London

Cooking Sections, Salmon: A Red Herring, 2020–21, removal of farmed salmon from the institution’s menu, cyclorama, powder-coated steel, silk, ETC ColorSource CYC lights, ETC Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr lights, sound. Installation view. Photo: Lucy Dawkins.

Cooking Sections, Salmon: A Red Herring, 2020–21, removal of farmed salmon from the institution’s menu, cyclorama, powder-coated steel, silk, ETC ColorSource CYC lights, ETC Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr lights, sound. Installation view. Photo: Lucy Dawkins.

Cooking Sections

Tate Britain

If you have the chance to see a whole salmon at the fish market, observe its tail: It will likely be small and withered. This is because most salmon have never used their tail fins—have never swum upriver or propelled themselves through an ocean. In fact, they have never left the nets they are grown in.

Most commercial salmon is produced by corporate aquaculture giants in Chile, Norway, Scotland, and elsewhere. The farms suspend metal nets in the sea, pack them with thousands of fish, then quickly fatten the salmon with fish-meal pellets. But aquaculturists had to face an inconvenient fact: Because of their distorted diet, devoid of wild shrimp and krill, such salmon were no longer salmon colored; their flesh was gray. This “error” had to be corrected. Today the Dutch chemical corporation DSM offers fifteen shades of salmon dye—peddled in the SalmoFan™ color chart, graded from rose pink to blood red—with which the fish can be rectified.

Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) fashioned their exhibition “Salmon: A Red Herring” as a critique of the industrial capture of salmon pink: the color of health, of epic journeys across the ocean. Through a diorama, a light display, and an audio essay, the artist duo proposed that chromatic shifts in nature, such as salmon becoming salmonless, are important messages signaling environmental changes that we need to heed rather than mask.

At the center of the exhibition was a booth filled with birds, fish, and animals made of silk and powder-coated steel, resembling a museum diorama. The very form of the diorama recalls the Victorian mania for taxidermy displays and evokes violence, fantasy, and death. Here, every object on display was white. The blank life-size creatures, rendered in simple shapes as if for a coloring book, were held at various heights and intervals by almost invisible wires. In the middle of everything, seeming to fly through the air, was a leaping salmon. The demonstration climaxed when the fish was strobed all fifteen shades of the SalmoFan.

Changes in color illustrate the incremental yet persistent destruction of the natural world. In his book on gradual environmental degradation, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), writer and scholar Rob Nixon asks: “How can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making . . . ?” This describes Cooking Sections’ project, which fights against the constructed “naturalism” of manufactured beings and the aesthetic techniques used, as in a Victorian diorama, to trick the eye.

The exhibition is part of CLIMAVORE, an ongoing project based on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides, that Cooking Sections began in 2015. The duo have devised climate-friendly farmed-salmon-free menus and encouraged islanders to reconsider how they respond to the changing environment (and particularly to the salmon farms, which pollute local waters). In 2017, the artists designed an oyster table in one of the island’s sea lochs, which at low tide functions as a dining table offering tastings of seaweed and shellfish. Tate galleries’ decision to permanently remove farmed salmon from their restaurant menus was puffed up in the exhibition materials—and rendered a little empty by pandemic-related closures. Even so, the audio text that animated the diorama hit home as it relayed a surreal, denatured world where the color of species is morphing: stories of a sparrow turned pink, losing its ability to camouflage; of Brooklyn bees producing fluorescent-red honey. In doing so, the artists exposed what the food industry (among others) tries to camouflage: a world being emptied of color—that is, of life.