As the blue Prosecco-and-Curaçao cocktails were passed around, I asked Elaine Tin Nyo, the artist and ringleader of Edible Magritte, an after-hours event at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), if we’d be eating eyeballs that night.
My knowledge of Tin Nyo’s practice was detailed enough to persuade me that this was an appropriate question. I first encountered her work at a retreat organized by the funding organization Creative Capital, where she presented her plans for This Little Piggy, a project that will take her to five pig-centric cultures (France, Italy, Spain, China and the U.S.), where she will adopt a piglet in each location and document its life in photos, videos and books from (as she puts it) “birth to ham.”
The gist of the endeavor, according to Creative Capital’s website, is to “explore mankind’s love/loathing relationship to swine.” This already puts Tin Nyo’s inquiry, which will be set at the high artisanal end of the food market, on a more complicated footing than the standpoint of an activist like Sue Coe, who has waged a decades-long protest against industrial farming.
What is most compelling about Tin Nyo’s work is her sense of food as a memento mori — a preordained moment of mortality for the animals we eat that defers our own mortality until an equally lethal, if not similarly planned, moment arrives. She is as much of a realist — and, in her own way, a moralist — as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and his paintings of dead hares.
Food for Tin Nyo is the cornerstone of community (for the past seven years she has baked one sour cherry pie per day during the month of July and hand delivered it to a friend or colleague on her sour cherry pie list); she sees no irony in the rise of vibrant cultures around the consumption of dead flesh, as in Bayonne, France, or Parma, Italy. It is simply a fact of life.
The viciousness inherent in the act of eating meat is on full display in René Magritte’s “Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau (Le Plaisir) (Girl Eating a Bird [Pleasure])” (1927), the first stop on a tour of the MoMA retrospective, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, which was staged as a part of Edible Magritte and led (between cocktails and dinner) by one of the exhibition’s organizers, Danielle Johnson, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture.
In my review of the exhibition last month, “Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau,” with its raw, quasi-outsider imagery of a girl biting into the breast of a freshly killed bird, was central to my discussion of a shift in Magritte’s work after he moved from Brussels to Paris. But seeing it in the context of an impending Magritte-themed dinner brought the visceral convergence of teeth, muscle, feathers and blood into much sharper focus.
During the conversation in front of the painting, Tin Nyo brought up the trauma and disillusionment of World War I and the effect it had on Magritte’s generation, framing the picture’s imagery within a historical pattern of violence. Suddenly the adjacent painting, “Le Ciel meurtrier (The Murderous Sky),” which features four dead birds floating against a mountainous landscape, resembled a battlefield trench filled with the blasted corpses of young soldiers. That the birds are depicted as gored — their breasts are bloody, gaping holes with their ribcages clearly visible — casts war as the ultimate form of consumption.
Other works in the exhibition provided fodder for the evening’s collaborators (Tin Nyo and MoMA chef Lynn Bound in cooperation with the museum’s Department of Education) to devise the dinner’s four courses: “Grelots roses, ciels en lambeaux (Pink Bells, Tattered Skies)” (1930); “Le Portrait (The Portrait)” (1935); “Les Affinités electives (Elective Affinities)” (1932); “Les Perfections célestes (Celestial Perfections)” (1930).
“Grelots roses, ciels en lambeaux,” a faux-diptych pairing a cloud-streaked sky with floating pink cowbells, was the inspiration for the blue Prosecco-and-Curaçao (and pineapple and lemon juice) cocktails accompanied by pink cheese puffs. “Le Portrait” is a still life of a typical table setting except for the eye nestled in the middle of a slice of ham. The painting, which served as Edible Magritte’s poster image (and which prompted my earlier question to the artist, whose response was cagey, but graciously so), was interpreted as a plate of Prosciutto di Parma with an olive (thankfully) taking the role of the eye.
“Les Affinités electives,” which features a giant egg enclosed in a birdcage, became a two-minute soft-boiled egg cracked over handmade pappardelle with grated asiago and arugula leaves. “Les Perfections célestes,” a skyscape fragmented into four separate canvases (and one of Magritte’s most beautifully painted works), was an Ile Flottante with meringue “clouds” swimming in a blue crème anglaise.
Eating the sky was apparently not enough of a finisher for Tin Nyo and Bound. Shortly after the blue-streaked plates were cleared, a second dessert was announced, and imitation abruptly gave way to enactment. Instead of a clever concoction evoking a Magritte image, which placed the diner comfortably outside the picture plane, we were presented with a pigeon-sized dark chocolate dead bird (its feet curled pathetically across its belly) and no utensils.
We were now not only required to assume the position of the girl in “Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau (Le Plaisir),” but once we succeeded in opening a hole in the bird’s breast, our fingers were reddened with rum running off raspberry giblets, and soon our hands were smeared with chocolate as well.
In 1930, the year he collaborated with Luis Buñuel on the explosively scandalous film L’Âge d’or, Salvador Dalí wrote an essay called “L’Âne pourri (The Rotting Donkey)” — a title that cites a scene from Un Chien Andalou (1929), his previous movie with Buñuel — in which he refers to “the desired ‘land of treasures’ […] hidden behind the three great simulacra: blood, shit and putrefaction”:
[…] we have long known how to recognize the image of desire behind the simulacra of terror, and even the awakening of the “ages of gold” [âges d’or] behind the ignominious scatological simulacra.
As we attempted to come to grips with our rum-and-raspberry-filled corpse, the curator Danielle Johnson revealed that Magritte’s inspiration for “Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau” was the sight of his wife eating a chocolate bird.
And so at the end of the meal we managed to come full circle, recreating the moment that sowed the artist’s imagination as we indulged the root of desire behind the painting’s savagery — the same desire and savagery that tantalizes us every time we put a forkful of food into our mouths.
Elaine Tin Nyo: Edible Magritte will be repeated at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on Thursday, November 14, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
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