A feast for the eyes, ears and stomach, ‘Supper Sonata’ at the Nunnery Gallery reimagines our relationship with food while having a whole lot of fun.
If you’ve ever walked down Bow Road at night, you might’ve glanced left down an alley as you’re approaching Bow Church and seen dozens of neon lights suspended in the air.
Locals will know that this charming passageway, filled with a canopy of pink umbrellas in the summertime, leads to Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery and Café, a free public art gallery and events space in the heart of Bow.
Over 500 artists, designers and makers are affiliated with the gallery and studios, where no two installations are the same: from supper clubs and sculpture to artist panels and pottery, Bow Arts shows that creativity comes in many shapes and forms.
And if the purpose of art is to challenge accepted cultural norms and be confronted with new ideas, then its most recent supper club certainly fit the bill.
Supper Sonata, a specially curated evening of food, film and sound art with artist Joanna Penso explored how food and meal sharing are linked to culture and heritage, questioning our learnt social behaviours towards our own bodies in these contexts.
Two long candle-lit dinner tables stretched the length of the spacious gallery, where guests introduced themselves and took their seats around the dining tables.
Unless you’re a seasoned supper-clubber, for most of us the intimate act of eating together is a ritual usually shared with friends and family.
Dining with two dozen strangers, we were invited by Penso to consider how the act of eating, perhaps the most common and primal experience, is steeped in centuries-old cultural and class associations that influence the decisions we make about food.
While enjoying sharing plates of sesame-marinated cucumber wheels and stuffed chestnut mushrooms, a short-film was projected on the wall depicting four strangers dressed in matching navy blue uniforms, eating a meal under theatre lights in a clinical setting.
Microphones amplified noises of their chewing, swallowing and digesting, set against an ever-quickening metronome and ambient, electronic music disguising the most visceral sound effects.
As Penso said: ‘The idea was that the quickening of the metronome would naturally break this seriousness, so as they approached the end of the meal they could begin to show that they had built a relationship with each other, even if they weren’t talking.
‘Meal sharing is important to me and it’s the way that I and a lot of people show care and build trust. The structure of the film was based upon this principle.’
The absence of direct social interaction between the strangers in the film, whose appearance gave away no marker of individuality, diverged from the convivial dining atmosphere in the gallery as we indulged in wine and conversation, sipping fresh pea, coconut and fennel soup from tea cups.
As the people in the film ploughed through their food at an ever-quickening pace, viewers were invited to consider the universal experience of eating in its rawest form with no distraction from learned habits.
By contrast, the Nunnery Gallery was abuzz with conversation as diners of all ages traded jokes and Penso circulated the room with her homemade, smokey aubergine dhal, the same as we’d seen being eaten in the film.
‘How do you eat differently when you eat alone?’
‘Do you enjoy being full?’
‘Can you burp on demand?’
These were the questions on people’s lips, reading from prompt cards scattered around the table which triggered lively and candid discussions about eating habits and table manners while we drank orange and turmeric mimosas.
And long after the film’s subjects had finished eating, came the final show-stopping course: three fudgy, cocoa beetroot truffles, encased in a dark chocolate shell and sprinkled with edible flowers, sitting on a cloud of whipped coconut milk.
As we tucked into the rich plant-based pudding, the evening closed with a showcase of Penso’s new EP: ‘Body Orchestra’, which uses bodily sounds to create ambient harmonic phrases.
As Penso explained, the juxtaposition of associations with sound was intended to trigger questions about our learnt societal behaviours relating to table manners and the barriers of body politics.
And though it might sound like heavy dinner conversation for a Thursday evening, informal discussions of meal sharing traditions, cultural differences and personal anecdotes flowed from Penso’s work as naturally as friends converse at a dinner party.
Walking back down the Bow Arts passageway, I was lifted by a familiar buoyancy as is often felt after a night at the Nunnery Gallery: one of art and cultural sharing, but primarily one of geniality and good humour.
For more food recommendations, find our review of Silo, the world’s first zero-waste restaurant in Hackney Wick.
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