Food for thought: Bologna’s Foto/Industria Biennale returns, exploring the culture of the culinary

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Exhibiting works by Lorenzo Vitturi, Jan Groover, Mishka Henner, and eight more, the photo festival delves into ecology, industry and taste 

Bologna – famous for its tortellini, bolognese sauce and parmigiano-reggiano – is an old city in Northern Italy, proud of its Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque histories. The university, the oldest in the western world, keeps the city’s spirit young, as old homes house new minds. Outside the city walls, Italian car manufacturers such as Ferrari, Ducatti, Maserati and Lamborghini keep large amounts of the region employed and affluent, a relatively new enterprise reflected within the Foto/Industria’s recurring theme for its Biennale, of labour, industry and Bolognese culture. 

The Biennale – a biannual photography festival dedicated to industry and culture – finds its home at the Fondazione Mast, a purpose-built photography and technology gallery. It neighbours a packaging factory run by Coesia, a multi-company collective which manufactures a range of items, from perfume bottles to sweet wrappers. The gallery and the factory have a symbiotic relationship, as the livelihood and culture of the workers becomes central throughout the site. Aside from the gallery, the Foundation houses a gym, nursery, academy, restaurant and library, all free to access to its and locals. This year, Foto/Industria, organised by the Mast Foundation, stresses the importance of art for everybody through the theme of Food.

Grandi tranci di tonno vengono puliti a mano e inscatolati, Favignana, Italia / The big tuna steaks are trimmed by hand and placed into big tins, Favignana, Italy 1951 Collezione MAST. Courtesy of The Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos
Gli uomini tirano lentamente le reti cantando un'antica canzone, Favignana, Italia / The nets are raised slowly, while the men are singing an old song, Favignana, Italy 1951 Collezione MAST. Courtesy of The Herbert List Estate / Magnum Photos
Chez Troisgros, Roanne 2000 © Bernard Plossu
Hawaii 2000/2010 © Takashi Homma. Courtesy Galleria Viasaterna, Milano

“Food is a language, and in the last century, it moved into mass production, becoming a technological medium that reflects people, places, and culture. Photography echoes this, a medium constantly representing the world it finds itself in.”

“Photography and food have a lot in common,” Francesco Zanot, the Biennale’s curator and director, states. “Food is a language, and in the last century, it moved into mass production, becoming a technological medium that reflects people, places, and culture. Photography echoes this, a medium constantly representing the world it finds itself in,” he continues. 

Zanot and his team chose the 11 exhibitions showing at the Biennale from an initial 170, narrowing the choices down through a holistic consideration of venue space. For example, the American photographer Herbert List’s 1951 series Favignana – a step-by-step chronicle of the Island of Favignana’s now extinct tuna industry – is displayed in the Palazzo Fava Salone, below renaissance frescoes depicting similar maritime industries. Maurizio Montagna’s Fisheye finds its home amongst the taxidermied birds on display across the university’s zoological department, a fitting home for a series reflecting on the lives of fish and the humans that catch them. “We didn’t just want to match a venue to an exhibition, but wanted to create a dialogue between the two,” Zanot explains. “Each has a unique approach to the theme of Food, and the venue further explores the links between consumption and labour.”

Valsesiana AP #025 2021 © Maurizio Montagna

Also included in the programme is a retrospective of the American artist Jan Groover’s work, the first presentation of her oeuvre in Italy, presented at the Bologna Museum of Modern Art (MAMbo). Living between America and France, the photographer produced formalist works with a logical cadence, eventually moving from the structured shapes of urban landscape to kitchen still lifes. She was inspired by the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, whose works are displayed in the same gallery. Groover’s still lifes become the main focus of the exhibition, as her unedited images link photography to a much older painterly tradition of studying light, shadow and fruit.

Despite exhibiting at the New York MoMA in 1987, Groover has somewhat been forgotten by the photographic canon – a mistake that Zanot wishes to rectify. “Her work has always been very important to me, but in the last 20 years, it seems to have disappeared,” he remarks. Groover’s later still lifes are displayed with a purpose-built wooden home, inspired by her American home and attic studio. 

Elsewhere, Japanese photographer Takashi Homma delivers a two-part exhibition, M + Trails, exploring both Japanese deer hunting and the semiotic universality of fast food chains. Both works are displayed within the 1925 Padiglione dell’Esprit Nouveau, a Le Corbusier show home rebuilt in the city in 1977, close to Homma’s heart. Homma’s previous project, Looking Through, saw the photographer journey to 18 of the late architect’s buildings, a project that comes full circle in M + Trails. In M, Homma documents the golden arches of the McDonalds logo, tracing the instantly recognisable ‘M’ through multiple continents. Providing a backdrop to the works are photographs of Le Corbusier’s model city of Paris, a design meant to create a perfect city of labour, leisure and logic.

In the building’s other wing, Trails documents the bloody hunting trails used by deer hunters in the Japanese winter, slowly getting closer to the injured animal. Homma meditates on the violence of the camera, and the unique nature and the point of view, all while becoming the hunter, hunted and observer. 

Praying Mat Fragments, Pink Soap, Egg and Coconut Oil 2017 © Lorenzo Vitturi. Courtesy of the artist

“Food is always a ceremonious act, one that brings people together. We want the biennale to do the same.”

Exhibiting within the Mast gallery, Fototeca –translating to ‘photo library’ – presents a curated selection of photographer, historian, critic and editor Ando Gilardi’s images, all of which depict the everyday lives of Italian labourers. From anchovy factories to olive fields, Gilardi was deeply concerned with capturing the reality of labour, and the cultural codes that came with it. The exhibition is partly built on photo surveys he conducted in the 1950s and 60’s, while his own archive of fruit stickers, sweet wrappers, packaging boxes, advertisements, books, magazines, herbariums, and family photographs creates a wider context for Italian working-class culinary history. Meanwhile, in the city centre, Henk Wildschut’s Food provides a clear parallel to the humanistic approach of Gilardi, as the Netherlands-based photographer explores the clinical precision of the modern food industry. Both exhibitions depict the world of food production, yet the changes present in the last 50 years are strikingly evident. 

Reflecting on Mast’s ethos, the Foto/Industria Biennale is a festival deeply concerned with presenting work for a wider audience, made possible through a fully free program. “Food is always a ceremonious act, one that brings people together,” Zanot explains. “We want the biennale to do the same.”

Other exhibition highlights include the satellite shots of Mishka Henner, illustrating the sheer size of the global meat industry, a world rarely seen by the public. Palestinian artist Vivien Sansour’s Palestine Heirloom Seed Library brings food, culture, and archiving to the table. She and her ‘travelling kitchen’ record stories of food, agriculture, and activism through continually shifting landscapes. Meanwhile, in the Palazzo Fava, Bernard Plossu travels across America, France, Mexico and Italy, documenting the rituals and social codes found from farm to market, to table. Exhibitions of Hans Finsler and Lorenzo Vitturi’s work complete the 11. 

Foto/Industria closes 28 November. A full list of exhibitions and events can be found here

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.