When is food, or drink, art?

February 22, 2012

Last week, a provacative, food-and-drink-focused, major art exhibit opened in our city—and yet, in a town where ideas for restaurants make news, only a few in our culinary community are aware of its existence, much less significance.

I admit, I didn't even begin to understand the breadth and depth either until I attended the opening of Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, at the Smart Museum, and became an unwitting part of the exhibit itself. It's really more of an extraordinary collection that offers a glimpse into over 30 important works, dating back to the 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, to future works you're explicitly invited to join.

One of the seemingly most easily comprehensible works is Enemy Kitchen, ostensibly a new food truck serving Iraqi specialties—until you learn you're served on paper plates reproduced from Saddam Hussein's dinnerware, looted from his palaces. The artist, Michael Rakowitz, who started this project in another form back in 2004, found the real plates on eBay, where they were bought for him to use in his related project, Spoils. Last fall, Rakowitz collaborated with the New York City restaurant Park Avenue, where they used the actual plates to serve a heavily symbolic dish of venison chop; with a sauce of date syrup and tahini; garnished with pomegranate, pine nuts, and scallions. That is until the plates were seized by federal marshalls and repatriated to Iraq.

At the Feast opening, Rakowitz manned the truck with two American veterans of the Iraq War and two Iraq-born chefs/owners/brothers—of Milo's Pita Place, where they prepared the hummus, dolmas, and kubbeh served at the event. Follow Enemy Kitchen on Twitter for news on the truck's eventual roll-out, following an imminent health department inspection, a process in which Rakowitz invoked the name of Hans Blix.

Barely inside the museum, artist Ana Prvacki, greeted vistors in the lobby with strawberry slatko, a loose and very sweet preserve. The recipe uses no added pectin, with a sugar to fruit ratio of 1 to 1.5. In Serbia, traditionally, honoured guests to a home are met at the door with a ceremonial tray, from which one takes a spoonful of slatko, chased by a sip of water, thus entering with literal and figurative sweetness. Prvacki adapted her project The Greeting Committee (2011) for the Feast exhibit, exploring rituals of hospitality.

We might think we know butter sculptures in the Midwest, but those by artist Sonja Alhäuser were used as serving pieces...

...as well as food itself. Though they weren't actually butter, but margarine (I know) on foam cores. The sculptures were cleaned at the end of the night and will be preserved for this exhibit only. Alhäuser, who's also worked in chocolate, intends that her food sculptures be consumed and does not allow them to be preserved, focusing on their ephemeral nature.

In what could have been a disaster on any campus, even the University of Chicago, artist Tom Marioni was a participant in his own work: The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art 1970-2012. Marioni told me he uses Pacifico primarily because of the sunny, yellow of the bottle's label—which lends its color to the bar-like, salon installation, held regularly for 42 years and counting—and because it's easy to drink.

Marioni, center, was joined by his friends: artist Bonnie Ora Sherk (left) whose performance piece, Public Lunch, is also featured in Feast; and the woman responsible for putting together this extraordinary exhibit, Stephanie Smith (right), Smart Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator.

One of the off-site, ongoing works was the first in a series of ritual soul food dinners by artist Theaster Gates, at his ambitious and beautiful Dorchester Project. Gates worked with soul food expert Erika Dudley, chef Michael Kornick, and Kornick's MK exec chef, Erick Williams, the Sunday night after the opening. They used specially commissioned ceramics created in collaboration with Japanese master potter Kouichi Ohara, in the spirit of traditional kaiseki.

I'll post more and in detail about Enemy Kitchen, the ritual Soul Food Dinners, and other Feast works soon. In the meantime, go Feast yourself.