Artistic Taste

In most museums, ad hoc audience participation is frowned upon: look, but please don’t touch, thank you very much. But at Wednesday’s opening of the newest exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art — Feast: Radical Hospitality In Contemporary Art — the audience was invited to grab a piece of the art and take a bite.

“The exhibition considers the artist-orchestrated meal as a phenomenon that stretches back from the 1930’s to today,” said Stephanie Smith, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, to the packed crowd filling the Smart Museum’s front hall.

Young women in sparkling disco ball-patterned dresses and bobbed silver wigs placed trays of hors d’oeuvres on top of detailed yellow sculptures of birds, mermaids, and a pig. The sculptures’ medium? Margarine.

The centerpiece of the hall was likewise a triglyceride colossus — an edible hunk of mermaids, cherubs, birds, and a merman clutching a cornucopia of real lobsters, all encircled by bread, desserts, and smoked fish, with skewers of fruit and shish kebab sticking out of the mermaid heads.

The catering–designed and sculpted by Sonja Alhäuser and based on her elaborate scroll of recipe drawings titled “Flying Feast”–was one of many acts of contemporary hospitality on display.

The event was a sensory overload: Free bottles of cold beer and good conversation kept Tom Marioni’s bar-like installation, The Act Of Drinking Beer With Friends Is The Highest Form, popular with museum guests. Meanwhile, docents awkwardly doled away single spoonfuls of Bulgarian slatko, a sweet strawberry jam, from a jar as part of Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee. Outside, Enemy Kitchen food truck dished out free Iraqi food on paper replicas of Saddam Hussein’s palace china (the truck’s founder Michael Rakowitz bought the real plates, on Ebay, but they were soon seized by U.S. Marshals). Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi performed a few haunting gospel-inflected tunes later on in the front hall for a well-fed public.

“When the art invites the viewer to participate, it becomes more accessible and engages people in ways that other types of art can’t,” said Becky Singerman, a docent at the Museum.

While Wednesday’s opening was an extreme example of artistic hospitality, much of the art in the rest of the exhibition also incorporates viewer participation.

Mella Jarsma, a Dutch and Indonesian artist, displays videos of her I Eat You Eat Me project. In the videos, people sit on chairs with a wearable table on their knees(a board supported by green bibs), and feed each other dinner.

Allison Knowles’ Identical Lunch  revels in “the beauty of everyday choices and everyday people,” as the artists puts it.  The piece features a journal, photographs, and musical score to go along with a real life example of the lunch that she and fellow artists ritualistically ate over and over again in the 60’s and 70’s : a tuna fish sandwich on wheat with a  glass of buttermilk.

“The downside of performance art like Tom Marioni’s ‘Drinking Beer’ installation is sometimes you have to be there on the night of the event,” said Singerman. But luckily museum-goers can order both Ms. Jarsma’s I Eat You Eat Me meal experience and Knowles Identical Lunch fresh from the Smart Museum café.

And there are plenty of static displays as well. The exhibition traces the history of the artist-orchestrated meal to the 1930’s when Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti published a manifesto on “Futurist Cooking.” Glued-together sculptures from the dirty dishes of a finished lunch, Japanese dining furniture, champagne and bread next to the bed of newlyweds,  and a wok and curry sauce convey the emotions and associations that color the different dining rituals evoked by the blunt presentation of each object.

Mealtime art has clearly reached beyond the frame of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  Feast finds meaning in the simple ritual of eating, in perhaps unique ways. The artists evoke the blissful moments that puncture our everyday experience, and challenge the viewer to think twice about his or her food. After all, it could make its way to a museum some day.