Eat Your Art: There's a Feast Going on at Blaffer Art Museum
In 1932, F.T. Marinetti penned the Futurist Cookbook, a work that decried pasta; stated that perfume should accompany food; recommended cork, sandpaper, sponge and felt-covered pajamas for dinner guests; and introduced the "polyrythmic salad," which diners cranked out of a box.
The manifesto is filled with recipes that emphasized food with sculptural or conceptual — as opposed to gastronomic — appeal. Marinetti and his cohorts created dinner parties and opened a restaurant called the Tavern of the Holy Palate. He wanted Italian kitchens to be mechanized, and, claiming that it caused torpor and lethargy, urged his fellow citizens to avoid eating pasta, the better to prepare for war. (Marinetti was a Fascist.) His recipe for chicken with ball bearings seems the perfect conceptual food for a militarized country.
A copy of the Futurist Cookbook is on display at "Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art," which is at the Blaffer Art Museum through December 7. Organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the show is the first survey of the "artist-orchestrated meal" — and it's a subject that is far more interesting than it sounds. Food has been subject matter for art since cavemen painted bison on cave walls, but food as works of art is a much more recent innovation.
The Futurists are the earliest entry in the exhibition. In addition to copies of the Futurist Cookbook, there are period photographs and newspaper clippings of articles about the movement's shocking culinary ideas. One photograph taken in the Tavern of the Holy Palate shows napkins folded into pointy towers and a giant gear placed in the middle of a dining table. One wonders what it would have been like to hang out there with avant-garde artists riding the tide of Italian nationalism and fascism that would lead to WWII.
"Feast" is long on documentation and short on food, so there is a lot of imagining going on with even the most recent works. A show this dependent on artifacts and text is not everyone's cup of tea.
And there is no tea, by the way. If, however, you time your visit right, you might get a spoonful of a thin jam called slatko, which means "sweet" in Serbian. The slatko is part of Ana Prvacki's The Greeting Committee, which re-creates the Serbian tradition of offering a spoonful of the jam to a guest to welcome him. (A Bosnian friend of mine describes the food as disgustingly sweet, adding, "They get really offended if you don't take it. But if you take more than one spoonful, it is considered rude.") The concept of putting a domestic — yet foreign — ritual in an institutional context is interesting, but there is something of a novelty value to it that is found in a number of other works in the show.
Contemporary art fans can see the legendary crud-encrusted Westbend electric wok in which Rirkrit Tiravanija famously cooked pad thai for gallery-goers in a 1990 exhibition at the Paula Allen gallery in New York titled, appropriately enough, "pad thai." Nicolas Bourriaud, a curator, writer and critic, lauds Tiravanija as a kind of poster boy for Relational Aesthetics. Emphasizing social interaction, the movement is thick on the ground in the art world these days and includes works of widely varying quality. My favorite definition of Relational Aesthetics comes from the video art commentary of Hennessy Youngman, who explains it as taking place when "someone with an MFA wants to meet new people..."
That definition could hold true of Lee Mingwei's The Dining Project (1997 to the present). For the Blaffer iteration of the project, three guests were chosen by lottery for a one-on-one meal with the artist. In The Dining Project, Lee prepares the food himself and tries to cater to any special dietary considerations of the guest. The tatami-covered platform and low-Asian-style table where the dinners took place is the only evidence of the Blaffer meals. The idea of dining with and playing host to a random stranger is out there in popular culture, from online dating to making up your sofa bed for an Airbnb customer. Wanting to connect with others is certainly part of the Zeitgeist, and while it may seem a little commonplace in 2013, Lee was ahead of the curve when he began his dining project 16 years ago.
Because the majority of the works in the show were originally intended to be experienced, the Blaffer has made tremendous efforts to host a number of concurrent events and performances, such as Lee's, so that it's not all about looking at photos and reading text. Check out www.blafferartmuseum.org/events/ to see what's coming up next.
The Blaffer is located on the campus of the University of Houston, and I'm thinking the three performances of Tom Marioni's The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art were especially well attended. If you missed them, you can see his bar installation in the gallery. Marioni began the project in 1970, when he invited some of his friends to drink beer in a gallery of the Oakland Museum after hours. He left the evidence of the gathering behind as a record of sorts, and has continued the project in various locales for the past 43 years.
