Maisie Cousins: Crabsticks & Squelches

Artists aren’t always like their work, but Maisie Cousins, the vivacious, insatiable young artist who is only a few years out of art school, is very present in her photographs, which are full of life in all its squishy, squashy, spleeny, smelliness.

Bug, 2018. All images courtesy TJ Boulting

If anyone can capture the feel of luxury in an image, it’s Maisie Cousins. Luxury now is about returning to sensual decadence, indulgence and delight—fundamental components of Cousins’s photographs, videos and installations. This year she has already been to Colombia for a residency, completed an installation at Tate Modern and released a colourful book of collages about eating and pooing called Squeezing One Out. Cousins, who grew up in west London, is the first artist to take over our new space, Elephant West, with a solo project this Autumn—an ode to eating.

What is luxury for you?

Luxury to me is probably not having to do a nine-to-five job, not having to waitress and being able to eat anything I want, whenever I want.

Talking about food and being able to eat what you want, I remember you telling me once about how when your mum remarried, the food you ate at home changed.

It was just me and my mum for a few years in quite a big council house, and we would just eat veggie burgers, and it was this particular brand, and we actually recently tried to contact them and ask them for the recipe, but they said it’s long gone. It must have been pretty awful to be honest—but it was delicious!

In the nineties, under the Labour government, you could swap your council house. My Mum managed to swap a four-bedroom place in Yeovil for a two-bedroom flat in Notting Hill. When we moved there her new husband moved in, and basically it was a whole new world. With his input into the family—because he was a bit posh—we would have actual dinner instead of sandwiches. I was so fussy as a kid I hated it all. I really wanted just to eat those veggie burgers!

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  • Left: Breakfast, 2018. Right: Wasp, 2018

Imagine being able to do that now! Didn’t you once rebel against this posh new diet by flinging some food against the wall?

Yes, the story is quite funny. My stepdad used to make us these lunches that had lots of different things in, and he’d try to make us salads and things like that. He’d put some child-friendly bits in but in one of the salads there was a crabstick and I didn’t like it, I was so fussy. I remember throwing my crabstick out the window, and it got stuck on the outside. He was very strict with food because it was a real love and passion of his, so then I was terrified. I stuck a drawing over it so he wouldn’t see it!

It’s interesting how you experienced this shift in what you ate when you moved from Yeovil to London, and from a single-parent family to a two-parent family, and you mentioned about your stepdad being posh. Do you see a connection between food, class and luxury?

I think food and class is definitely a huge thing, but if you look at millennials, we’re all eating out all the time. Even if you don’t have any money, even if you’re broke and working in retail, there’s a real food culture. It’s also easier to travel now, isn’t it? I know people who are so broke and still eat out all the time and go on holidays. But they don’t have any security in their life. Maybe now luxury is security and home.

“The universal language of food is just so fascinating to me, along with how it brings people together, regardless of class and everything”

Obviously, your work has always been full of food. How do all those ideas around food play into it?

I like things that have a double purpose, I like food because it’s visually pleasing but it’s also tasty and smelly, you know? I don’t think I’m thinking about luxury when I’m doing it, but what I’m doing is quite luxurious. Buying all these things then sometimes not eating them is probably quite naughty really, it’s quite wasteful. But I’m kind of obsessed with it!

I think as an artist there’s no security whatsoever in anything. But then I pay that price, don’t I, because I’ve done what I want all week. I don’t have anyone telling me what to do. I’ve sacrificed security for things like freedom, and I think I live quite an indulgent life really. And I live alone! That’s a huge luxury, I think. You’re probably never going to have that now you’ve had a baby…

For me the idea of luxury has really changed since having a baby. I now really appreciate just a quiet time to have a poo and be alone on my phone for five minutes.

I know that for my friends their private luxury is just switching off and doing mindless things. I don’t think I have a private luxury, I’m quite open about it all. You can probably imagine what I do in my house. A bit of mooching, eating, pooing, you know.

Sweet and Sour, 2018

Last time we met you were starting to think about the Elephant West show. Can you give us a taste of the exhibition there?

When I was in Colombia, I was in the desert staying with this community, and it was pretty fucking bleak there to be honest. It was a very barren, vast, dry landscape. They made us goat every morning. They’d slaughter a goat at 8am and hang it out to dry for a couple of days and then we’d have this amazing stew for breakfast and for lunch every day. What I found really humbling about that was I couldn’t choose what I wanted to eat. I liked having the option of eating goat or nothing.

That has sort of inspired me for this Elephant show. The universal language of food is just so fascinating to me, along with how it brings people together, regardless of class and everything.

Something else I really like about the universal food thing is that wherever you go in the world, in canteens, there’s always the photographs of the food in a lightbox. Shacks in Colombia have them, so do greasy spoons and Chinese takeaways. I like that idea that we eat with our eyes first and that we choose what we want by looking at it. I’m going to use some of those display techniques for the show.

I like that exploration of the visual side of appetite in your work, whether from the stomach or the loins. Can food bring us together?

I’m going to be exploring the mass amount of food we can eat—we eat anything we want—especially in West London where there are so many communities, you can eat anything. I think I was so lucky growing up there. I could go down Golborne Road and eat whatever I wanted. That’s something to celebrate. I don’t want to make a negative comment on it. It’s great, I’m not being like “We’re so wasteful, we’re so over-consuming.” I’m spoilt, we’re all spoilt.


This feature originally appeared in issue 36

Elephant 36