Cooked Art

Art Fare between Nutritional Value and Surplus Value

“Food is the new pop” was a recent headline of a Berlin city magazine, putting a finger on the current hipness surrounding cooking and eating in urban culture. Meanwhile food events of all kinds seem to be enjoying a similar popularity to art events. Food is booming, especially considering that it’s accessible to everybody yet also used to demonstrate social distinction. This week, Berlin Food Art Week takes place. Galleries and restaurants, artists and cafés will participate in an exhaustive program addressing the confluence and divergence of the visual and the culinary arts. As usual, what seems like a new supertrend already has a definite history – a history linked to questions regarding the relationship of art and food, aesthetic and sensual pleasure, exclusivity and the attempt at a convergence of art and life.

Bildschirmfoto 2015-06-25 um 17.16.23Daniel Spoerri, Assemblage, 1992. 8PL Sevilla, Serie 32: Nachtisch

Food and art: their confluence in and divergence from one another has brought out both proponents and critics on the scene. When, for example, Roger Buergel invited the Spanish top chef, Ferran Adrià, to participate in Documenta 12 in 2007 – either setting a trend or following an already existing one in doing so – the participation of a chef in one of the most important international art events was a hotly debated controversy. Adrià was in no way the first Documenta participant to “cater”to exhibition visitors. In 1997 the Singapore-born artist, Matthew Ngui, prepared fresh, made-to-order spring rolls for at least a few days as a part of You can order and eat delicious poh-piah. In 2002, an improvised but fully functional fast food stand formed part of the Bataille Monument by Thomas Hirschhorn. With Adrià’s participation, a boundary in the perception and definition of art and artistic activity had obviously been crossed, giving rise to intense debate. Given the 20th century notion of art as a continuous attempt to dissolve the boundaries between art and everyday reality, this debate comes as quite a surprise. Is it possible that art criticism lagged behind the actual development of the concept of art, ever-expanding into all spheres of life in its material and methodological repertoire? Or: what differentiates art from cooking, the chef from the artist?

Hirschhorn_Bataille_ImbissThomas HirschhornBataille Monument (Imbiss),2002, Documenta 11, Kassel, 2002

Concerning the relationship betweenart, cooking and food, the 20th century was a century of mutual approximation. Of course, food has been in use as a motif in artistic representation since antiquity, and feasts throughout history have been perfect occasions for the opulent staging of dishes. Yet addressing the socio-politically relevant and not so seldom subversive power of cooking and food was reserved for artists of the 20th century. Disregarding the futuristic “revolution in the kitchen”with which Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his collaborators had hoped to improve (fascist) society via the diet-based strengthening of virility, it was in the 1960s when food, its mode of preparation and consumption found its way into artistic practice. In direct reaction to the increasingly quixotic production of Abstract Expressionism and related abstract art movements, artists turned to their daily realm of experience, attempting to blend art and life, thereby systematically bypassing traditional modes of production in visual art.

One of its protagonists is the Romanian-born artist, Daniel Spoerri, who grew up in Switzerland. On a sleepless night in a New York hotel in 1970 he invented the concept of Eat Art, thereby giving an artistic movement centering on art, cooking and food its name. Even without a corresponding label Spoerri had been engaging with food artistically since the beginning of the 1960s. With Lieu de Repos de la Famille Delbeck the first “trap picture”was created, for which he is most famous today. Spoerri, spontaneously taken by the leftovers from a meal – used plates and silverware, empty yogurt containers, a small frying pan and a pack of cigarettes next to a can-cum-ashtray, glued them on to a wooden board (actually a sample board for tombstones, the back of which was used as an improvised table), and hung it on the wall. And so the idea of a three-dimensional snapshot was born of an accident while sparing the wash-up.

gri_2014_r_20_05521Daniel Spoerri © J. Paul Getty Trust

If the trap pictures, of which over the years lots were created in various situations, are indebted to the objecthood of the traditional artwork and carry on the tradition of the still-life – its transitory symbolism as its artful optical illusion – this is how Spoerri integrated viewers into subsequent Eat Art actions, how he allowed them to actively participate in the process. In 1963 Spoerri started cooking at exhibitions, occasionally hiring art critics as servers. He initiated a diversified series of artist banquettes, partially with a socio-political bent, but they were ultimately reserved for the happy few of the art establishment, aiding and abetting today’s popular food event culture.