"Feast" is a little overwhelming if you pause to read everything and watch all the videos, but it's a fascinating survey. In addition to the Futurists, there is documentation from other food-related works you may have seen in a contemporary art-survey class. There are photographs from Gordon Matta Clark and Carol Gooden's 1971 restaurant, FOOD. Set up in lower Manhattan's just-emerging Soho arts district, it served edible and, one hopes, tasty food such as garlic soup, gumbo and homemade bread and became an idiosyncratic eating place that was run and staffed by artists and catered mainly to their fellow creatives. Matta Clark and Gooden are early examples of individuals expanding the definition of art to encompass all of their activities. (Today it is much more common to find artists who consider their business or job a part of their artwork. Zach Moser and Eric Leshinky's Shrimp Boat Project, Bill Davenport's junk store and former Houstonian Bernard Brunon's painting business spring to mind.)
There are posters from Daniel Spoerri's Eat Art Gallery on view that advertise shows featuring women's legs made from marzipan by the artist Arman and a portrait of Spoerri — a Swiss artist — in licorice by George Brecht. One of Spoerri's own "snare pictures" is also on view. (His "snare" or "trap" works fixed the remains of an activity in place — for example, dining.) Tableau piège, 17. Juni 1972 (1972) features the remains of a meal hung on the wall inside a Plexiglas box. Food still clings to the plates, wine is dried in the bottoms of glasses and greasy paper napkins hang on the wall-mounted tabletop. It sounds disgusting, but it's a record of a long-ago meal among friends, and observers find themselves wondering what Spoerri and his companions talked about, the remnants of the dinner providing evidence of the encounter.
Some of the most interesting work here is political. Mary Evans's Gingerbread (2013) was specially commissioned for the Blaffer show. For the Blaffer piece, Evans created a series of tiny gingerbread men using foodstuffs linked to the slave trade: molasses, sugar and ginger. She then arranged the cookies in a design representing captives in the hold of a slave ship. It's a simple, succinct and powerful work linking colonial culinary staples with the horrors of slavery.
Michael Rakowitz is another artist whose thoughts on food, politics and human nature shine in "Feast." Shortly after September 11, 2001, Rakowitz saw a long line of people waiting to get into Khyber Pass, an Afghani restaurant in lower New York. He was struck by the gesture of support shown to the owners during a time rife with incidents of harassment and retaliation against mosques and Middle Eastern businesses across the U.S. He went on to create Enemy Kitchen and later Enemy Kitchen (Food Truck), in which Iraq war veterans and Iraqi immigrants cooked together and fed people. They made food from the recipes of Rakowitz's Iraqi-Jewish family, which fled Iraq in 1946, and the meals were served on paper replicas of Saddam Hussein's china. The plates and assorted documentation from the artist's projects are on display at the exhibit.
If you watch only one video in the show, check out Miguel Amat's Ghas I (2013). Clips of Iraqi war footage are overlaid with audio recorded when Amat visited with a former Blackwater contractor. You hear the sounds of the contractor cooking food as he discusses interrogation tactics and the practice of using food and conversation to extract information from a detainee. Listening to the contractor explain the best methods for getting people to talk and extol the ease and ineffectiveness of waterboarding, all the while stating his respect for the traditions of hospitality in the Middle East, is a surreal experience.
The final event of the exhibition is Theaster Gates's Soul Food Dinner, another dining-with-strangers piece. There are places for 20 guests, who will be chosen, in part, by lottery. The evening includes "performances and discussions around issues of food, race, labor, and hospitality." Gates has put on some amazing projects on the South Side of Chicago set in abandoned buildings transformed into cultural centers — the stimulating-places-people-want-to-hang-out-in kind, not the paternalistic "good-for-you" kind. He has been characterized by one reviewer as "charismatic, funny, charming, irreverent and wicked smart...," so the evening, which will take place at Project Row Houses on December 6 at 7 p.m., sounds promising. You can enter the lottery through the Blaffer Web site or by visiting or calling the museum.
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