In a time where food as an art medium has transcended dimensions—coffee spills painted in the shape of James Dean’s face, beaches covered with tomatoes, gold-painted Thanksgiving dishes molded into one of Klimt’s owls—Brooklyn-based artist and epicurian Thu Tran pushes food into new mesmerizing, gross territory in MUTANT LEFTOVERS. Taking place at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, the Vietnamese-American's video installation is proof that you should play with your food.
We live in a land of composed, polished food porn, and Tran’s work is the lo-fi, raw content we crave. The artist is best-known for her IFC "cooking show" Food Party, in which she used puppets to make experimental dishes like doughnut lasagna. She's no stranger to having fun with food, and this playfulness extends into the installation: three-dimensional models of photographs constructed from leftovers undulate across the museum lobby’s 50-foot wall, and while you'll recognize American staples like gummy worms and wings, seeing Keebler Fudge Stripes Cookies on top of pepperoni is a bit unsettling. We asked Tran about the culinary chaos she wreaks in the MUTANT LEFTOVERS installation.
The Creators Project: How did MUTANT LEFTOVERS come to fruition after the Museum of the Moving Image commissioned it from you?
Thu Tran: A lot of the photos weren’t taken [specifically] for that piece. They’re a composite of all the crappy photos of food you take on your phone you think are so amazing, but then you look at them again and you’re like, whoa, that’s hideous. I wound up dumping my phone and looking at all this amateurish food photography. A lot of the photos are uncomposed—dishes coming straight out of the oven or after I’ve taken a couple of bites.
What’s interesting is that as leftovers, food becomes unidentifiable as actual food.
Yeah, when you look at the pictures, you’re like, what is that? I have a private Tumblr for all these images, and it’s funny trying to remember what’s even in the food. It’s like the worst cookbook ever where the photos are all ugly. But, it’s still a record, a diary.
It’s refreshing in a time where food photography can feel so composed and artificial. Do you pay attention at all to food blogs or studio food photography?
I do look at [food blogs] and the food just doesn’t look real… which is great! But I don’t know. It’s all glamor shots of food. I just want to eat food right away! For me, the time between cooking a fish and eating it is pretty short. It’s kinda a weird thing to go to a restaurant and see people taking a photo of their food before they eat it, like it’s a weird prayer or ritual.
People are likely familiar with you from your show Food Party, in which you’re very present. What’s it like exhibiting something from which you are physically detached?
[Video shows] make you really self-conscious! It feels a lot better to not have my face on everything.
How did you decide the food would move throughout the installation?
I had the images floating like they would in an ocean, just like some displays you see in a restaurant—like, in a Chinese restaurant, where you have a moving, decorative image of a waterfall. Here, it’s a dish, like kung pao chicken.