Elizabeth Willing works in food. But she's not a chef, a maître d' or a food stylist. Rather, the Brisbane-based artist uses food as a material in her artworks the same way others use plaster, canvas or LED lights. She's worked with everything from photographs of Australian Women's Weekly fruit cakes layered into monumental collages to kilograms of marshmallow - made by hand with her mum - that she's moulded into a cushion and placed between two tables. Then there's the piece that involves soft liquorice pressed over a window to create a stained-glass effect.
Willing's work certainly doesn't fall into the category of food porn. The artist is more interested in picking at the seams of our most everyday of rituals – eating – to draw attention to the hidden forces that influence our choices of what to eat, with whom and where.
"The table is such an amazing space," she says. She describes the emotion associated with the family table, the anxieties that accompany how much to eat and what makes an ethical food choice, as well as the multi-sensory experiences that happen every time we sit down to a meal. "I'm really trying to understand all the rituals we have at the table that maybe we take for granted."
Willing's latest exhibition, Strawberry Thief, opens at Melbourne Art Fair this month. The centrepiece of the show is a wallpaper that mimics a William Morris design of the same name. In Willing's work, the recurring patterns are made up of native Australian ingredients, specifically those that have survived in the Brisbane area. The exhibition takes a close look at Australian food culture and what Willing sees as its susceptibility to outside influences, from the time of colonisation through to contemporary food trends such as foraging.
"As I do more research, the politics of food have started to influence me more and more," the artist says. "The question of what Australian food culture is interests me."
The fruit cake collages form a large part of the exhibition. They're hung over the Strawberry Thief wallpaper creating a stark contrast between the introduced food that has defined Australian diets for hundreds of years and the native ingredients that have only recently come to prominence in Australian fine-dining.
Willing's fascination with food – part of her artistic practice for a decade now – comes partly from her upbringing and partly from her use of cooking as tool to deal with stress early in her career. Since then, it's become a constant inspiration as she's discovered the multi-sensory aspect it brings to her work.
"People are able to taste, lick, touch and pull it apart," she says. "People started to perform the work itself."
That was the idea in Goosebump, a work in which Willing covered a seven-metre gallery wall in over 300 biscuits coated in white royal icing so they appeared camouflaged.
"It was like a big gingerbread house that had a Hansel and Gretel feel to it," she says.
By affixing the biscuits to the wall with royal icing, Willing created a work that was entirely edible, although there was no obvious way of knowing the small bumps were in fact biscuits – Willing didn't want to use signs or gallery staff to tell people what to do. Eventually, tooth marks and lipstick stains gave it away.
"You could start to see body patterns within the work," Willing says. The biscuits at the uppermost reaches of the wall were still intact at the exhibition's conclusion three months later.
The artist has also hosted several dégustation-style dinners, the most recent of which involved collaborating with Josue Lopez, then chef at GOMA Restaurant at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art. Lopez created seven courses around objects that Willing designed to draw attention to dining rituals, including mirrored plates that made a quarter of a wheel of cheese wheel appear whole. There was also scented cutlery made to complement a dish of wagyu beef and mushrooms. The handles of the cutlery were crafted out of leftover timber from the construction of GOMA, with the intent that the porous surface would pick up scents of leather and truffle and then mingle with the smell of Lopez's food.
As our culture's fascination with food and the experiences surrounding it deepens, surely artists such as Willing will have plenty of fertile ground to explore.