Art

Artists Serve Up the Radical Power of Eating

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‘Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,’ installation view at the Weisman Art Museum, the University of Minnesota (all images courtesy the Weisman Art Museum unless otherwise noted)

MINNEAPOLIS — I have to admit, I was a little wary of going to see an art exhibition that I presumed would consist of leftovers from a one-off, amazing, artist-led dinner, a show littered with lengthy documents about a great event I missed. I craved more interaction and restagings rather than ephemera at the opening of Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, but what I got from the Weisman Art Museum was a press pass to a pricey reception ($250 VIP/$75 late) that bled all radicalness out of the hospitality. At least locally based artist Sam Gould from Red 76 was there making a holy racket, hammering a table together while the well-heeled patrons strained to talk over it. Granted, Feast did open on a typically frigid February evening, giving cause for the bulk of related events to be planned for the May closing, including a pop-up park outside the museum recreating David Robbins’s Ice Cream Social (1993–2008) and Mella Jaarsma’s I Eat You Eat Me (2001–12), which will revive some of the radicality missed out on earlier.

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Marina Abramović and Ulay, “Communist Body / Fascist Body” (1979/2012), installation view at the Smart Museum of Art, the University of Chicago (image courtesy the Marina Abramović Archives, © Marina Abramović)

My pining for unmediated relational bliss turned out to be unwarranted anyway. At the Weisman I was genuinely captivated by the documents, photographs, videos, and remnants displayed, because the ideas are so strong, each piece bringing out the complexity of how food and conviviality function in art, heaping on layers of meaning. It helps that the show begins with a bang: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s replenishing pile of candies, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991), his seminal work that asks viewers to pick up a piece of sweetness of the partner he lost to AIDS. Then, a darkened room beckons, filled with the set from the 1979 performance “Communist Body/Fascist Body” by Marina Abramović and Ulay, with a film of the performance projected on the far wall. The viewer cannot enter the set, but can read the two birth certificates that rest on a tall black table at the front of the room. We see that Abramović and Ulay were born on the same day under the symbols of opposing ideologies: Ulay’s bears the swastika and Abromović’s the red communist star. The bed in which they sleep for the entire performance sits crisply made at the end of the room. Two other tall black tables are on opposite sides, holding the makings of a fine party: champagne and caviar. Like the birth certificates, the set contains contradictions of laughter, noise, intoxication, and the quietly sleeping hosts, whom one of the original guests in the performance refers to as looking dead.

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Lee Mingwei, ‘The Dining Project’ (1998–2012), installation view at the Weisman Art Museum, the University of Minnesota (click to enlarge)

Sensuality, the body, the pleasure of food, shared memories and loss ring through this and other more gallery-based works. Among them are Laura Letinsky’s melancholic and brooding photographs of detritus left on tables — after what, we don’t know — and a Julio Cesar Morales video of meat being carved. These provide a visual lusciousness between text-heavy document reading and imagining of events that once inhabited now vacated tables and chairs — for, say, Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (1970–ongoing) or Lee Mingwei’s Origins of Hospitality (1998–2012), which displays a raised, serene, Japanese-inspired eating alcove with a projection of a meal once hosted within it. Brought together, the variety of viewing experiences keeps the show always engaging.

I have seen few themed exhibitions that hold together this nicely. Perusing the gallery feels like turning the page of someone’s dissertation because the passion of the curator is palpable and the premise is proven and built upon in every artwork. I felt as though a new aspect of food in art were being revealed to me as I moved from one work to the next, and in ways I had not thought of before. For example, I stopped to look more closely at Suzanne Lacy and Linda Pruess’s “International Dinner Party,” which is anchored around a very large black-and-white map of the world that has red triangles where women hosted dinner parties to discuss women’s issues in 1979. Rather than the imagined guests of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” Lacy and Pruess present real women having real conversations about establishing an international network. Building on Lacy’s idea of bringing women out of their domestic isolation to connect and find solutions to mutual problems, Mary Ellen Carroll created “Open Outcry” for Feast in 2012 (when it first opened at the Smart Museum of Art), radicalizing the corporate board room table by bringing together traders, philosophers, and artists inside the Chicago Board of Trade, where their meal consisted of the agricultural commodities being traded around them. Other artists here also make use of our collective training in how to conduct ourselves while dining with others, especially strangers, aware that civility may supersede differences or strangeness when gathering to eat. The radical part of the hospitality is in the connections and bonds being built around the food being shared.

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Tom Marioni, “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art” (detail) (1970–ongoing), installation view at the Weisman Art Museum, the University of Minnesota

Themed exhibitions can often feel like hodgepodge group shows, leaving the viewer to guess the connections between one piece and another. Feast, however, has much more than just visual, aesthetic associations; the ideas and content are rich and diverse and help the viewer see that this thing we all have in common — eating and needing nourishment from food — has profound ramifications when done in a certain artful context. In fact, the art itself is invisible — it is in the connections fostered between people within these constructed frameworks. In considering the art on view, we think about the intangible bonds between people, sutured together over a meal, and take with us an appreciation for the many roles artists play in tending, perhaps even mitigating, the growing gaps in society.

Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art continues at the Weisman Art Museum (333 East River Road, Minneapolis, Minnesota) through May 10.

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