WEB EXTRA: Taking Flight: Peter Tolkin and Airline Food

Captivated by civic and public spaces in general, and airports in particular, architect Peter Tolkin’s Airline Food series of photographs explores the complexities of air travel and airports. Photography courtesy Peter Tolkin. We’ve talked about artists and architects making art for airports, but what about making art in an airport? What is that experience like? What does it teach about the design of airports and, more broadly, the intersection of people and cultures? Several years ago, architect Peter Tolkin embarked on an ambitious photography project, which resulted in a series of images entitled Airline Food.

“I got interested in airports because they’re these unusual spaces that represent internationalism but are not Internationalist in style,” explains Tolkin. “In the airport, you’re on your way—it’s an in between space. They are not supposed to be marked by culture.” At the same time, he was developing an interest in the documentary mapping of civic and public spaces. His interests led him to airports, and, in the pre-9/11 years, he was able to move freely through the spaces.

As he explored these threads, he came to food. (This in an era when food on flights was the rule and not the exception.) In both its preparation and its eventual consumption, “it was marked by specific cultures,” he says. “I was interested in how the international traveler is catered to, not just in an airport, but in the preparation of different types of food—it was a metaphor for different types of travel.”

Adding to the complexity, though, was the fact that those preparing the food came from all over the world themselves. In Los Angeles, for example, Mexican immigrants might by cooking up a host of cultures’ cuisines, while in London, Indian immigrants might be doing the same. “There was a complex overlapping of cultures that occur in airports,” says Tolkin.

The resulting series of photographs ranges from photos of food that, at first glance seems homogenous, but reveals layers of complexity, to scenes of passengers and airport staff going about the business of travel in an age before laptops, tablets and smartphones tethered us to the world beyond the airport’s walls. For Tolkin, “There’s something special about what they’re doing there, in an between space, in a strangely contemplative mode.”

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