Maisie Cousins on the Weird and Wonderful World of Food

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Dipping SaucePhotography by Maisie Cousins

A new series, Dipping Sauce, captures the delight and repulsion we feel towards the food around us

“Food to me is always exciting, it changes form if you leave it, it’s colourful and textural,” says British photographer Maisie Cousins over a WhatsApp call from Mexico, where she is in the process of beginning a new series of work. “It never bores me, I love that it makes me feel repulsion and hunger at the same time.” Her current location – depicted on her Instagram account via photographs of luminous Mexican candy and a video of wasps hovering on piles of food at Mexico City’s Mercado De Coyoacán – is proving particularly stimulating to Cousins, who has made her name with macro still lifes, often of food, which teeter between revulsion and delight. “I’m actually trying to move away from what I was doing before, but everything here is so beautiful – the food, the bins, even!”

Her latest series, made in the year previous and entitled Dipping Sauce, opened at new west London art hub Elephant West last week. Returning once again to food, the vividly coloured photographs, on large-scale, floor-to-ceiling prints and lightboxes (“the bigger the better, always”) appear like documents from the aftermath of a surreal feast – a prawn’s severed head sits among discarded flowers and smears of crushed fruit; a miniature plastic mermaid rests in a pool of dipping sauce; egg yolks appear to levitate in thin air. Much of the food is purchased from from markets in London’s Westbourne Grove, close to where Cousins grew up. “You can get everything around there,” she says. “It’s always been so diverse.”

Components are duly unexpected: a Chinese 100-year-old egg, sliced in half – traditionally made from encasing an egg in alkaline clay for several weeks or months until it ferments – might sit among neon pink noodles, gemstone-like candies or balls of caviar. (Other elements are entirely unrecognisable for the way they have been squashed, smeared and crumbled.) “It gives me an excuse to buy things I never would normally buy, or eat,” she says. “I definitely don’t eat caviar.” In constructing the scene, colour and texture are key – luminous or inky, hard or gelatinous – with the final milieu occasionally left overnight, so it “rots a little”. 

The result is a portrait of gluttony, inspired by Cousins watching people consume food around her, and on Instagram. “I sometimes think that if there was not Instagram would some of these east London cafés exist?” she says. “I think the photos of food are greedy in a way... Sometimes I think it’s like if Henry VIII had Instagram. He was so gluttonous, you know? I find it funny how it is ingrained in humans to want to preserve their food in a photograph before they eat it. I wonder if there was ever that feeling before cameras and phones, like, what is that urge?”

That said, she admits there is something endearing to the way people want to hold on to memories of the things they eat. Recently, she posted a screenshot of a collection of photographs of banal, beige plates of food she saw on Instagram. “I love the sad loveless food pics you can find on Instagram,” she wrote in the caption. “No hashtag food goals, no one wants to see these dinners. I do, I love you.” She thinks there is too much of an impulse to throw away your belongings, make your life minimal, to go vegan, to restrict yourself, and these ever-multiplying photographs of food are somehow a rebuke to that. “I’m trying to work it out myself,” she admits. “I think people look to art for answers. To me, it should be a grey area.”

Dipping Sauce is on at Elephant West until December 2, 2018.