Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art at the Weisman Art Museum

The exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art originated with the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art in 2012. Since then, it has had stops at the Blaffer in Houston, SITE Santa Fe, the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College, and is now on view at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum. Founded on the idea of examining artists’ invocations of food as a social signifier and relational link, Feast is positioned as a survey of “the artist-orchestrated meal.” Taking on some eighty years’ worth of food-related experiments, Feast introduces a broad range of practices, beginning with the Italian Futurists’ “Manifesto for Futurist Cooking,” and tracing the line all the way through to contemporary meals, culinary interventions, and community-building dinners by artists and collectives like Michael Rakowitz, Red76, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Theaster Gates, and others.

Tom Marioni. The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art; installation view, Smart Museum of Art, 2012.

Tom Marioni. The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art; installation view, Smart Museum of Art, 2012.

The list of artists—particularly those working in the 1960s and ’70s—pulled me into the exhibition. With my art-historical roots firmly planted in the West Coast, I was excited to see names like Tom Marioni, Bonnie Ora Sherk, Suzanne Lacy, Barbara T. Smith, and Allen Ruppersberg alongside Gordon Matta-Clark, Daniel Spoerri, Alison Knowles, and Marina Abramovic and Ulay. Marioni, a San Francisco-based artist and the founder of the now defunct Museum of Conceptual Art, presented an installation version of his ongoing work, The Act of Drinking Beer Is the Highest Form of Art, which he performed for the first time in 1970 and continues to practice every week as a social action. In Marioni’s installation, we find a fridge and counter, a small table and chairs, and a wall-mounted case filled graphically with yellow-wrapped bottles of Pacifico. A flat-screen video monitor, hung vertically on the wall, reflects the golden color and effervescence of a cold glass of beer.

Bonnie Ora Sherk. Public Lunch, 1971; performance at the San Francisco Zoo.

Bonnie Ora Sherk. Public Lunch, 1971; performance at the San Francisco Zoo.

Sherk, another Bay area artist, is represented through photographic and film documentation of two projects, Public Lunch (1971) and The Short Order Cook (1973–74). In the film and still images of Public Lunch, we see the artist seated at a table inside a cage in the lion house of the San Francisco Zoo. At feeding time, Sherk consumes her human lunch in front of a crowd of onlookers, while the tigers in the cages on either side of her consume meals of their own. Photographs also stand in for Allen Ruppersberg’s project, Al’s Café (1969), in which Ruppersberg transformed an LA storefront into a temporary diner. For three months, customers could order a variety of vaguely edible sculptures off the glossy menus—favorites include “Simulated burned pine needles à la Johnny Cash served with a live fern” for $3.00, and the “Patti Melt,” a “Patti Page photo (or reasonable facsimile) covered with toasted marshmellows” [sic] available for just $2.00. Ruppersberg’s Café was intended as a gathering place and social hub for the Los Angeles art crowd, the focus obviously not on food itself, but on the social space that food carves out.

Allen Ruppersberg. Al’s Café, 1969; Installation, Los Angeles.

Allen Ruppersberg. Al’s Café, 1969; installation, Los Angeles.

In these works from the 1960s and ’70s, as well as those taken from more recent years, the social and political connections posed by food, drink, and conviviality are taken up as radical possibilities. While many of the earlier works propose to radicalize the everyday—turning the act of drinking beer, or perhaps consuming Knowles’ Identical Lunch, with the artist—into actions designated under art’s then-broadening umbrella. For many of the artists, it seems that the radical action may lie not in the sharing of food itself, but in the circulating conversations that come out of these intentional situations. Michael Rakowitz’s project, Enemy Kitchen (A Food Truck) (2012), extends the artist’s interest in using traditional Iraqi foods to begin conversations about international conflict. Placing Iraqi chefs and recent American veterans inside the same space is just one of the ways in which Rakowitz seeks to spur a political discussion built around the cultural specificities of food. For the collective Red76, the meal also becomes a catalyst for a deeper political discussion, with their Revolutionary Table events (begun in 2007) serving as a meeting place to discuss democracy, speech, and collectivity within what was then a conservative political climate in the U.S. Photographs and copies of Red76’s zine-like publications document both the Revolutionary Table projects and the related Occupy Yr. Home (begun in 2012).

Red76. Occupy Yr. Home Dinner, 2012; performance and installation, Chicago.

Red76. Occupy Yr. Home Dinner, 2012; detail of performance and installation, Chicago.

Feast proposes to chronicle groundbreaking acts of sharing, conviviality, and food, but the exhibition’s very premise is also its biggest challenge: How can a museum represent time-based, interactive artistic practices in fresh and compelling ways? The usual approach—to use photos, videos, and objects to stand in for experiences—is recycled here. The radical actions become, once again, rather banal when seen through this accumulation of documentary materials. The photographs of live events cling dully to flat surfaces, and the videos play silently (headphones available for each) on sleek monitors. Lengthy didactics are stuck to the walls; objects and photographs are encased behind Plexiglas. For an exhibition that invokes “hospitality” and “radicality” as central concepts, the design of the exhibition itself offers little of either. The only moment for interaction lies on the floor beneath the entry wall text: One of Felix Gonzalez Torres’ iconic “candy spill” pieces, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) (1991), offers the only chance to actually partake in a physical way.

Of course, it is difficult to assess an exhibition outside of its native context—in this case, the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. While the pieces would have been selected, framed, sized, and activated (theoretically) according to the specificities of the Smart’s galleries in the first go-round, exhibitions on tour have to adapt, somewhat like a living organism, to unfamiliar and perhaps imperfect physical parameters. At the Weisman, the documentation of these works appears slightly stale, like the crusty traces of uneaten food and smoked cigarettes encased in Spoerri’s Tableau Piege, 17 Juni 1972 (1972). According to the website and the catalog, the exhibition was much more active—and interactive—at the Smart Museum, yet the Weisman’s activation of works by Marioni, Red76, and others occurred only at their $250-per person gala event that coincided with the exhibition’s opening. Now what remains is a set of documents, some installations and sculptural works, and videos. While it covers a truly fascinating subject matter, Feast is perhaps better served as a book—in the beautiful catalog documenting many under-recognized projects from the past eight decades—than in a gallery setting.

Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art is on view at the Weisman Art Museum of the University of Minnesota through May 10, 2015.