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It's Not Fart

Let’s not call the beautiful meeting of Food and Art "Fart."
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Rubell

I just came back from a food and art vacation in New York. I am a bit fat, pretty inspired, and a bit confused yet still loftily thinking these two things--food and art--have never jived so well. This excites me because I have been trying to find ways to talk about this that don't make me feel tight, or annoying to myself, for a long time. In general when people use "food" and "art" in the same sentence it makes me feel uncomfortable. I have always thought it demeaned one or the other. Yet they have always felt so close.


"Food Art" is the kind of work Jennifer Rubell is doing. I equate it to the painter who uses the medium, to whatever effect, to explore the medium itself (I think Josh Smith is a good recent example of this). This approach can be pretty self-referential, and while it has the potential to be beautiful or moving, funny or disturbing, or what have you, it is often a one-liner. Rubell's most recent work displayed at the Frieze Fair, "Lea I" (2012), on view in the booth of Athens's Breeder Gallery, is a Barbie doll-featured female mannequin turned on its side that doubles as a functioning nutcracker. One places walnuts in the mannequin's crotch and presses down on the left leg to get at the, um, meat. Other projects include participatory installations where she's made a padded cell out of cotton candy where you are meant to eat your way out, covering walls with 1,521 donuts, and inviting participants to smash gigantic Andy Warhol piñatas. She claims the projects are about deconstructing normal rituals and ways of eating, and has stated that her work is not meant to be politicized, or looked too deeply into. (In fact, I witnessed her state that no art should be political.) At a recent panel discussion I was present for at the Food Book Fair in Williamsburg, she actually said her work "is worth a little more than the bread they throw out at New York restaurants." OK then. Did I mention she is of the famous extremely wealthy art family the Rubell's of the Rubell Collection Museum in Miami?


So there is that. There is also Rirkrit Tiravanija who has been creating pop-up restaurant-like things in galleries since the early 90s. He began in 1992 turning a gallery in SoHo into a kitchen and handing out Thai food for free (he is Thai). In recent works for La Triennale in Paris he created an enormous, festive, twelve-hour banquet presenting a large-scale edition of his ongoing artwork, "Soup/No Soup," in which guests were offered Tom Ka soup. As the institution describes, the act is based on the immaterial, a gesture of generosity.

He kind of epitomizes this thing called "relational aesthetics" which I will sum up by quoting him: "It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people." He uses food and the careful, mindful preparation of it as a catalyst to explore his role as an artist. Famously snippy-smart art critic Jerry Saltz has said of him, "With this simple, almost metaphysical gesture, Tiravanija transformed the transaction of being in a gallery as viewers came to realize that the art was in them, not just because they ate it, but because all the relations they had there were theirs. In this very tangible, immediate way, Tiravanija seemed to bridge a mind-body gap that often exists in Western art; he was a medicine man artist who literalized art's primitive functions as sustenance, healing and communion."

For the Frieze Art Fair, at Gavin Brown's booth (who represents Tiravanija in New York) the gallerist himself and actor Mark Ruffalo, who looks exactly like him, served "anti-fracking" sausages to passers-by on a copy of Dick Cheney's controversial bill about hydrofracking. When asked about his roll in the event, Mark Ruffalo said, "I hate art, it's so boring…. We're here to show everyone that relational aesthetics is over." Somewhere in the early 1910s Walter Serner said "Art is dead. Long live Dada." While I am not entirely convinced that the Incredible Hulk is going to be leading any kind of avant-garde art movement (although this is kind of a beautiful image to me), I think his proclamation could be a good start in opening up the conversation in terms of Food's role in Art. (Capital letters now, big concepts.)

Saltz's thoughts on Rirkrit's very tangible way of "bridging the mind-body gap" is maybe a good place to start. Many of these experimental restaurants and pop-ups are onto this holistic approach with food, connecting the health of our earth to our bodies via ingredients' source and their mandate, home gardening, local farms, artisanal preparation, etc. And, as these temporary or speculative establishments are becoming more obscure, specific, and innovative, they are also more heavily emphasizing the experience of how we are dining. Going to eat at one of these places is an experience, for sure--a very full experience. And yet they are not calling themselves artists, or the event a happening, or anything like this. But something is happening.

Holefoods, a new pop-up from the Hole Gallery that runs until August, is not what I am talking about. Every aspect of the restaurant is considered by artist Joe Grillo of the collective Dearraindrop, from the walls, to the napkins, to the Chef's attire. The restaurant hopes to offer "the complete vision of an artist customizing all the components of the restaurant to make a unique dining experience." It has designated itself as Art, and so unfortunately, while I still find it interesting, it goes in the same category as cracking nuts in a mannequin's vagina.

I think what I am talking about exists. Places like Brooklyn's ISA and Roberta's come close. It might be precisely the fact that these things are not asking to be looked at in an art or gallery setting that some kind of heightened, special, or pure "experience" is possible. The "mind-body gap" is bridged by the idea behind the food that we are privy to upon entering the situation--it is made with love, it is from a good source, we are here to commune with our friends and hosts--and we are going to EAT. Our senses are piqued and ready to receive this feeling of connection and stimulation: eating is fun, drinking is joyous, socializing feels good. Throw in some nice atmosphere and let the transcendence begin. It is unlike stepping into a situation deemed a relational work of art, or being confronted with a wall full of donuts in a gallery, which, regardless of its "open-ness," is ultimately controlling and didactic. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is in situations that don't ask to be explained, framed, or contextualized that food is actually achieving its potential as a unique artistic medium with all of its emotional, social, environmental, spiritual, and political possibilities intact. But let's not call it that. So maybe this is not about opening up a conversation about Food's role in Art at all. Maybe it's about how we should just leave it alone and let it do its thing because it is doing something beautiful just on its own.