Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, an exhibit at the Smart Museum on the University of Chicago campus, sets out to be a major retrospective of the intersection of food and art over the last century. Our friend Louisa Chu attended the opening last week, writing at WBEZ.org: “yet, in a town where ideas for restaurants make news, only a few in our culinary community are aware of its existence, much less significance.” Well, here's our attempt to rectify that, though we also found that at times the exhibit seemed to show its own lack of engagement with the broader food culture, which sometimes left the artists here seeming less avant-garde than the food business we deal with every day. Nevertheless, it is an interesting exhibit well worth a (free) visit, and our exploration of it (and slideshow of some of its key works) follows.
The exhibit contains about 30 works from the early 20th century to the present— literally; there are some you will be to participate in during the run of the exhibit (through June 10). The earliest works are from the Italian Futurists, notably relating to Marinetti and Fillia’s La Cucina Futurista (1932), whose zanily conceptual dishes, often with impossible ingredients, still seem modern enough to be a course at Next (indeed, since a 1980s reprint edition in English is easy enough to find, surely Grant Achatz et al. have leafed through it as a possible Next theme).
Later items such as the menu from Al’s Cafe, an actual cafe opened in Los Angeles in 1969 by artist Al Ruppenberg, are fun to look at and make for unpretentiously approachable art. But it's harder to see that they advance much on Marinetti's and Fillia's original conceptual joke when they offer things like seafood “dishes” consisting solely of rocks and sand. If anything, it's chefs who have taken this to the next level, with conceptual dishes that you can actually eat, like Heston Blumenthal's constructed beach scene including both an edible beach and an iPod inside a conch shell playing the sound of waves crashing.
The other kind of art that the exhibit seems heavy on is the kind where artists take a perfectly ordinary get-together, of the sort any profession might engage in, and write up a bunch of self-congratulatory text trying to give deep social significance to the commonplace rituals of a night out:
The site has become a space for pedagogical experimentation into the nature of pedagogy and domesticity, many of which center around meals and all of which rely on a deep attention to hospitality and care for their guests.
In other words, they had a party and were good hosts. If merely gathering strangers for new foods “offer[s] a radical form of hospitality that punctures everyday experience... a means to focus attention, shift perception, and spark encounters that aren’t always possible in fast-moving and segmented societies,” then every ethnic dinner ever planned at LTHForum was a work of avant-garde art. The examples of this kind of art from the present seem far too timid to live up to the grandiose claims of social commentary in their wall tags.
Fortunately, some examples of this kind of work also reach back to an angrier, ballsier time, the 1960s and 1970s, for food-related "happenings" which have some real bite, even when what all that survives of them is a black and white videotape of a happening or piece of performance art. And to be fair, some of the performance art that seems rather naively flat on walls may well come to life when it leaves the museum and becomes an actual social gathering. Our first thought on seeing an artwork which mainly consists of an artist sharing beers with people was "Wow, what a great way to write off your liquor purchases," but we wouldn't mind showing up on one of the nights when it will actually happen inside the museum.
We're particularly interested in the soul food dinners planned by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates at the Dorchester Projects in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. Getting people together to eat has a way of making anything more pleasurable and multidimensional, even museum exhibitions that don't quite live up to their aspirations.