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Uli Westphal: Uniquely Shaped Fruits and Vegetables Called “Mutato”

The second artist who will present their work at our first Taste Before You Waste Photo Exhibition is the german photographer Uli Westphal. He resides in Berlin and has studied Fine Arts. His works deal with the way humans react towards the naturalism of  the world, mainly focusing on how misconception and ideologies  shape humans perspective on nature in food industry.


Photo: Uli Westphal

What inspired you to start creating artworks? U: My grandfather, who was passionate about collecting art, my mother, who has an deep interest in any sort of cultural production and my older brother Thomas Westphal, also an artist, who started studying art a few years before me.

Who are some artist you look up to? U: Sanna Kannisto, Theo Jansen, Mark Dion, Layla Curtis, Walton Ford, to name a few, there are so many. My favorite artwork is probably Dawn Chorus, by Marcus Coates. Writers and Scientists who have inspired and influenced my work are Michael Pollan, Adam Leith Gollner, Robert Sapolsky, Oliver Sacks, David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau.

What was your motivation for working with food, in particular for the Mutato Project? U: I started to focus my work on food in 2006 when I moved to Berlin and started visiting local street markets there. I was initially intrigued by the diversity of shapes and colors of some of the produce that was sold here: 5-headed eggplants, curling cucumbers, Siamese tomatoes, peppers that resembled molecule models. They had a beautiful sculptural quality, but they also immediately triggered questions: Why is it that we would never see these kinds of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets? Are they natural, and if so, what mechanisms and reasons prevent them from entering the regular food markets?  This encounter has influenced my work as artist ever since: I try to rediscover and document the biodiversity that is excluded from the commercial markets. And I survey how the industry, through advertisements and sales strategies, fills the knowledge gab that has resulted from the increasing detachment of society from the processes of food production. We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, the way fruits and vegetables can actually look (and taste). The Mutato-Project is a photographic collection of nonstandard fruits and vegetables that are excluded from the mainstream market for purely aesthetic reasons. It serves to document, preserve and promote these last remainders of agricultural diversity.

Would you say the eating culture nowadays has heavily influenced your opinion on food waste? U: Food waste is a problem, largely because the way we currently produce and distribute food is a destructive, unsustainable process. There are other methods of farming, that closely mimic natural ecosystems, that can actually leave a positive footprint, where waste is not necessarily a problem. Permaculture food forests are one example. If you look at nature, it appears often wasteful. An apple tree for example produces thousands of fruits to distribute its seeds. But only very few seeds continue to grow into new apple trees. But here the apparent waste is not a problem, because it directly feeds back into the ecosystem by supplying nourishment for the plants, animals, soil and microorganisms around it. Food waste in our current eating culture is a problem because our food derives from a system that destroys ecosystems and diminishes resources while failing to provide millions of people with enough to eat. Every 9th person has not enough food to lead a healthy active life.

Can you describe the process of the Mutato Project? U: It is rather simple: I collect Mutatoes wherever I go, mainly on street markets, where trade standards are not strictly enforced. Then I photograph, cook and eat them.

Earlier this year I was in Seoul, Korea for an exhibition. I did a new work on the morphological diversity of zucchinis that were rejected due to their size and shape. It is strange and fascinating that the obsession with regularity is not just a peculiar phenomenon that happens in one particular culture, but you can find it in any country that has an industrialized food system and a society that is detached from farming.

How did people react towards your project? U: There different types of reactions. Most people start to smile and to interpret the various shapes, similar to how you would interpret a Rorschach ink spot test that is used in psychology. Others are disgusted or afraid of the fruits. A frequent misconception is that people think that these shapes are the result of genetic modification or nuclear radiation, whereas the complete opposite is true, they are as non-modified and natural as can be. The nuclear radiation link was especially strong in Korea where images of Non-Standard Vegetables circulated in the media, which where wrongly attributed to nuclear contamination after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Was your message understood by the audience? U: What I want to accomplish with the project is to trigger critical thinking about our food system, similar to what happened to me when I encountered the first Mutato. And most people who see my photographs have a similar reaction, they start to wonder and ask questions. It raises awareness for complex issues. I believe in this way the project is successful. Through this interview it became clear that Westphal is just as engaged in the issue of food waste as we are. Therefore he is the perfect fit for our exhibition. His work will be displaced at Dokhuis from the 17-18 of January. Come by and be amazed!

By Nelly Marie


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