You say potato, I say art show. 19 artists unpeel the social, cultural and political ideas concerning the spud.
By
Lucy Rennick

24 Apr 2018 - 4:32 PM  UPDATED 27 Apr 2018 - 12:20 PM

Multimedia artist Jeffrey Allen Price has a bit of a thing for potatoes.

As a vegetarian, he appreciates the humble tuber in its many forms (twice-baked, mashed and curried are his favourite); but his adoration goes well beyond the kitchen.

Price is the co-curator of an exhibition at Stony Brook University's Charles B. Wang Center in New York called Potasia: Potatoism in the East, which explores the social, cultural and political ideas surrounding this very special vegetable. The exhibit pulls together Asian-inspired work from 19 artists from around the world, and engages with the theme of potatoes in diverse ways: from personal stories and historical propaganda collections right through to parodies of K-pop icons.

Also on display are photos, books, toys, utensils, and pop culture references from films, television and music. There’s even a toy and a photo postcard of a potato cod, or Epinephelus tukula, a fish native to Australia. Who knew spuds were such fertile grounds for creativity?

“For a conceptual artist, the potato has a wide range of meaning and associations,” Price tells SBS. “I call it the Potato Art Spectrum. On one end is the dead serious food source: the most nutritious and abundant vegetable in the world. On the other end is the funny, humorous side of the potato: always a go-to joke, used as an insult to call somebody lazy ('couch potato') or dumb ('potato head'). And in between is the enormous variety of ways the potato intersects with and influences human endeavours.”

“On one end is the dead serious food source: the most nutritious and abundant vegetable in the world. On the other end is the funny, humorous side of the potato: always a go-to joke, used as an insult to call somebody lazy ('couch potato') or dumb ('potato head')."

And that’s not all potatoes are good for. Price points out that potatoes have been used historically for cosmetic products there’s a section devoted to South Korean potato beauty in the exhibition), turned into vodka and other alcohols, and even used to create electricity. The potato could well be the most influential vegetable in the world – and this is the art exhibition that confirms it.

Price’s affinity with the potato runs deep. In his thesis paper, ‘The Dialectical Potato: Potato in Art, Art in Potato’ (2003), he coined the term potatoism to describe the intersection between the vegetable and human culture. “For me, potatoes are a humorous life philosophy, but it’s a good term for describing potato-themed art,” he says.

100 potato-themed items on display have been donated by the artist himself, who owns a 5000-piece collection of potato ephemera. They form part of his Think Potato Institute – his wide-ranging selection even includes potato music.

“The collection started organically with a potato recipe book,” Price says. “Then it became interesting to find as many different objects with a potato theme that intersected with human activity. Do a search for 'potato in books' on Amazon and you will get more than 10,000 hits.”

Potatoism’s exhibiting artists were selected by Price and co-curator Jinyoung Jin, director of cultural programs at the Charles B. Wang Center. The featured talent included Charles Yuen, whose paintings of potatoes meditate on existence, creation and destruction; Anh Nguyen, a teacher and a seamstress crafting traditional Vietnamese garments from paper potato bags; and Susan Kelly, who turned up to the exhibition in a garment fashioned from potato-chip packets and contributed artworks that show members of K-pop group N.Flying being consumed by potato-shaped figures.

Price also points to a collection of propaganda posters - Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese arts from his Think Potato Collection, complemented by North Korean posters loaned to the exhibition by Jin - as a standout.

“The Soviet posters are the oldest works in the show, and the grouping of all of them set the stage for the development of Potatoism in the East,” he explains. “The potato in these countries was once a symbol of poverty and hardship. We see the wide variety of other meanings and connotation in the other works by contemporary artists.”

If everything goes to plan, Price's tater obsession will live on long after the artefacts come down from the walls. He is currently filming This is How I Say Potato, a multi-part video art project, and he’s just started a Potato Radio podcast. A book is in the works, too. 

“I will continue to seek out and unite potato enthusiasts to join the cult of potato,” he says.

The cult of potato had us at tater tots.

 

Potasia: Potatoism in the East is at the Charles B. Wang Center, Stony Brook University, until June 15.

Can’t make it to New York? Keep up with Jeffrey Allen Price on Instagram, and check out our collection of potato recipes.  

Lead image from Instagram (@thinkpotato by Silvia Agreda).

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