Meet the Melbourne Artist who Spent 15 Years Stealing Silverware Used by the 1%

Hillary Clinton and Prince Harry are but a few nobles whose spit and food crumbs show up in Van T. Rudd’s readymades.

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May 17 2016, 5:40pm

Images courtesy the artist(s)

In a scene from David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club, the anti-capitalist cell led by Tyler Durden are to be the hospitality servants of the unnamed city’s elite. While the story was set in America, the city, with its wealthy and radical denizens, could exist literally anywhere. For the last 15 years, Melbourne-based artist Van T. Rudd has been waging a somewhat similar war. In that time, he's been obtaining the forks with which the uber-rich have feasted with at the five-star hotel Rudd worked at in Melbourne.

The fruits of this 15-year collection process is Rudd’s The Rich Forks—40 forks as readymade objects still full of food debris and saliva. Rudd, who has also created politically-focused hyperreal street sculptures and political cartoons, has cataloged the forks almost like scientific specimens or museum relics. Among the collection are forks used by Prince Harry, Rupert Murdoch, and Richard Branson. Unsurprisingly, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s fork makes an appearance in Rudd’s collection.

Like many creative types, Rudd has been employed in the hospitality industry for many years. In the late 90s, he ended up working as a waiter at the aforementioned well-known five star Melbourne hotel. (In addition to not naming the hotel, Rudd would also not tell The Creators Project whether or not other artists are involved in the project.)

“Like some coworkers, I began to resent working long, unpredictable, shifts on low pay (we have a minimum wage here, unlike in the USA—and I'm aware that Sanders is behind the $15 minimum campaign!),” Rudd says. “We were serving high-class food and wine on many occasions, to very wealthy people and/or conservative politicians at major corporate events. We were very much invisible, but always available if you know what I mean.”

“I can't reveal too much information here but to say that we pretty much handled (or had access to) every cutlery item that was used by all customers including the ultra-wealthy,” he adds. “Workers in the hotel service industry around the world generally have easy access to the environment of their workplaces. It's a day-in day-out role that goes unquestioned, really. For example, serving food to wealthy and powerful corporate clients at a big dinner function, up-close and personal is routine and mundane. You can get an idea who's in the room sometimes by word of mouth or even place names at tables, etc.”

Rudd describes the work process as very mechanical, though ideas certainly came into his mind. Collecting forks used by the wealthy was never meant to be an exhibition, but it gathered its own kind of momentum from Rudd’s growing distaste of working hard to serve the elites while he went home virtually starving and paying high rent.

It was at this hotel that Rudd generated the idea of “di-luting,” which he describes as “reverse looting.” For him, it was about taking back instead of stealing.

“Considering the enormous amount of wealth that's been stolen from the majority of people around the world by the 1% since the GFC [Global Financial Crisis] gives this project a justification,” says Rudd. “I mean, a simple glance at the Panama Leaks gives you an idea of how many trillions of dollars gets funneled away from us, and it's still going on. So, what's a few forks?”

While the collection process took place over 15 years, the decision to exhibit them took about two years of thought and planning. Rudd and others involved wondered if this type of material should even be exhibited, and if people would be interested in seeing it. They also had to consider risks in terms of the law.

Rudd describes the decision to exhibit the forks as a reluctant one. And if he was going to do it, any exhibition had to be a commentary on class division in society and not a shallow display of “memorabilia.” Before sending proposals to venues, Rudd spoke with people in the creative arts industry as well as some social justice activist. What become clear is that the exhibition had to be in a space that was publicly funded or community-based, with the forks being a kind of public property and not some private gallery's property. This is how The Rich Forks exhibition found a home at The Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne.

“It had to somehow counter the fact that most of the art world is funded or at least indirectly influenced by the 1%,” he adds. “People really loved the idea that the forks could be exhibited.”

Rudd describes The Rich Forks as an act of political and economic protest. More than that, it’s meant to drive what he calls a “little wedge” into the exclusive club of the ultra-rich that not many people know exists.

“That's why it's crucial to maintain the saliva and crumbs of the forks' users,” he explains. “To take a tiny slice of their lives instead of always giving over ours. They fly in jets all around the world and eat these five-course meals as though it's a neverending stream, not even considering that the food gets to them by a long line of laborers.”

“It's meant to say that those that work in industries like hospitality are living, breathing people that have lives and are often struggling to pay the rent and are in debt,” he adds. “It's meant to hopefully expose the fact that much of our future is designed by the 1% at these corporate functions and we have no say over it.”

Rudd understands why some sectors of the media might be focusing on the memorabilia angle of The Rich Forks, but hopes the majority of people see past it, towards a protest action mixed with creativity. From what he can already see, some people have come away with a different notion of what is possible from artists and workers.

“Maybe people are asking further questions about how the system operates and where decisions are made and the class inequality that's built into this system,” Rudd muses. “I'm not really concerned whether people think it's art or not, although that's already entered the conversations about it on social media.”

“I hope that people can see that, if it is considered art, then it doesn't matter if the stuff has been swiped,” he adds. “The wealthiest states over the last few centuries have built their empires by looting the resources of underdeveloped countries, and in many cases filled their museums with stolen artefacts. This is hopefully seen as a small gesture in reverse of this fact.”

Rudd is currently displaying two of the forks—one used by billionaire casino mogul James Packer, the other by Prince Harry—at The Rich Forks exhibition at The Footscray Community Arts Centre until May 21st.

Click here to see more of Van T. Rudd’s work.

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