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.