by Julian Ross
When the function of the mouth is to process food, what becomes of its role when it takes in processed food? An answer could be it becomes a stage for taste and sensation – at least preconditioned to experience according to the food industry. In their jargon, the chemical interaction in the mouth is called ‘mouthfeel,’ the term which Maryam Jafri has chosen to invoke in the title of her newest film (21:34min, 2K HD video with sound) and her first solo exhibition in London at Gasworks (until 18 May 2014). While her previous project Avalon (2011) focused on the process of production for a specific (yet nonetheless global) clientele of fetish wear, Jafri tackles the comparatively more prevalent and visible circulation of Big Food in the global economy with Mouthfeel. Behind the pervasive visibility lies the duplicities committed by the food industries that, although mostly invisible to us, is brought to the foreground by Jafri for her exhibition.
If we consider Gasworks as the mouth, the exhibition first itches the tongue with an assortment of food products that failed soon after launching in the form of Product Recall: An Index of Innovation (2014). Selected from a collection of an anonymous former brand consultant, the photo/text/object display shares with us a hilarious array of misguided oddities from the history of botched food products including baby drinks manufactured by Pepsi and sports drinks by Spalding who, in attempt to reach out to their basketball-loving market, coloured their drinks in bright tones in response to their “scientific studies” that revealed it would attract their primarily African-American clientele. As we continue deeper down ‘the mouth’ of the exhibition into the darkened room, the throat if you will, we find Mouthfeel, a video that proves equally as hard to swallow. Staged on the back seats of a limousine, the video presents a conversation between a married couple working for the same unnamed company, a male PR executive and a female food scientist played by Maryam Jafri herself. Stuck in traffic and with each other, the two argue about a flaw Jafri’s character has identified in a product about to be launched that her husband is determined to keep a secret. The backseats become another ‘mouth’ where the husband regurgitates marketing rhetoric and the wife almost pukes – well, actually she pees in a bucket in desperate disgust.
As TJ Demos (UCL) remarked in a recent in-conversation event with Maryam Jafri, the dialogue is certainly a ‘mouthful’ of information, filled with mostly verbose language of marketing, corporate strategy and food science. Yet, what is unique in Jafri’s work is she chooses to stage the communication of these facts that potentially implicates all of us within a highly personal setting of a conversation. The delivery seems deliberately heightened, with the two characters almost speaking in quotation marks from textbooks, which were inspired by stage theatre and US sitcoms of the 50s-70s at a time where processed food began to dominate. Moreover, she collapses the distance between her and what she portrays by implicating herself within the drama not only as victim but also as colluder, proposing for us to reflect on our own involvement as consumers in the food chain. While the drama is neatly contained on the backseats of the limo, the three-act structure is broken up by actual television ads from the Philippines, India and Colombia, reminding us of the global implications that result from what appears to be a domestic quarrel. Even more elevated in emotion than the drama, the television ads bring a strange concoction to the table where found footage and fiction taste the same.
On show until (21 March – 18 May 2014) at Gasworks, London.