Rita McKeough: The Lion's Share
The exhibition tour and publication were organized by the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery in partnership with the Doris McCarthy Gallery, Dalhousie Art Gallery, and the Kenderdine Art Gallery-College Art Galleries.
Rita McKeough’s The Lion’s Share is an immersive experience. Entering the space of her faux restaurant, viewers are initially overwhelmed by the visual array of material, the sounds of a lion eating and the clacking of the ‘cutlery’ on all the tables that comes to life when visitors approach them. McKeough describes the installation as a 3D version of a Looney Tunes restaurant in which things have gone terribly awry.
Like a typical restaurant, there are tables and chairs laid out for imagined customers – but the table legs are all sharpened into pointed spears and more of these spears replace knives and forks at the table setting. The spears are motorized and, responding to the motion of visitors, they frantically stab hot dogs on the plates at each setting. More spears are stuck in the gallery walls, some piercing hot dogs that have tried to get away. The table setting also includes glasses of milk that appear to have formed tongues that stick out to slurp customers who try to drink from the glass. Adding to the chaos, the walls are covered in decals of swallows falling from the sky with swirls of vinyl marking their paths. Carrots crafted from sculpey are stuck to 1950s oval diner platters around the room. The carrots are the horrified witnesses of the savagery that surrounds them, and have speech bubbles saying “good grief” or “oh my”. The calamity reaches a frantic level as the visitor enters the kitchen through a set of swinging diner doors and sees pairs of sunny-side-up fried eggs splattered all over the walls and floor, which is strewn with hundreds of eggshells. A lone ragged chicken cackles hysterically when anyone enters, and reaches a fevered level as she bangs her head on the counter, finally collapsing for a moment before beginning the cycle again.
Back in the dining room, a ‘feed lot’ of hot dogs offers customers the chance to stab a fresh one from its pen, as long as they do not mind the sight of piled hot dogs surrounded by their own hot dog poop. The menu also offers an alternative for non-meat eaters: “fish sticks” – simple wooden, bejewelled cutouts of fish – float at the surface of an aquarium, gasping for air.
It is the addition of aspects like the hot dog poop that makes The Lion’s Share so brilliant. It is goofy, playful and fun – and deadly serious. The subject of food production and the enormous scale of its industrialization is one of the most important issues of our time, and yet is not something that is easily broached. This exhibition highlights the contradictions and anxieties around choosing what is acceptable as food and what is not; McKeough’s quirky humour makes it possible to get close to these difficult concepts and to consider the nature of industrially produced foods and the quality of life of the animals from which they are produced.
(with text by Josephine Mills, Director/Curator of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, and curator of the exhibition)