In Indonesia a common form of greeting is: “Have you showered today?” This may sound strange to us, but it’s really hot there, and people take many little cold showers throughout the day called mandis. Asking whether someone has showered is the same as someone in the grocery store saying, “how’re you doing?” to us. “Pretty good,” “Ok,” “Alright, thanks” are all satisfactory responses. When you ask someone whether or not they have showered, you’re indirectly asking after their state of comfort and health. In China, a common greeting is: “Have you eaten yet?” This is obviously because food is important to Chinese people. I’ve never been to a place that has more food options, and food related activities than China. It’s awesome, and also, sometimes, horrifying. Eating weird food is a part of travel. After eating the weird food, the body feels weird because it isn’t used to it. Once a colleague and I were invited to dinner at a Chinese friend’s house. A four hour bus ride to a prison suburb, karaoke, fish stew, a million dumplings, a foot soak, and a whole day later, we finally finished the “dinner date” and headed home. Strange food is like comprehensive culture shock for the body from the inside out. Eating new food requires bravery, trust, an open mind, and the risk of later discomfort. Similar requirements are necessary for the consumption of art.
Barbara T. Smith’s 1969 “Ritual Meal” attempts to recreate sensations of discomfort with the act of eating. The Smart Museum’s new show entitled: FEAST, Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art has a monitor where you can watch interviews and video splices of guests that participated in her “Ritual Meal.” The documentary shows guests being lead into a room by people wearing doctors outfits and babbling nonsense. The table places are set with small mirrors and medical tools while a live heart beats on a screen around them. The lush pairing of the tools and the visual imagery seem to allude to the body, the small mirrors, gynecology. The doctors bring out the first course: cottage cheese spread in a very thin layer across each plate. No utensils are provided, so guests have to figure it out. After the meal, they are led outside where a bunch of naked people are dancing. One guest recalls that it was the closest thing to a dream he’s ever experienced without it being a dream. That’s great for him.
But for the visitor at the Smart, the experience is displaced twice. First, she is watching a document of an event that happened over four decades ago, and second, she is watching interviews and recollections of the event rather that the event in real time. A better take on space in a museum and vagina feminist dinner parties is Judy Chicago’s famous “The Dinner Party.” Chicago’s piece is a large triangular table with place settings that you can approach, examine and interact with. The table is not the husk of something that once happened, it IS happening as you view it. Suzanne Lacy gives Judy Chicago a great shout out with her “International Dinner Party” movement, but this is wedged between other recordings of consumption.
There’s a whole room that recreates the site of Marina Abramovic’s performance piece: “Communist Body/Fascist Body.” That’s it. Oh, and there’s a video projecting the sensations and reactions of those who actually witnessed the piece as it was happening. There’s a video of Bonnie Ora Sherk eating her lunch in a cage with a tiger pacing in the cell next to her who is also eating. Too bad they couldn’t bring the tiger to the museum that would have been more exciting.
Of course, there were wonderful little exceptions to these twice translated displays of happenings. The exhibit starts off sweet with Ana Prvacki’s installation, “The Welcoming Committee,” consisting of a shelf of 59 jars filled with strawberry jam. You can eat a spoonful to sweeten your tongue before entering the show. Then there’s candy! The piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres called “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” is a pile of deceptively jubilant-looking wrapped candy, that represents the body of the artist’s lover who died of AIDS. The ideal weight of the work should be 175 pounds, and Gonzalez-Torres stipulates that the pile should always stay at 175, being replenished as guests eat it down.
Gordon Matta-Clark can’t go without mention in the conversation of food and art and a video documenting life at Food, a radical New York restaurant he founded and ran for a few years in the 1970’s, plays near the pacing tiger.
Although Matta-Clark’s restaurant may have been a radical a pioneer, watching the screen, I couldn’t help feeling like I had reverted back to my junior year at Oberlin College where I lived in a co-op with a bunch of shoeless and clueless kids walking around and making a mess. At Food, Matta-Clark blends something and then empties a gross-looking grayish (the video is in black and white) liquid into a food-flecked bucket on the floor. The videographer asks a woman what she’s making. “Duck gumbo,” she responds. “Duck from where? China?” he asks. “I don’t know,” says the woman apathetically. She doesn’t know? Isn’t that a thing with organic food? Aren’t you supposed to know exactly where your poultry came from, his name, how long he lived, who his friends were? I guess that’s a contemporary ahem, Portlandia perspective.
The art that was more than recording was the stuff that really popped in the exhibit. Daniel Spoerri’s “Snare Picture” is wonderful. He takes a meal he ate on June 17th, 1972, glues it all down just the way he finished it, and hangs it up on the wall. Food becomes a painting, a sculpture, and a sort of weird diorama/time capsule.
And then there are the fabulous butter sculptures and elaborate “recipe drawing” by Sonja Alhauser from which she created a real live buffet with real live food last month at the Smart. Al’s Cafe menu serves dishes such as “Grass Patch with Five Rock Varieties Served with Seed Packets on the Side” and “B.L.T.–Branches, Leaves and Twigs on Lacquered Pine Board.”
The show is definitely worth a visit, but it might be better to join the feast, and take part in the many awesome participatory events the Smart museum has scheduled because it is hard to capture the act of eating in an exhibit. But don’t listen to me, one comment in the guest book really said it all: “Felt like there were no pancaik mix :D You people got no pancaik mix.” I felt that way too.