by the hum of the inflator in the atrium and, beyond the gallery, the buzzing electrics of the ASDA test supermarket next door to The Tetley, a secretive full-scale model of the grocery warehouses in which we ultimately buy our food.
Sinister echoes of industrial scale manufacture feature in piled produce and identical duplicates of hanging objects. Multiples such as (O) (2016) – a stack of cast ceramic eggs in cardboard trays – give a sense of automated production and overwhelming excess: excess in the scale and methods we use to produce food; the waste created through this production, and ultimately the waste of the resulting food itself. The UK alone throws away over 7 million tonnes of food ‘waste’ per year.
The exhibition brings to mind not only Dahl’s wondrous chocolate factory but also the novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by author Harry Harrison, which takes a critical look at the state of food production, identifying overconsumption as a key threat to our future. He writes of an all-too-familiar near-future, a prophecy of eminent issues with environmental sustainability wherein civilisation has collapsed due to overpopulation. What was science fiction in the 1960s is seemingly fact today, with the global population expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050 and, according to Our Food Future (2016), a recent Food Standards Agency report, global food supply chains are already becoming unstable and unpredictable. Excess demand, production and waste have become major factors in global warming and economic uncertainty. The people in Make Room! Make Room! can’t afford to eat, relying on government handouts via over-stretched services. Harrison’s dystopian future is our present, with failing crops and rising demand causing global food prices to increase, pricing out the lowest on the economic food chain. Food banks are not fiction.
Harrison’s book influenced the film Soylent Green (1973), starring Hollywood legend Charlton Heston, which takes the food crisis one step further, subverting production with macabre consequences. The famous reveal sees Heston’s character cry out the indigestible truth (SPOILER ALERT): ‘Soylent green is people!’ Trayte’s creeping television cables, plastic tubing and hoards of clear plastic bags suspended from machine-like metal structures, carry something of this horror and its underlying real-world problem of sustainability and mass production. What will we do when there is no longer enough, and how long before we begin to do something about it?
The Food Standards Agency reports that UK consumers’ main concerns are with their own access to food, only thinking of local rather than global shortages. One of the major trends identified was the issue of convenient access to food, even at the expense of knowing what the food is and where it came from. This convenience-over-connection conundrum is evident in many popular culture visions of the future, such as the food replicator in the television and film series Star Trek – a 24-hour vending machine that can materialise anything you could think of in a matter of seconds. The technology of this atomically pieced together meal is never fully explained, leaving a similarly severed connection with the food being consumed.
Trayte’s work subtly questions the food industry, from its professional to amateur levels of production, with objects that are simultaneously natural and unnatural; paradoxes of stature, material and display. Gigantic show vegetables, replicated to actual size, hunker down in crowds, while melons and squash pirouette on stands covered in thick, shining coats of glucose-like gloss. Taken together, the works underline agricultural sustainability issues alongside a celebratory culture of vegetables that clamour for our attention. As in Wonka’s joyous but deceptive factory and Harrison’s life-giving, dwindling rations, despair and desire go hand in hand. Larger than life and technicolour, Trayte’s work shares Wonka’s theatrical exuberance, whilst hinting at darker consequences for humanity as revealed in Soylent Green and other sci-fi scenarios. Polyculture was both a celebratory spectacle and a warning call, posing the question of whether or not a culture misdirected and manipulated to excess can ever hope to become sustainable, or even survive, in the not so far future.