LOS ANGELES — The Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz has been gradually reconstructing the now entirely demolished Palace of Nimrud in Northern Iraq. He most recently built one of the palace’s rooms, titled “Room F,” in the Pan-Pacific Park in West Hollywood, where he hosted a series of dinners on large, patterned mats. It made sense for Rakowitz to site this particular room here, because the nearby Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) owns one of the majestic ninth-century alabaster reliefs that Western adventurers looted from the Assyrian palace long before Isis dealt it its final blow in 2015. For his project, called “Beneath the Date Palms,” an extension of his recently closed REDCAT exhibition and part of Los Angeles’s city-funded triennial Current:LA Food, Rakowitz left empty spots on the white walls for looted sculptures, including the LACMA-owned relief.
A number of the artworks that remain depict deities fertilizing date palms, and the dinner Rakowitz held on October 26 heavily featured dates, a fruit famously native to regions of Iraq and widely grown in California. Rakowitz passed around a basket of dates from Thermal, California at the start of the evening, and later, Rolando Martínez of Tacos Tamix served cooked spit-grilled pork slathered in date syrup, while the proprietors of Glendale-based Iraqi restaurant Akkad unveiled a generous spread. As we would have at a neighborhood potluck, we piled our plates high — better to try everything — and ate in the shadow of Rakowitz’s replicated Assyrian reliefs. The artist and his studio crafted these artworks from discarded food packaging, though this detail ultimately seemed less important than the way the mix of cheap materials and obsessive precision made the installation feel like a deliberately modest, sincerely over-the-top tribute to an ancient wonder obliterated by greed and vengeance.
Current:LA Food, the second Los Angeles triennial (the first, in 2016, took water as its theme), opened the first weekend of October and ends November 3. This relatively short-lived initiative includes 15 installations in public parks from Pacoima to Venice Beach to Watts. In and around these art installations, a number of events, including community meals, have taken place. Torolab, the Tijuana-based artist collective, has been collecting recipes from Watts residents and then cooking them up on weekends, in Ted Watkins Memorial Park, less than a mile from the Watts Towers. Their effort seems a rebuttal to the trickle-down language Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti used when promoting this second iteration of Current:LA, speaking of how the event would be “bringing world-class exhibits to the public spaces that touch the lives of all Angelenos.” Torolab took as its premise that the public who frequented those public spaces would have their own knowledge to bring to bear.
This year, like with Current:LA Water in 2016, one of the most suspect aspects of the triennial is the omnipresence of decorated art world artists — i.e., artists with gallery and museum shows on their gold-star resumes, or with institutional teaching jobs. Certainly, these credentialed artists have much to bring to the event, and are also by and large equipped to engage with communities other than their own, but a city-funded biennial with an open call seems the perfect opportunity to bring artists tied more to their communities than to the established art world. For instance, while members of the indigenous arts organization Meztli Projects, which works primarily with Tongva, Tataviam, and Acjachemen tribal nations, hosted one of the one-off Current:LA events at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, it’s worth asking why none of the triennial’s 15 ongoing installations include any artists of Tongva descent — of which there are many in and around this city.
The community meals did, however, have a democratizing effect on the project, in part because they conjured a long history of community eating in neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles and because they mostly reject the stuffiness of art dinners and food-as-art events that fall under the umbrella of what, thanks largely to French critic Nicolas Bourriaud, we’ve come to call “relational aesthetics.”
In 2011, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who had by that point been serving meals to art crowds since the early 1990s, staged an exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Chelsea, called Fear Eats the Soul, during which he ran a soup kitchen out of some side rooms. New York Times critic Ken Johnson complained that, “All of this would appear less self-congratulatory if [….] the soup kitchen were kept permanently open to serve the truly needy.” Such a gripe especially resonates in cities where community meals already serve specific civic needs. The iconic Los Angeles evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, herself arguably a performance artist although her theatrics ostensibly served Christ, became famous for prompt meal service during the Great Depression. “All you had to do was pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m hungry,’ and within an hour there’d be a food basket there for you,” actor Anthony Quinn, who served as the evangelist’s translator in the 1930s, told the New Yorker. “She literally kept most of that Mexican community … alive.” She often opened the charming kitchen of her parsonage off of Echo Park Lake to the public as well. Though countless charitable meal services still exist in this city, recently, the tables have turned a bit, with Homeboy Industries — which employs former gang members and formerly incarcerated individuals — and Miry’s List — dinner parties hosted by refugees and for refugees and their friends — employing those in need of food and resources to help feed those who are able to pay for it.
On the first weekend of Current:LA, in Pershing Square, the Golden Dome School hosted “Rainbow Transmission #1,” a tea ceremony with fruit and cookies for all, as well as sonic performances. The school, founded by artist Eliza Swann and now operated with the help of like-minded collaborators, explores the relation between art, ecology, and metaphysics, and celebrates non-hierarchical ways of living. Their second event, on November 3, will include a free rainbow feast, served in a park frequented by downtown’s homeless community — which is itself full of artists (as demonstrated by the Festival for All Skid Row Artists held October 26-27, just under a mile southeast at Gladys Park) and advocates who have, over the years, learned to provide communal meals regularly.
Rakowitz’s second “Beneath the Date Palms” dinner began with a talk explaining the installation and the fusion taking place: with the Iraqi-Armenian restauranteur providing the main course, followed by the date-marinated al pastor tacos, a food that became a Mexican staple only after Lebanese immigrants brought shawarma to Mexico. After Rakowitz spoke, cohost Wendy Barranco, an Iraq war veteran and the founder of the nonprofit About Face: Veterans Against the War, stood up. She described the charges she and her colleagues were facing for civil disobedience at the border — along with a group of religious faith leaders, she said they had been arrested for protesting border militarization. Then there was warm applause, and music, and though Rakowitz has involved food in his work before — significantly with the Enemy Kitchen food truck, where he and Iraq war veterans cooked and served food on paper replicas of Saddam Hussein’s china — the event was much more like a family gathering. The only downside was that the dinner, held well after sunset, until after all the surrounding picnicking families and playing children had been ushered from the grounds, still felt a little too much like it was for those in the know.
Current:LA Food continues in various venues throughout Los Angeles through November 3. Michael Rakowitz is hosting a final dinner, “A House With a Date Palm Will Never Starve,” on Saturday, November 2.