Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2014
Stephanie Smith, ed. Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art Exh. cat. Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2013. 380 pp.; 320 color ills. Paper $45.00 (9780935573527)
Exhibition schedule: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Chicago, February 16–June 10, 2012; Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, Houston, August 31, 2013–January 5, 2014; SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, February 1–May 17, 2014; Gund Gallery, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH, July 25–November 30, 2014; Weisman Art Museum, University at Minnesota, Minneapolis, January 31–May 10, 2015

Over the last twenty-five years, meals constructed by artists as art have flourished through a range of itinerant arts initiatives in public and private spaces and become recent programmatic mainstays in galleries and museums around the world, giving the impression that these works are a contemporary trend. Yet, in the 1930s the Italian Futurists generated a body of work about food that predated these artist projects—opening a restaurant, La Taverna del Santopalato (Tavern of the Holy Palate), in Turin, Italy, for example, that was forty years ahead of Food, the restaurant founded in New York by Gordon Matta-Clark, Caroline Goodden, and others. The Futurists also predicted later culinary trends such as molecular gastronomy or the very recent creation of Soylent, a nutritionally complete food offered in powder and oil form that aims to make food consumption as efficient as possible, when they conceptualized the convergence of science and ingredients in their cookbook and experimental meals.

Artists creating meals to engage people at the level of their everyday lives continued throughout the twentieth century, with an especially fervent period in the 1960s and 1970s, and ultimately transgressed formal art-institutional boundaries with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s seminal work pad thai (1990), in which he cooked and fed gallery visitors in the Paula Allen Gallery in New York and left the detritus on display. A more expansive view was signaled by the 2001 publication of Cabinet, the quarterly art and culture magazine, which featured a column called “Ingestion” that examined the artistic and philosophical potential of food. The idea that cooking could be an artistic practice reached new heights in 2007 when Ferran Adrià, chef at the internationally recognized and revered Spanish restaurant elBulli, was invited to participate in Documenta as an artist and not a culinary professional. Museums followed suit and engaged the meal through such programs as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2010 programming, EATLACMA, organized by Fallen Fruit.

Historically, critical attention toward these meal-based works of art has been lacking, with the exception of a few highly publicized projects—by the Italian Futurists, for example. Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, curated by Stephanie Smith for the Smart Museum of Art, and the exhibition catalogue of the same name are timely contributions to this nascent field. Billed as the first exhibition to be concerned with “artist-orchestrated meals,” Feast brings a robust and under-researched history into dialogue with modern and contemporary practices. Smith’s very loose framework examines thirty-four projects through the lens of “radical hospitality” and considers how they embody and dissect this theme through subjects as wide ranging as activist aims, creating artist communities through food consumption, and conviviality and connection.

Smith’s introductory essay raises the question, “Can the institution be radically hospitable?” (18) While her query is by no means answered, Smith does attempt to enact hospitality by structuring the catalogue to include a host of voices engaged in providing meaning for these ephemeral, temporal projects. Of particular interest are essays that document works that were not open (or hospitable) to the public. For example, Feast intern Sarah Mendelsohn presents a photographic and narrative account of a home meal she created from recipes featured in a manual produced by the National Bitter Melon Council. Along these lines, Jacqueline Terrassa provides meaning and context for her participation in Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects Ritual Evening #044, May 10, 2011: Sermon 1 (2011) in an essay that is less critical in nature and more poetic and personal than one typically encounters in an exhibition catalogue. Furthering the hospitality theme, Anthony Huberman’s brief essay “Toast” celebrates the role of artists as hosts, whether welcoming curators into their studios or welcoming the public to view their work in galleries and museums (348). He asserts that artists are always the hosts of curators and not vice versa as is typically thought.

Smith thanks her artist hosts by dedicating a good two-thirds of the catalogue to brief curatorial descriptions of their work, followed by interviews with the artists. Giving prominence to their voices by placing them ahead of critical essays that typically couch the work of art within a curatorial theme, Smith frees the reader to draw connections between individual projects and the myriad strands of meaning they engender. This can be frustrating at times when the desire to root the meal within a larger cultural framework or history is stunted by the sheer number of ideas and fields of enquiry that are present. The inclusivity is at points overwhelming as one’s attention is constantly drawn to a new project, a new author, a new interview. Yet, this is the implicit challenge of a survey exhibition and, given that this is the first museum vetting of meal-based works of art as a historical endeavor and that many of these works have not received proper critical attention, the catalogue here serves as an important resource for future scholars.

Smith does try to remedy the cacophony of information by repeating many of the questions in the artist interviews, thereby providing a rhythm and keeping the focus on the artists’ responses instead of on her questions. She should be commended for adopting the spirit of these works, which often critique the structure of cultural institutions by existing in public and private places, and for attempting to create an exhibition and catalogue that push against traditional notions of scholarship and organization. Smith sets the tone through an introduction that ties the eclectic meals together while avoiding a heavy-handed curatorial framework that would weight these projects toward a certain school of thought. Like most exhibition catalogues, Feast includes commissioned essays that touch upon a broad range of issues brought forward by the exhibition, but it also, interestingly, features a series of reprinted pieces from other authors: among them, the exhibition text from David Robbin’s Ice Cream Social and Constance Lewallen’s 2011 interview with Allen Ruppersberg. Instead of including these essays at the outset, where the authors’ ideas could provide a context for considering the works to follow, Smith presents them at the end of the compendium, where they offer several avenues of inquiry that extend beyond the confines of the exhibition catalogue.

