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Artists use food as a metaphor for life

Molly Glentze, Houston Chronicle
Published 5:24 pm, Tuesday, November 12, 2013
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  • Daniel Spoerri's
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Special Events:

'Gabriel Martinez: Untitled (territory)'

A two-hour trip to Houston taquerias, including a discussing about urban planning

When: Noon-3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Meet at Blaffer Art Museum, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston

Tickets: Free; reservations required; 713-743-9521

'InCUBATE: Sunday Soup'

A community meal to fund art projects

When: 4 p.m. Nov. 24

Where: The Brandon, 1709 Westheimer

Tickets: $10, cash only, at the door; thebrandoncontemporary.com, sundaysoup.org

Theaster Gates with the Black Monks of Mississippi

Vocal performance melding gospel, blues and Buddhist chants

When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 7

Where: Eldorado Ballroom, 2301 Elgin

Tickets: Free; blafferartmuseum.org

'Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art'

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays- Saturdays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays, through Dec. 7.

Where: Blaffer Art Museum, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston

Tickets: Free

Thanksgiving dinner might be an entirely different game if you tied your guests to the table and asked them to feed each other.

Or if you handed them a menu whose offerings included "rock varieties smothered in pine needles" and "fillet of Southern California beach."

Or - I find this one strangely appealing - if you laid out bread, caviar and champagne and then retreated to bed, where you stayed, motionless, until everyone left.

These are just a few of the provocative acts examined in "Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art," an exhibit at the Blaffer Art Museum that serves a platter full of dangerous ideas - and not just for the holiday entertaining season.

The words "hospitality" and "hostility" are related, said museum director Claudia Schmuckli as we walked through the show recently. "So one by definition implies the other. Hospitality is generally governed by certain rules and expectations, and the guest-host relationship can be very complicated. There's a very thin line where it can tip into something uncomfortable."

Organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the exhibit surveys a number of intriguing practices in which artists have employed meals as a medium to spark critical dialogue about culture and society.

Their intentions differ, and not all of the works documented in "Feast" are anti-social. But if you are looking for an appetizing show of pretty still lifes about abundance at the table, this is not the exhibit for you.

One of the most memorable objects has a strong yuck factor: Daniel Spoerri's "Tableau piège, 17. Juni 1972," a Plexiglas case containing the petrified remains of a meal the artist shared with friends in 1972, including dirty plates, soiled napkins, empty bottles and an ashtray full of cigarette butts.

The show begins with a lesson from the Italian Futurists. In 1930 the movement's founder, F.T. Marinetti, published a mischievous diatribe against pasta in his "Manifesto of Futurist Cooking." (He called pasta "an absurd Italian gastronomic religion … hostile to the vivacious spirit and passionate, generous, intuitive soul of the Neapolitans.")

"They had this idea of a new social order," Schmuckli explained, "and that really ties into what we consume. That catchphrase 'we are what we eat' is a simplistic reduction. A great deal of thought went into how this defines us and our relationships to one another, to the environment, to society. With Futurism, it was a political, revolutionary gesture."

The Futurists pursued their ideas about food by establishing a "restaurant," the Taverna del Santopalato (the Holy Palate), where the menu veered toward such aggressively inedible dishes as "broth of rose and the sun." They also published a cookbook whose pages can be glimpsed in one of the exhibit's vitrines.

The next wave of radical eating-as-art arose in the late 1960s and '70s, also a time of great social change. Then, a bigger concern was creating communities where artists could gather and make a living. That was part of the idea behind Gordon Matta-Clark's serious New York restaurant endeavor, Food, and Allen Ruppersberg's Los Angeles storefront, "Al's Cafe" (where that "fillet of Southern California beach" sold for $2.75).

Tom Marioni's beer salon, "The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art," founded in 1970, is still going in his Bay Area studio. A version of it is installed upstairs at the Blaffer, where guest bartenders have served drinks for a series of events this fall.

Marina Abramovic and Ulay have re-created the environment of their 1979 "Communist Body/Fascist Body," a performance in which they stayed in bed while a friend filmed their guests at a midnight birthday party. Caviar and champagne were served from two tables - one representing Abramovic's birth in Communist Yugoslavia, the other representing Ulay's birth in Fascist Germany.

While male artists of the period were running cafes, female artists were performing globally to draw on the domestic aspects of meals. Pins on a huge map represent dinner parties hosted by women around the world for Suzanne Lacy's 1979 "International Dinner Party," an event conceived and carried out long before the advent of email and cellphones. "Just the logistical effort of organizing a global dinner party was humongous. It was an enormous feat to have pulled that off during that time," Schmuckli said.

Today's multitude of social practitioners provide a cornucopia of food for thought. Many are represented in the exhibit, and since "Feast" opened in September, the museum has hosted a number of performance events centered on meals.

Last month, three lucky lottery winners each had an intimate, one-on-one dinner with Lee Mingwei for his "The Dining Project."

"He prepares the food and entertains you; the key and the meaning of the work resides in the dynamic that exists between him and you and the interaction that unfolds," Schmuckli said.

David Robbins' "Ice Cream Social," as its name implies, was more of a party. Among the questions posed in the continuing installation is, "Are you a socialite or a socialist?"

Still to come are InCUBATE's "Sunday Soup," which will raise money for an art project selected by diners, and a performance featuring Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi. (A dinner with Gates at Project Row Houses quickly sold out.)

Houston artists have joined the party, too: Gabriel Martinez has taken guests on a taco truck tour of Houston that also provides a window into issues about urban planning and the city's growth. Lynne McCabe has broadcast "Vexations in the Kitchen," performances in which friends play parts of Erik Satie's "Vexations" while she prepares dinner. Miguel Amat examines how hospitality can be a strategic tactic in warfare in a videotaped conversation with a former private military contractor.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres' "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)" is meant as a "prologue" to the exhibition but might also serve as a pleasant dessert. It's a pile of colorful, wrapped candies that collectively weigh the same as the artist's partner, who died of AIDS.

A sparkling statement about fragility and loss, it's not hostile at all. And you are welcome to take a piece of it with you.

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