In recent years, there’s been something of a zeitgeist for merging the fine and culinary arts. From Jennifer Rubell’s mass banquet Creation for the 2009 Performa gala, to the current international touring exhibition of chef Ferran Adrià’s drawings, to the Art Fund’s Edible Masterpiece fundraising initiative (which invites you to get baking today), the lines between these two creative fields are becoming increasingly blurred. It is a challenging and exciting – and often quite delicious – moment for cultural scholars and consumers alike.
The links between food and art are many. Both can engage multiple senses and prompt immediate, visceral reactions. These reactions – from swooning attraction to violent repulsion – are at once highly subjective and also connected to deep-seated, universal instincts. Food can evoke a sense of fond nostalgia, or imaginatively transport you to a foreign culture or time. And in contemporary society, where opportunities are great but time is precious, it is unsurprising that events which simultaneously satisfy our appetites for good food, interesting culture and informal education are increasingly enticing.
However, this is hardly a new phenomenon. The intersection between food and art has deep roots. For centuries, artists have been drawing on the alimentary, both as subject and material, to comment on society, gender, class and more. Though the first examples that come to mind are often symbolic still-lifes, beautifully detailed market scenes, or the ever-present spectre of Arcimboldo, modern and contemporary artists have also explored and exploited the familiarity of food and eating. Their work raises serious questions about acceptability in society – often with rather distasteful results.
To whet your appetite (or perhaps not), here are just a few salient examples:
Futurist ‘Formulas’, from The Futurist Cookbook (1932)
The Futurist Cookbook embodied the movement’s embrace of the future and obliteration of the past, famously calling for the abolition of pasta as a vestige of Italy’s stagnant, burdened history. Though meals were served in the Holy Palate restaurant in Turin and at various staged banquets, the majority of the Futurist ‘formulas’, as they were known, were at best unappetising and often actually inedible. Take, for example, ‘The Excited Pig’, whose ‘recipe’ reads: ‘A whole salami, skinned, is served upright on a dish containing some very hot black coffee mixed with a good deal of eau de cologne’.
In this work, two figures ignore the various comestibles around them, instead turning to one another as the dish of choice. By venturing into the subject of cannibalism, one of the most extreme and repulsive societal taboos, Dali’s work encompasses the surrealist fascination with base instincts and becomes anything but appetising. Autumnal Cannibalism is often cited as a comment on the Spanish Civil War, in which two sides of the same entity are mutually destroying each other and by extension themselves.
In Ma gouvernante, a Surrealist object by Meret Oppenheim, two white high-heeled shoes are trussed like a turkey and presented on a silver platter. In creating this submissive object of consumption out of women’s shoes, Oppenheim highlights issues of gender inequality and power struggles. Yet by making the object inherently impenetrable, there is also a reclamation of women’s autonomy through these quintessentially feminine items.
As the founder of the ‘Eat Art’ movement, much of Daniel Spoerri’s work has focused on food, including performative dinners at his ‘Restaurant de la Galerie J’ in Paris, a series of tinned goods labeled as artworks, and perhaps most famously his ‘snare paintings’, in which detritus and debris become artworks. In Eaten by Marcel Duchamp, the remnants of a meal consumed by the famous artist become preserved for posterity to be hung on the gallery wall. At the same time, Spoerri’s work brings to the fore the issues of ephemerality, decay and decomposition inherent in, but often overlooked when discussing, food.
Tom Sachs’ constructions call attention to the various meanings of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in contemporary culture. By emblazoning the ubiquitous signifiers of fast food establishments with iconic luxury brands such as Hermes, Tiffany’s and Prada, Sachs conflates emblems of high and low culture, prompting questions about issues of excess on multiple levels. The fact that Sachs is now represented by Gagosian Gallery and his works sell for thousands adds another complicated layer to the capitalist commentary inherent in his practice.
Janine Catalano is a food and art scholar, writer, lecturer. This August Janine will be teaching a week-long Summer School at the Courtauld Institute of Art entitled ‘From Still Life to Eat-Art: Food as Subject and Medium in Modern and Contemporary Art’.
Visual Feasts: Art and Appetite at the Art Institute of Chicago (Rachel Parikh)