In 1971, American artists Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden opened FOOD, a restaurant in New York that became a center for artists in the city. Bone Dinner is one of the iconic meals served in the restaurant. The Manufeatured a seven course meal dishes that contained bones or referred to as bones indirectly, one of which featured an herb-scented gelatin meat stock, or aspic, stenciled onto a tile diners had to lick. A large pile of bones left over from the dinner was wired together to create an aural experience projected into the restaurant. The bones that remained of the dinner were crafted into jewelry that guests could wear home with them.
As long as humans elevated food from mere sustenance and to an art form that blends scientific precision with artistic whimsy and instincts, cooking and eating have been a source of inspiration for artists. A primal and necessary impulse that has driven creativity and experimentation,it serves as a meeting point for people, who come from diverse backgrounds and beliefs. It is the ultimate unifier.
Food is a connection to our past, a reminder of our childhood, of identity, formed when such things did not have words attached to them, just mere feelings and impressions. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way describes a journey into the past asshe eats a madeleine with tea.
“And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder run through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”
Cooking has of course been central to the experience of food. Martha Rosler’s 1975 Semiotics in the Kitchen has her ironically reenacting the role of a woman in the kitchen as she challenges accepted gender roles. The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook, based on Lewis Carroll’s book, features this whimsical recipe for Flower Salad; “Flower Salad: Acacia flowers | marrow flowers | rosemary flowers | borage flowers | cowslip flowers | elderflowers | marigold petals | nasturtium petals and trumpets | green salad | olive oil | vinegar;
- All the flowers listed were once commonly accepted for culinary purposes. So:
- Scald the petals with hot water.
- Leave to cool.
- Arrange a bed of green salad including lettuce, parsley, thyme, chives, sorrel leaves, sliced raw cabbage or spinach, according to availability.
- Add the flowers to the center.
- Serve with oil and vinegar dressing, proof that some flowers, at least do have the edible qualities of the other flour”
Sonic BBQ is a culinary performance art evening at the Alliance Ethio-Française. The second edition of this event, featured chef Gilles Stassart, MisaleLegesse on percussions, FaizalMostrixx providing digital sound and movement and Robert Kluijver on pedal. Pre-recorded sounds are mixed with the analog noise produced by Strassart’s cooking. Knives, kettles, pots, cooking tongs are clunk together, blown on and otherwise manipulated to create unique sounds that blend with the tribal drumming of Misale and the soundscapes created by Ugandan sound mixer and dancer FaizalMostrixx.
Long lines formed to experience the food served by this group, chicken, beef and pasta dishes that nourished the attendants that were also participants of the performance. Smoke rolled up into the air and Stassart emerged whispering words and random sounds into the microphone placed right above his grilling station.
A beam of light pulls attention to the cooks. The mixture of these elements – the tribal beats, the smoke obscuring the makeshift stage, the audience swallowed in darkness quietly watching the performance, the smell of burning meat – all seem to trigger a primal instinct to hunt or survive being hunted. The sounds elevate this alert feeling only to slowly lull the audience into a sense of safety. Eating the food served while experiencing these initial feelings adds layers to the experience.
This evening, cooking food and eating it is a communal activity. One has become part of the performance when moving to the beats and consuming the food. This conversation between direct performers and participants adds a layer to the experience, an atmosphere that cannot be replicated. It is momentary. The performers are planning on taking Sonic BBQ to other cities and contemporary art centers, creating evenings of food and sound based relationships with an audience. Participants sat in closely arranged tables talking and sharing food, creating new relationships and cultivating existing ones. And food is at the center of this experience.
KonjitSeyoum has a large volume of culinary art, one of which is an audio-based contemplation of communal grief as a group of women chop onions together.
But food is also a point of contention. What is taboo depending on culture and religious beliefs; what is healthy; what is good for the environment; what drives commerce and how to sustain the bottom line are issues of conflict for many in the industry. Chinese artist He Xiangyu’s 2008 work Cola Project explores global capitalism, materialism and transformation. He boiled thousands of liters of cola drink until it turned into sludge, then crystals he crushed and ground to turn into ink that he then used to paint Song dynasty style ink drawings.
Asian American artists have been sculpting Asian foods from various materials like porcelain and stone as a celebration of their heritage and emblems of permanence.
Food has been cooked, eaten, distorted, destroyed and used as metaphor or joke. Food has played a big role in Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century. Large mounds of decadent food are spectacularly and realistically depicted, vanities symbolic of the futility of pleasure and certainty of death.
Swiss-born artist Urs Fischer’s 1998/2017 Faules Fundament (Rotten Foundation) is a brick and mortar wall that stands atop fruits and vegetables that are fresh in the beginning then decay as time goes by. They smell, their color changes, they mold and rot. The brick structure shifts and changes following the erosion of the foundation, inevitably falling. Nature and mortality continue their eternal dance.
From breast milk to complex dishes, seeds of plants beginning to sprout, to decaying mounds of vegetables, meat incased in animals to bone scraps left to animals or dumpsters, food is a fundamental element of human existence.
It is nourishment and decadence. It is a sign of conflict between the haves and the have-nots, economic disparities between the fast food joints of the west and the malnourished children of the global south. Cooking can be a ruminative process of complete presence to nourish the spirit and food can be ingested with as much care and attention. It can be cobbled together in a few minutes and gobbled up in even less time. It can embody the opposite and parallel natures of humanity and life itself. As Salvador Dalí in his cookbook Les Diner de Gala (1973) “The Jaw is our best tool to grasp philosophical knowledge.” Food serves as a gateway to an in-depth exploration of the human condition.