by Jessica Hein
Projected in a grid on a gallery wall, a video of hands at work creates a rich tapestry of images and sound. Hands deboning fish, kneading dough, beating eggs, whisking, stirring, chopping, skinning. Each task has its own rhythm that moves in and out, at changing speeds. In the background, a bell tolls and fades, a kitchen radio picks up an Italian folksong, conversations begin and end, children cry and play. In the next gallery room, a traditional dining set, painted black, holds flat screen monitors, each playing one of the videos from the large wall projection. These videos are part of a body of work called Feed by Tonia Di Risio, a Canadian multimedia artist who often investigates gender and domesticity in relation to cooking, cleaning, and interior decoration. Feed was shown in 2011 at Mount Saint Vincent University Gallery in Halifax.In 2006, Di Risio travelled to a small village in Abruzzo, Italy, where her paternal family is from, in order to document her female relatives cooking in their kitchens. For Di Risio, this meant closing a gap between generations of knowledge, distanced by both time and geography. For her community back in Halifax, on the east coast of Canada, Di Risio’s work brought insights, visual pleasures, and an understanding of some of the cultural nuances in the relationships between food and community.
Through her videos, comprised of footage taken while in Abruzzo, Di Risio reveals ways of knowing and working that come from the body. She captures performances of knowledge by a certain generation of women, in a particular Italian village, that can be understood through tactility, touch, and the work of their hands. Their movements are intimate and sensual, skilled and graceful, gestures they have practiced throughout their lives. Their recipes are not written down—cannot be written down. Words, written or verbal, simply won’t communicate the knowledge necessary to make the dishes. These are ways of making that are of the senses. Flour is not quantified in cups or grams, rather it’s measured through the touch of dough, the way it feels when pressed between finger and thumb.
The sights and sounds from this body of work are those of food being prepared not only to feed families, but also to gather people around a table in a shared sense of togetherness. These women work with each other to nourish their families, share knowledge, tell stories. It is the kind of work that escapes time in one sense—work that exists at the intersection of local harvests, culture, and community. And yet this particular kind of cooking and eating is so often removed from contemporary life in urban centres, where the ritual of slow cooked meals that connect people with locally grown food, storytelling, and a sense of community can seem rare, perhaps even forgotten.
On the east coast of Canada, Di Risio, whose work often straddles the bounds of art and life, highlighting the friction between the aesthetic and the social in art, [i] brought elements of Feed directly to her community through a series of Pasta Suppers. In tandem with gallery exhibitions, Di Risio invited the public to learn to make pasta and share family-style suppers held in church basements, dive bars, and artist-run centres. These performative events have become an on-going part of her practice, and have ranged from large, organized workshop dinners to intimate and collaborative cooking sessions in the homes of near strangers.
Artists, students, and neighbourhood residents came together to engage in a distinctly Italian ritual of cooking, sharing, and eating. Through these activities, a new kind of placemaking was formed—one that emerged from performance art, artist-run culture, and a distinctly east coast vibe. Together the participants made vast quantities of noodles and became immersed in the act of transforming three simple ingredients (flour, water, eggs) into nourishment. A lobster pot was set to boil on the sidewalk outside the gallery and everyone took turns cooking the pasta, heating the sauce, setting the long tables with white cloths, plates, and cutlery. That night they fed 40 people over two sittings. Some people came to the feast because they had been to Di Risio’s exhibition or were part of the art community; others had seen posters about the Suppers in their neighbourhoods and were intrigued. Still others, including a number of homeless people, were enticed from the street by the sights and smells. They entered the gallery, often for the first time, and joined a table full of strangers to eat a family-style meal.
Di Risio notes that food can act as a bridge between diverse communities. Through shared making and eating a new community can be formed, even if temporarily. Conversations between strangers begin easily when hands are engaged in kneading and turning out piles of spaghetti. Stories are shared over a pot of boiling pasta and introductions made while clearing stacks of dishes. Through these experiences of learning and storytelling, making and eating, a heritage that is rooted in another continent opens up to an east coast community, creating a shared sense of history and highlighting the complexities of Canadian culture.
At the core of this work, both the videos and workshops, is the transmission of knowledge by making and doing. The work exists at the intersection of art and life, performance and food. It also acts as a bridge between cultures, geographies, generations, and local community groups. As Di Risio filmed, watched, and learned, her female relatives worked with their hands, performing dexterous and skilled movements as they made an abundance of luscious meals. The resulting videos and installations immerse the viewer in scenes that are sensual and beautiful, that reveal generations of knowledge. Through the performative work of the Pasta Suppers, Di Risio herself enacts the passage of knowledge and culture, offering up an opportunity to share in food, conversation, and community.
Tonia Di Risio’s latest project, Sackville Preserves, took place this past September at You Are What You Eat, You Are, a symposium on food, art, and community in Sackville, NB. While there she gave workshops on canning locally grown produce and created opportunities for people to taste preserves and exchange skills, tips, and recipes. All of the preserves made by the participants were given away at a local harvest festival in exchange for donations to the Sackville Food Bank.
Lead Image: Pasta Supper Workshop, Eyelevel Gallery, Halifax, NS. Photo courtesy of Tonia Di Risio