Smith’s editorial choices are curious and unconventional. Very rarely does an essay directly reference something included in the exhibition, which is disappointing since the opportunity to have a broad range of scholars address this socially engaged work could yield intellectually engaging ideas concerning why so many artists find the meal to be a rich vein of artistic exploration. Yet the survey format lends itself more to a broad examination rather than in-depth analysis, and Smith’s aim here is to establish a broad sampling of these types of works. Upon reading these essays, though, loose connections to certain works are evident. For example, Geoff Emberling’s “Feasts in the Middle East: History of the Long Term,” which discusses historical feasting in the area through an archaeological lens, connects to Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen “Food Truck” (2012), which offers for consumption Iraqi-Jewish cuisine, or Ayman Ramadan’s Iftar (2004), which brings workers in Cairo together to reenact the Iftar, the Islamic ritual to break the fast of Ramadan. Carolyn Korsmeyer, a professor of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, writes that “aesthetic taste is ‘disinterested’” (367). She produces a thoughtful thesis on the history of taste and the manner in which philosophy has neglected food as a field of exploration. Germane here is that Western philosophy, going all the way back to Plato, has privileged a distinct mind/body duality in which the endeavors of the intellect superseded that of the body. Korsmeyer argues, however, that certain gustatory qualities of food consumption, such as its ability to produce disgust, make it an especially potent embodiment of meaning and therefore a rich source for intellectual engagement.

Art historians are supposed to be objective, yet Smith adopts a decidedly engaged approach to the work. “With its messiness and ooze, its life and flux,” Smith writes, “the best of this art addresses desires and abilities that get to the heart of what it means to be human, in ways both bright and dark” (19). There is something inherently human-centered to her approach as a curator and editor. Not only does she include her mother, who helped make Serbian jam to welcome visitors, in the acknowledgments for Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee (2011–ongoing), she also chooses to foreground the interpersonal element with the very first color plate in the catalogue. The photograph shows Feast essay contributor Lori Waxman and her daughter at the Smart Museum: Waxman is married to Rakowitz, and is the author of the essay “I Married an Artist: Tales of a Relational Critic” (subsequently collected under the title Talking with Your Mouth Full: New Language for Socially Engaged Art, Chicago: Green Lantern Press, 2008). In it, Waxman expresses anxiety at being a critic of socially engaged art, because the work is not often open to broad engagement and difficulty resides in the inability to experience the work firsthand. She then goes on to breech art history’s strict boundaries of perceived objectivity by critiquing her husband’s work Enemy Kitchen, asserting that it is precisely her personal relationship with (and unfettered access to) the project that makes her a good critic. She cites as an influence art historian Hannah Higgins’s own admission, in Fluxus Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), that being the daughter of Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles was precisely what provided her with insights into that elusive art movement that other, more traditional critics, might lack. Not coincidentally, Higgins is also a contributor to the Feast catalogue, and Knowles’s work is included in the exhibition. These family relationships push at art history’s desire for objectivity and suggest that interest can play a productive role in the criticism of meal-based works.

The concept of “radical hospitality” is further elucidated by Jan Verwoert’s essay, “The Anti-Angelic Host: Reading the Politics of Hosting Culture Through the Writing of Virginia Woolf,” which examines the invisible labor that underlies the hosting of public events, particularly for moments of leisure and cultural enjoyment, and hints at the complicated nature of conviviality and food consumption. Verwoert coins the phrase “the economy of recognition” to describe a situation in which certain types of cultural professionals are compelled to be perpetually charming, prepared to please, and expressing infinite potential without revealing the hard work and complicated tasks they have undertaken to make their job seem effortless. For Verwoert, this economy finds its most succinct embodiment in the public meal (at parties, banquets, or balls) in which class distinctions and power plays are prevalent. He also extends this critique to cultural institutions that favor the “charismatic performer” over the coordinator, whose behind-the-scenes “small acts” (of emailing and arranging meetings) allow the artist to arrive and claim recognition. As Verwoert explains, “The award ceremony organizer is hardly ever the prize winner” (360). He compares these hidden laborers to Mrs. Ramsay, the consummate, if unnoticed, hostess in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927), who dexterously entertains artists, writers, and other privileged guests at her home. When she passes away, her husband cannot cope with assuming her duties. The parallels here point to how undervalued the act of hospitality is within the cultural realm.

The Feast catalogue serves as an important first document for developing scholarship around the meal-based artwork. It offers an impressive array of artists’ gustatory projects, eclectic scholarship from literature, history, archaeology, and philosophy, as well as reproductions of primary source material that will be of great benefit to future scholars.

Jennifer Breckner
independent scholar

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