Artist Sondos Azzam explores the underbelly of our gastronomic longings
Photo essay | | 13 June 2021
Beautification is distortion. In the realm of food, the urge to beautify imagery challenges our perception of flavour. Just think of a vibrantly shot fried egg, its runny yolk conjuring a creamy and buttery taste. The growth of visual imagery on social media problematises this further, creating a modern condition of visual hunger—a hunger for succulent gastronomic images. As an artist, I exaggerate distortion, sensitising viewers to the underbelly of their own longing.
Distortion refers to the malformation of imagery. The social media images we encounter illustrate a meal’s edibility through repetition and colour saturation, among other mechanisms of distortion. Repetition in food imagery exaggerates to amplify importance. This spikes desire for what is out of reach, producing a need for excessive attention and admiration. Colour saturation perpetuates flavour through brighter and bolder colours, even if they become unrealistic. Hinged to flavour, the colour of food is a factor of quality and appeal. The brighter the colour, the brighter the flavour. Mechanisms of distortion are a cog in the affliction of visual hunger, causing the affected to salivate at the sight of images without ever physically consuming the elements in the image, craving what they cannot have.
I am intrigued by food bloggers who recreate recipes from films in an attempt to satiate their visual hunger. These blogs put us nose-to-nose with images from both the film and its re-creation. Binging with Babish, for example, a popular YouTube channel by Andrew Rea, was at one point dedicated to recreating food from films. Such bloggers/vloggers aim to faithfully imitate the visual composition of a meal. However, this process takes a dish that only exists in the digital realm and makes us imagine its flavours. Recreation can be considered distortion as its role is to manipulate the image into a physical dish with imagined flavours. This is dependent on both how we individually imagine a meal to taste and the emotional attachments we have to the film, so the outcome of this recreation may be uniform.
The anecdotal nature of Rea’s videos translates his relationship to the particular food to create a sense of harmony with the final images of his recreation. The purpose of such blogs/vlogs is to satisfy the visual hunger we experience when first confronted with food in film. This process usually mirrors the emotional attachment we have to a dish. In Spirited Away, for example, Hiro’s onigiri calms Chihiro, freeing her to reflect on vanquishing the sorceress. Here, the onigiri represents resolve and comfort—something I now associate with rice. Visual hunger is more than just imagery: we crave the emotion and underlying motifs tied to a meal. The intricacy of the animation demonstrates unparalleled experiences that literally cannot be consumed.
In my practice, I work across a spectrum of distortion. Television, with its alluringly saturated images of food, is at one end. Food bloggers lay somewhere in the middle because their role is to recreate and reinvent rather than to deform. The images I distort as critical gestures lay at the other end. Beautification controls what we desire, even if it is out of reach. My form of distortion critiques this control by exaggerating the mechanisms used to beautify images. The outcomes are materialised in a state that blurs the lines between the digital and the physical.
In one way, my work mourns the effects of beautification and the becoming nature of visual hunger.
Salmon 1 (2021)