Food has been an essential ingredient in art as long as humans have been creatively expressing themselves. The prehistoric cave paintings were the first shopping lists and menus. Those "game" plans were the conceptual leap needed to set up our minds for greater abstractions to follow. The manual skills of cooking and meal preparation and the aesthetics of food presentation certainly influenced the mixing of pigment and the aesthetics of art in the same way that tanning hides established methods for stretching canvases.
Everything from grapes to dead fowl have been the subject of innocent still lifes just as food has also been material for some of the most erotic and controversial works. Karen Finley had her 1990 National Endowment of the Arts grant vetoed for "obscenity" because of the performance We Keep Our Victims Ready in which she applied chocolate icing to her naked body (to symbolize the feces-covered rape victim Tawana Brawley). In other performances she coated herself with honey and her own breast milk. The very focus (maybe obsession is a better word) on breasts for millennia in art is certainly telling that the human race has never visually weened itself from our very first source of sustenance.
While food symbolizes a cornucopian good life, it is also used for cannibalistic effigies of bodies cast in chocolate and other edibles. The acts of eating and defecating are used by many performance artists in their work (Finley included) and the art world often borrows analogies of consumption, digestion and excretion.
What I think we have not seriously considered is that the way we instinctively react to art is not a far cry to how we react to food. An installation which makes this very clear for me is The Banquet by Panova*. The work consists of an exquisitely set Victorian-style dining table, elegant tableware and an abundance of mouth-watering dishes. When I first passed by the window where The Banquet was recently shown, I mistook its location as a trendy new catering company moving into the former office of Think Tank 3 on the NW corner of Hudson and Morton in NYC. The spread is, however, an assortment of fusion dishes, which combine food with stuff: everyday consumer objects, clothing, body hair and shards of glass. From afar the instinct is to dig in but at close range the reaction is to keep a safe distance: Everything has been transformed by Panova's artistic Midas touch.
The Banquet, inspired by Vladimir Sorokin's novel, Pir, was quite a revelation for me because I could not tell if my repulsion was from the adulterated food or the teasing art: That ambivalence made me realize the close connection between the two. When people turn away from art they dislike, someone more sympathetic might say they do not "understand" it but I think the general response has nothing to do with that kind of cerebral comprehension. I believe it is literally a "gut" reaction and is entirely similar to the kind of reaction one has to tainted or spoiled food, due to either a bad experience or perhaps instinctive visual cues that the food has gone bad, such as mold or maggots.
One of the treats of this project, which makes it even more scrumptious, and further blurs the lines of food and art, is that all of the art/meals were prepared from recipes, which were tacked up on a nearby wall.
Here is one example followed by its presentation, and other dishes with their ingredients:
Deep Fried Lingerie Fritters
2- lace bras, size 32A
2- lace panties, size small/medium
2 – Cups Butter Milk
6 – Egg Yolks
2 – Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 – plain bread crumbs
2 – Tablespoons of Seasoning salt
1 – Tablespoon Cayenne Pepper
Cooking Oil for Deep Fryer
Pour buttermilk into a large bowl. Place lingerie into bowl and soak in your refrigerator for about 4 hours. Combine breadcrumbs, flour, seasoning salt, garlic, onion powder, cayenne pepper and poultry seasoning in large bowl. After about 4 hours remove lingerie from the refrigerator. Place egg yolks into a small bowl and beat until smooth. Dip a single piece of lingerie into the egg yolks and then coat it thoroughly in the mixture. Allow your lingerie to sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes before frying. Follow the instructions on your deep fryer for preparing and heating your oil. When the oil is ready place lingerie into fryer and cook until done. The lingerie should be golden brown…using tongs turn each piece of lingerie if necessary. Don't overcrowd the fryer. Garnish with a slice of pineapple and parsley.
I love how this work and its process are fun and playful and yet the presentation is quite formal and the reaction is something quite serious (when you are not laughing out loud). I raise my glass for their historic toast to Meret Oppenheim's Fur Tea Cup and Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. The Banquet is fresh and new...it feels contemporary without having to claim that territory.
What I have neglected to explain is that this piece was part of a larger group show, Romance, which has already come and gone (February 23rd-28th). A work from it that I also liked, in a squeamish way, was David Bodhi Boylan's Bedbugs + Pubic Lice mattress, which stood upside down at the other side of the temporary gallery. Noticing it after the the details of the table only compounded the feeling that something was not right.
Romance was curated by Sasha Panyuta, who also had paintings in the show. The press release for the show explains:
Fifteen artists were asked to create work as responses to experiences with romantic relationships. Through a variety of media, each work conveys a personal relationship to the fractured, yet still omnipresent concept of love and the erotic in contemporary society. Ranging from fantastic to literal, sensual to abstract, ironic to ardent, Romance takes a kaleidoscopic look at today’s romantic and sexual relationships.
More on the show and the artists can be found at >>> Romance2010.com
*Panova is a multimedia art collective based in New York City. Focusing mainly on installation and performance, Panova uses a combination of organic materials, consumer objects, and the human body to explore alternate modes of experience and expression. Panova plays with the absurd, always looking for uniqueness in the transitory. Their projects, magical hybrids of both grotesque and comic weight, satirize the human condition and the nature of contemporary art.
photos by alina smirnova