Greenish grime coats the prongs of a silver fork that Prince Harry used at a banquet in 2013. A fleck of dried meat sticks to a fork that billionaire and politician Clive Palmer used in 2014. A fork used by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson in 2004 is mostly clean, save for a few grainy crumbs. Thanks to the pilfering waiter-artist-activist Van Thanh Rudd, these utensils have remained unwashed since they made their way into the mouths of rich and powerful diners.
For the past 15 years, Rudd has overseen the swiping of silverware used by the 1% at high-class restaurants and hotels. He’s collected nearly 40 of the specimens, a couple of which are on view in The Rich Forks, an exhibition at Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne (the first in a series of shows worldwide). Tagged with the names of the billionaires and politicians who used them, the forks were swiped by Rudd and his network of servers around the world from exclusive corporate dinners or fundraisers for political parties.
“Rich Forks aims to point to some peculiar, disturbing, and unjust aspects of capitalism,” the Melbourne-based Rudd, the nephew of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, tells Hyperallergic. “The 1% eat in these exclusive, extremely luxurious environments day-in and day-out, all around the world, and it is within these environments that many-billion-dollar deals are cut to secure more profits. Where food comes from next is of no concern whatsoever to them — it literally appears in front of them with no effort on their part. Considering the [statistics on world hunger], this is hard to ignore.” Though some have called his stealing habit creepy, he labels it “reverse looting.” “It’s essentially taking back what’s ours, in this case in the form of a fork stained with the detritus from the very mouths of the 1%.”
Despite stealing from the rich, Rudd is a little more like Monty Python‘s Dennis Moore — a Robin Hood parody who’s greeted with confusion when he tries to donate pilfered lupins to the poor — than the actual Robin Hood. The 99% are clearly not going to benefit directly from some stolen forks being shown in a gallery. (“But we don’t want lupins!,” Moore’s beneficiaries screech.) But the project does draw attention to the often overlooked people who clean up the mess of the 1%, both literally and figuratively. It’s also a weirdly mesmerizing look at the forks and consider these bigwigs’ common humanity — even if Rupert Murdoch seems like a robot, he still eats.
What was it like waiting on the Bransons, Clintons, and Murdochs of the world? “Interactions with the rich and powerful were in many ways no different than those with customers that were not so rich,” Rudd says. “There was no real personal interaction — you were basically invisible.” Most of these forks were taken from large banquets in rooms that housed anywhere from 50 to 1,000 people, so servers’ “invisibility is somewhat enhanced.”
For those servers, the work in luxury hotels and at such high-profile events is “very stressful,” sometimes demanding back-to-back 12-hour shifts. “You’re a machine. It’s pretty much like this no matter what sort of customers are being served,” Rudd says. Still, managers and supervisors make sure servers know if some millionaire, billionaire, or politician is in the room, often requesting that powerful guests receive special attention. “Some of the staff, including myself, couldn’t give a rat’s arse who was in the room — we just wanted to finish the shift and go home to sleep.”
Rudd says his experience in the hospitality industry led him to develop “a huge amount of bitterness towards the rich.” But isn’t the artist, as the former Australian prime minister’s nephew, a member of the class he disparages? He denies any charges of hypocrisy, citing his working-class upbringing. His uncle has actually spoken out against his many antics, which include being arrested at the Australian Open while dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit as an “anti-racism protest.” In 2010, after Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd from the prime minister seat, Van Rudd ran against her, unsuccessfully, on the Revolutionary Socialist Party ticket.
A few friends have urged the artist to take Rich Forks in the agitational direction of his past gimmicks. “Some even urge shoving them up the arses of the rich, or possibly searching the drain pipes of 5-star hotels to sample the feces of the 1%,” he says. “While shoving the forks up the arses of the rich may be logistically difficult, there’s certainly room for further development of the project.”
The Rich Forks is on view at Footscray Community Arts Centre (45 Moreland St, Footscray VIC 3011, Australia) through May 21.
h/t the Guardian