Jane Levi: “Food is so much in the present – experienced through the senses, absorbed into every human being – that it must be an equally important part of the past. I believe that thinking about its history, or using food as ‘an object to think with’, can tell us a huge amount about culture, events, taste and daily life.” Dr Jane Levi is a cultural historian who writes about food and utopianism. She is the guest curator of Feeding the 400, a special exhibition based on her original research for the Foundling Museum, London (September 2016 - January 2017) and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. As 'Silphium Food' she consults on various art and food related projects, and writes on various aspects of food and culture, including for Borough Market. She is currently working on a co-authored book on Food, Politics & Society with colleagues at Birkbeck for University of California Press and is collaborating on Edible Utopia, a project centred on participative growing, cooking and eating in central London. Jane believes that her work is all about the fun of the chase for meaning as it relates to the history and culture of food.
Your secret art venue when you seek peace and quiet
It varies according to which kind of peace and quiet I’m looking for. While it’s easy to find solitude in large galleries over some favourite works, and I’m lucky to live next door to Tate Modern in London and can indulge that urge frequently, what I really love is to lose myself in smaller, more intimate spaces. In London, besides the Foundling Museum whose musical chairs in the Handel room bring glorious auditory relaxation to follow the emotional impact of the rest of the museum, I love to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The combination of innovative internal architecture, extraordinary art works and ancient artefacts, seen in natural light (by day) or candlelight (on special evenings) immerse me in one of my favourite historical periods in a way that is both soothing and stimulating. In Paris, I have fallen in love with Le Bal, a gallery in Montmartre that focuses on ‘document-image’ including photography and new media. It’s a beautiful modernist space on a human scale curated in ways that really speak to me.
The best food experience in an art space
It’s not strictly speaking part of the space but a visit to John Soane’s Museum is best rounded off with a visit to a nearby pub, The Seven Stars on Carey Street. A magnificent old-school landlady, delicious home-cooked no-nonsense food, and a relaxed cat in a ruff. Le Bal has a lovely café, too, though rather French rules about the appropriate times to eat (no tapas in the afternoon – mealtimes only!). The most delicious food I’ve recently had in an art space itself (actually, anywhere) is at Untitled, the restaurant on the ground floor of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District in New York City. Sitting at the bar with a glass of wine and exquisitely presented food was sensory overload of the best kind: a warm, glazed roll and creamery butter; chick pea fritter, carrot mustard, olives; and octopus, marinated raddichio, meyer lemon. I can still taste it.
A museum gift shop that you never leave empty handed
If I loved the show it’s almost impossible for me to leave any museum or gallery without the catalogue or related book and a few postcards. The gift shops at MOMA in New York and the Design Museum in London used to feel ahead of their time and I’d always come out with something or other but either I’ve changed or more places have caught up on those kinds of objects of desire. Beyond books and postcards I tend only to buy things related to a specific show or my own work, preferably both. I write about space food and I’m still totally thrilled every time I use the small melamine tea tray with an image of Alexei Leonov, my favourite Cosmonaut, doing the first ever space walk on it. I picked that up at the London Science Museum’s Cosmonauts show last year. If there had been a replica of the dining table from the Mir space station I’d have bought that, too, but I guess they didn’t think that would have quite such wide appeal!
Your museum with a wow-factor
Major remodeled, old-made-new architectural spaces like the Tate Modern turbine hall or the Musée D’Orsay (30 this year – hard to believe) retain a lot of wow for me. The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh also has impact, cleverly done on a smaller scale for a smaller city with lots of lovely detail. But the most amazing spaces for me have an outdoor component, too. The Kröller-Müller art museum and sculpture garden, in the Hoge Veluwe National Park in Otterlo in the Netherlands is a just spectacular combination of art and nature.
Please share with us a special personal memory related to a museum experience
I went to the Kröller-Müller for the first time when I was about 12 or 13 years old and going through a huge enthusiasm for Van Gogh. I think it was the first time I’d looked at – and enjoyed – so many working drawings (they have a huge collection of Van Gogh’s); the first time I’d seen a collection of artworks from every period presented in non-strict chronological order, in modernist buildings; and the first time I’d seen contemporary sculpture in such a huge expanse of nature. Somewhere in the grounds there was a stone-edged pond with dozens of enormous – feet long – carp that swam over as you approached the edge, pushing their bodies half way out of the water to beg for food which they would take out of your hands. Altogether it felt like magic and I’ve never forgotten it. I realize now that it first opened my eyes to the possibilities of the creative mixing of time periods and genres, and the syntheses between art and nature.