Amid the polished gleam of the modern, stainless steel kitchen we can easily forget that this is the room in which fire was tamed and civilisation began. Reminders of the earliest form of kitchen can be found along our coastlines where Aboriginal 'kitchen middens' of shells and hearths are visible in the cliff faces.

We may no longer have hearths in our kitchens but the word itself remains a metaphor for the home. This is the room in which we are nurtured, fed and united each day as a family. The room in which we share our daily ordeals, and squabble with spouses, siblings or parents over who does the washing up. What glossy kitchen showrooms promise us is nothing less than a stage-set for some of life's most intense and primal scenes. Family celebrations and conflicts, culinary fantasies, domestic drudgery and dreams of escape are all played out in this humble room.

All of us carry particular kitchens around in our heads: the kitchens of our grandmothers, the kitchens of our childhood, the kitchens of shared households, the kitchens of our adult lives. The fact that we talk about 'my mother's' or 'my grandmother's' kitchen is a reminder that the kitchen has traditionally been the domain of women.

This exhibition is very much grounded in the role played by women in the kitchen. The artists take domestic and culinary items commonly considered too ordinary to be of artistic value and present them in a new and intriguing light. Linen napkins woven by Wilma Tabacco's mother and tea towels that were part of her dowry become, when dyed and displayed, objects for contemplation rather than use. While the napkins were used at the dinner table when Wilma was growing up, the tea towels were kept in a trunk and inherited by Wilma and her sister Rosa after their mother's death. It is fitting that many of the tea towels should feature stripes, given the centrality of this motif in her paintings. 'Who shall be mother?' was once asked when it came to pouring a cup of tea. Wilma's silhouettes of tea and coffee pots, with their striking figurative profiles, would seem to pose this question. Perhaps the literal answer is the Neopolitan espresso machine, which was brought out to Australia by Wilma's mother.

Liliana Barbieri also draws on the traditions of her mother and grandmother with her 'Pizzele' - flower-shaped waffles traditionally made by women from the Abruzzo region of Italy for special occasions - which she has pinned to the wall to create aesthetically arresting patterns. In the delicate bowls made from pasta mixture and the melted glasses that appear either drunk or wilted by the pressures and tensions of the kitchen, she pushes the notion of 'home cooking' into another realm, exploring the overlap between cooking and the creation of an artifact.

The preserving jars of his mother's kitchen are recalled in Trevor Mein's luminous photographs of food in jars which find beauty in various states of decay and mark the passage of time - as do many of the rituals of kitchen.

Childhood memories of willow-pattern crockery inform the blue of Susan Knight's cyanotype prints which hauntingly transform kitchen implements into abstract shapes. The patchwork created is one of Knight's recurring motifs - also found in her striking arrangement of enlarged bread tags made of mirrored acrylic.

Trevor and Susan's wistful photograph of a horse staring out a kitchen window (with a partially obscured figure behind it) speaks to all of us who have ever longed to escape domestic demands and the confines of home to strike out into the unknown.

This note of ambivalence about the kitchen is also found in Sarina Lirosi's delicate duck and quail eggs decorated with the skins of Polaroid photographs of still life paintings. They provide a disturbing commentary on the idea of the 'still life' by drawing attention to how their beauty has been achieved at the expense of the life the eggs once contained. A similar ambivalence - in this case, a frisson of revulsion and attraction - is suggested by Sarina's haunting, digital prints of silvery moths on plates and table cloths.

The artists also offer a playful critique of the contemporary kitchen through the large photograph of a sumptuous still life arrangement composed collectively. At first glance, the work - photographed by Trevor Mein in candlelight - brings to mind the lavish banquet tables of still life paintings popular in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. But closer inspection reveals cuts of meat in plastic packaging and fruit bulging from plastic string bags. The work's allusions to the bounty of the natural world and the cycles of life are slyly undercut by the reminder that in our modern kitchens - full of labor saving machines and processed food - we are far removed from the messy reality of slaughter or cultivation.

Yet as the works in this exhibition also show, the kitchen remains perhaps the only room in the house where a kind of alchemy can take place, as basic foodstuffs are transfigured - by dint of hard work, skill and inspiration - into the secular sacrament of a well-prepared meal. Think of how Babette wins over the austere, self-denying locals of a Danish village by opening them up to new worlds of flavor and sensation with her magnificent banquet in Isak Dinesen's Babette's Feast.

The idea of the kitchen as a place where unexpected transformations can occur lies at the heart of fairytales such as Cinderella, where the lowly Cinderella - whose name is derived from her job of cleaning the cinders from the fireplace - is transformed into a Princess by the intervention of a kindly fairy godmother. It was not, however, until the rise of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that humble rooms such as the kitchen began to feature in 'serious' literature. Just as the kitchen - at least in upper class and middle class homes - was not a room into which one invited guests, so too did epic drama and poetry consider itself above the petty concerns of domestic life. This changed with the realist novel that made common people its subject. In Adam Bede, for instance, George Eliot shows how a 'simple' country woman's sense of worth and identity was invested in feeding her children and keeping a 'kitchen [that] always looked the pink of cleanliness'.

Since this time, we have become thoroughly accustomed - through television and film - to being taken into all manner of kitchens and shown the 'truth' about public figures or made privy to the cooking secrets of celebrity chefs. Apart from the obvious voyeuristic pleasures, what is it that we find so fascinating about other people's kitchens? According to the cultural commentator Terry Eagleton, 'The staggering popularity of Reality TV programs which consist simply in someone pottering mindlessly around his kitchen for hours on end suggests one interesting truth: that many of us find the pleasures of the routine and repetitive even more seductive than we do the stimulus of adventure.'


Fiona Capp