Food for thought 490487

If you happen to be in the neighborhood next Friday at noon, you might want to drop by Beita for some tasty dishes prepared by Tal.

Yael Oren’s art incorporates painting, poetry and cooking (photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
Yael Oren’s art incorporates painting, poetry and cooking
(photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
Food is the great archetypal panacea, right? Everyone – except us vegans – knows that chicken soup is the Jewish penicillin and there is no ailment, physical or emotional, that tucking into a good meal can’t heal.
Then again, that may all just be some fanciful idea waiting to be right royally impugned. That might be the conclusion you reach should you find your way to Beita, the multidisciplinary, cultural facility at 155 Jaffa Road, within sniffing distance of the infinite array of edibles on sale at the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk.
Last week an intriguing exhibition opened at Beita called “Eat, Shatter, Collect.” As befitting the host venue ethos, the show incorporates three different artistic fields: painting, poetry and cooking. The proponents of the said areas of creativity are, in order of discipline, Yael Oren, Cheli Tal Shalem and her younger sibling chef Omer Tal.
It is easy to lose your way in “Eat, Shatter, Collect.”
As the title suggests, there is a process of construction and deconstruction in the artistic continuum. There is also a sense of confusing surreality about it all. The basic theme is clearly food-related, but there is nary a morsel on show in Oren’s paintings. And Tal’s dishes aren’t quite what you might expect them to be. For example, as we see in one of the two videos in the exhibition, the chef concocts a fried-egg lookalike from mango which he gingerly places on a malabi pudding base.
“He uses molecular gastronomy methods, modern methods,” Oren explains.
The mind-set factor thickens further when we see the chef’s dad making a real fried egg, with the father- son sequences blending and separating, which neatly also references the food evolution process. Tal Shalem says it fits the will-it-won’t-it bill nicely.
“The meeting point between the works is that it is all a sort of illusion. Yael’s paintings show really festive cutlery and crockery, but there is no meal in them at all. So there’s a kind of illusion of festivities.”
The “shatter” part of the exhibition header also comes through strongly in the paintings.
“There are shards of floor tiles, and there is the expectation of something about to happen, but it doesn’t happen,” notes Tal Shalem. There is a similar abeyance of eventualities in the written works.
“In my poems, there is a very strong longing for the food to provide a solution, to provide comfort, and act as some kind of emotional link – but that doesn’t happen.”
That also applies to Tal’s mango-malabi fried egg substitute, which is alluded to in his big sister’s poem “Elohim Nimtza” (God Is Around).
“God is in the egg, and He is frying and round,” she says. “But, at the end of the day, it is removed from the frying pan and it transpires that it is not so divine after all.”
That sounds tailor-made to evoke a keen sense of disappointment and, indeed, the ode was prompted by an immensely frustrating vignette in Tal Shalem’s life.
“A former boyfriend of mine was frying me an egg and while he was cooking, he offhandedly informed me that he was leaving for an eight-month trip to India.”
The scale of the relationship letdown was matched by the lack of culinary satisfaction. It also sparked a poignant familial memory.
“I was really excited, watching him make an egg for me and I remembered how my father would fry me an egg, and it would always come up just right. But my boyfriend, while he worked on the egg, shattered our relationship.”
There is a checks-and-balances thread that runs through the entire exhibition, and the trilateral evolution thereof. Oren’s works embrace natural and aesthetic counterpoints.
“My paintings generally start with the sky. I am fascinated by clouds and can stare at them for hours, and the changes you see if you look up,” she says.
There are azure backdrops in some of her pictures, while others tend more towards fiery cloud-filled sunset bottom lines.
You have to spend time with the paintings and then you become aware of the presence of something approaching surreal symbolism. An ornately floral-designed soup plate contains, not liquid sustenance, but a pool of sky while the requisite spoon disappears into the celestial portion, as if there really is something there to be ingested. And the decorative flora appears to partly hover above the china, adding to the furrowed brow-prompting element.
Oren admits to being enamored with a common or garden domestic component. “I love floor tiles. There is something about them that is so brittle – they comprise loose material that is tightly compacted, so they are firm and supportive but could also easily disintegrate.”
The absence of actual food in Oren’s creations, I suggest, gets the observer on board, inviting them to – pardon the pun – complete the picture with their imagination.
While willing to consider that premeditated involvement approach, the painter feels there is a plot subtext lead-in to the perceived compositional deficiency.
“I think this is more about the preparatory stage, before the food emerges. Setting the table, getting ready. There is something ceremonial about it – setting out the beautiful cutlery and dishes in the correct way. The food might appear, or it might not. It is more about the celebratory aspect and about the ritual.”
The latent artistic ingredient also comes through in Tal Shalem’s writing. Take, for instance, “White Lies,” which includes the lines – with a certain degree of translator license – “White encoded treasures, in hidden corners of the freezer. And white lies in the belly, for they must not be eaten.”
Tal Shalem’s works also chronicle her graduation from the cosseted world of the child, protected from evil by all-powerful blemish-free parents, to the sometimes cruel and hurtful brass tacks of real life.
“I wrote ‘Elohim Nimtza’ the night after my boyfriend told me he was leaving. It was a sort of rite of passage, from being a little girl with a father who was like God to me, and I was the most wonderful girl in the world for him. Then somebody who I thought loved me more than anything tells me he is leaving while cooking food for me.”
“Eat, Shatter, Collect” appears to offer plenty of eye-opening opportunities, and Tal Shalem says she went through a sort of cathartic process during the gestation stage.
“I am a bibliotherapist and while I worked on the poems, I felt I was administering bibliotherapy for myself. I lost 10 kilos during the writing, without dieting. It was only due to my understanding the meaning of what I was writing. I understood, from the writing, how much food satisfies another [emotional] need. I really want to go to places with girls with eating disorders, and to try to work with them through these poems; I feel they helped me, so they should be able to help others.”
Oren looked for various venues and formats for displaying her works, before the Beita arrangement worked out. It was a natural and convenient choice, both in terms of the well-appointed exhibition facility and its proximity to the shuk. Some of the market-stall owners provided victuals for the exhibition opening event, and Tal Shalem has works on display at various market establishments, such as venerated eatery Azura.
If you happen to be in the neighborhood next Friday at noon, you might want to drop by Beita for some tasty dishes prepared by Tal that resonate with Oren’s art and Tal Shalem’s poems and, of course, use raw materials procured from the shuk. Sounds perfectly natural.
The “Eat, Shatter, Collect” exhibition closes May 23.