The mood inside feels like that of a cannibal cult. In a dark room, more than 50 people observe 35 human heads lit from above and placed around a large table, served as a feast. Suddenly, the heads begin to blink, to speak, to look around. That's when all the present diners receive small spoons to dig in and taste them.
Even though the scene could leave any zombie salivating, the heads in question do not contain brains. Instead, they come in four different flavors: smoked eggplant mousse, chili paste, and walnuts; dark chocolate cremeux, aired paçoca mousse, and peanut crisp; cheese mousse with tomatoes filled with pesto; and finally, creamy sweet corn, guava jam, and crispy coconut praline.
These head-shaped dishes are part of , an interactive performance by the food artist Simone Mattar for Brazil's SP-Arte fair, which took place in São Paulo this month.
The head-shaped sculptures are placed in exact points atop a large table that's covered with black cloth. Onto them, Mattar projects videos of 35 people she interviewed about their feelings of not belonging. Among them is Alexandra Loras, the French consul in São Paulo, who speaks about being a French black woman and the mother of a blond son in Brazil, a place where she has noticed very strong but veiled racism. Another is the gay son of an important politician from an Arab country where homosexuality is not accepted.
Mattar says that serving the heads as food is a way for visitors to reflect on their own feelings of not belonging in the contemporary world. "As the talking heads are sharing important aspects of their lives, the visitors are eating them without worrying about their speech, but only if they are sweet or salty," she says. "There's a quotation from [Brazilian writer] Clarice Lispector that changed my life and was an inpiration for the exhibition. She says, roughly, 'Life gives you pinches of belonging, just so you realize that you don't belong to anything.' That is so deep, because actually we feel very little welcomed."
Many of the visitors just stare at the talking heads, while some of the more adventurous ones begin to nibble the eyes. I get my spoon and taste the cheese mousse first. Then, I dig into another forehead and try some chocolate cremaux. Both taste good and have a texture I imagine could be like that of a human brain.
The decision to work with mousses came from the need to sculp the dishes as a human head. With a crew of almost 70 people, Mattar had a tough time turning her ideas into recipes that were not only edible but tasty. Her right-hand helper is Naroa Madales, a Catalan aerospace engineer. "We create a 3-D silicone mold in order to produce the head-shaped recipes. The edible heads are then frozen in an industrial freezer for 20 minutes at -42 degrees Celcius, and the skin is made with agar agar and gellan," Madales explains.
Mattar calls herself a "gastroperformancer," not an artist. "I am trying to create an intersection between art, design, and food, actually using recipes as a plataform for my expressions," she says. For her, food doesn't usually converge with artistic expression, but this is something that she's trying to change. "I searched for many references in Expressionism, the artistic movement that tried to relate to many expressions, such as theater, dance. It allows us to put out my ideas regarding the act of eating," she adds.
From April 26 to May 9, Mattar will take part in another exhbition in Kiev, Ukraine, in honor of the victms of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, called Clouded Lands. She will join 11 artists from Peru, Spain, Russia, and elsewhere from the Food of War collective, in which they intend to reflect about the damage that the nuclear disasters wreak on agriculture and food supply.
Food of War was created in 2010 by Colombian artist Omar Castañeda, now based in London, to gather multidisciplinary professionals (from singers to filmmakers) from around the world to make people aware of war's impact. They created a manifesto that defends "food as a speech, as a strategy, as a statement, what is more, as a menu that presents problems, develops concepts, concludes with ideas and stimulates the soul by leaving it hungrier than before."
"Food is a great way to make people interact. It has a huge power, either to join or separate people," Castañeda explains. "That's why we are trying to create art performances to experience local food and culture, which always and inevitably leaves traces of conflict on the palate," he adds. He is the curator of more than a dozen Food of War projects, such as Palestine Pizza, a performance in which the pizza was made in the shape of weapons used in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict; and Food vs Mafia, in which they used land and buildings confiscated from the Camorra—the Mafia of Naples—to grow, cook, and sell produce.
For the Kiev exhibition, Mattar created a piece called Dark Cloud, a gigantic grey cotton candy cloud that spreads throughout the entire museum area and that visitors may eat while visiting it. The same goes for the "poisoned apples" that the artist will distribute inside of the cloud.
"When you allow people to literally pick up and eat the radioactive cloud, they experience a new relation with the nuclear horror that took place there," Mattar says. "This is the main goal of my work: to make people ingest my reflections."