So what did Spoerri cook? At the first banquettes in 1963 in the Paris Galerie J., among presenting his collection of cooking tools one evening he served a “prison meal”.  Meaning that the guests ate the same dish a local inmate would. In 1965, at the City Gallery in Zurich, he prepared international specialties. Further, he is well-known for his “rich and poor banquettes”. in whicha roll of the dice determines who among the paying guests get an opulent or a frugal meal. Further, he organized “homonymous dinners”in which people with famous names, such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ate food also named after famous people, for instance, Bismarck herring and Mozart balls. He developed the concept of the “menu travesty”, which flipped flavor expectations on their head, faking the reversal of the classical order of courses by first serving soup in a coffee cup and coffee last in a soup bowl.

Spoerri didn’t only use art spaces for his food-art events; in 1968 he opened the Restaurant Spoerri in Düsseldorf, where standard fare was served. However, always interested in uncommon flavor experiences, he expanded the menu with a few exotic dishes, such as termite omelets, seal ragout with algae rice and the legendary elephant tusk steak. Whether these dishes were actually ordered or indeed actually available remains unsubstantiated: procuring elephant and tiger meat, even in times of canned turtle soup, would not have been uncomplicated. Of course, after dinner you could take home the leftovers as a trap picture for a royalty fee of 1,000 German Marks.

gri_2014_r_20_05388Daniel Spoerri in his Restaurant © J. Paul Getty Trust 

The list of Spoerri’s Eat Art actions could go on and on and on. Yet what remains of a devoured table? For starters you have to keep in mind that in fixing a real, banal, hardly presentable situation the trap pictures transgressed a dominant aesthetic norm at the beginning of the 1960s. That here the tradition of still life painting, which promised the eye pleasure for centuries, was being played with by neither arranging the objects intentionally nor artfully creating a working method, did not improve the matter. In his method as with his inclination for the ugly and the used, Spoerri was not alone in his time: there were Fluxus and nouveau realisme, and from combine painting and Pop Art similar artistic aims followed.

With banquettes and restaurant service in the art context, Spoerri, like Joseph Beuys and other contemporaries, worked to expand the concept of art toward the active participation of the viewer. With his edible art he resisted at the same time the completed artwork’s claim to eternity. Beyond this he put on display the socially binding power of the communal meal as well as its power to reveal social structures. It further gave occasion to the act of offering new or unfamiliar dishes in an effort to systematically broaden his guests’ flavo-aesthetic background. These artistic experiments took place at a time when traditional eating habits were changing significantly: family meals were happening in smaller circles and with less frequency; the food industry was transforming cooking methods while propagandizing quick meals consisting primarily of pre-cooked products.

Resistance to the industrialization and commercialization of the diet, the insistence on food as an expression of social bonds and the pure joy of pleasure, as manifested in Spoerri’s work, have definitely left their mark on today’s diverse event-based gastronomy and Slow Food movement. There are also links to other artistic approaches here. For example, the cultural-historical food explorations of Peter Kubelka, who from 1978 to 2000 held the first (and only) chair for film and cooking as an art form at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. Or the fieldwork of his student, Arpad Dobriban, who systematically researches and documents foods and cooking methods threatened by oblivion and makes them tangible in cooking actions, always with an attention to expanding his guests’ perception of taste.

One is tempted to wonder how far cooking and food can stretch the concept of art? Just where do the boundaries of real life lie; why is the context of art used for seemingly non-artistic actions? Is there a difference between Rikrit Tiravanija‘s preparation of a Thai curry for his exhibition audience and Ferran Adrià cooking for Documenta visitors? Who posits what art is? Does food have to be art? Does art have to be eaten?

Bildschirmfoto 2015-06-25 um 17.00.27Rirkrit Tiravanija,“Do we dream under the same sky”, Art Basel 2015 © Cajsa Carlson

With regards to the popularity and significance cooking and food are enjoying these days, questioning the link between art and food seems obvious, even if the answers have to remain largely open. Looking at art history demonstrates that more than a few artists have transgressed the boundaries of real life with the consequence of simultaneously ennobling everyday habits via their entry into the art context. The food scene profits from that today. In turn it keeps an interest in artistic engagement with eating alive. Art with food is just as in demand as food events, yet Eat Art doesn’t always have to taste good, while culinary art does. This is why aesthetic pleasure is more difficult to digest than culinary pleasure. Beyond nutritional value, art holds an epistemological surplus value for those who are interested in it. Ultimately, art wants to continue being a medium for better understanding the world that surrounds it.

Text: Petra Gördüren


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