Food as art, art as food – the rise of conceptual cookery

Originally published in (H)Art, April 2011.

Blanch & Shock Bone Dinner

On the bare concrete floor, a jagged pile of bones. A rib cage, stripped bare, forms a stark and bloodied arch. Unidentifiable bits of carcass lie sloppily around; beheaded egg shells, slices of lemon, an onion. On three sides around this pile of waste and mess, diners sit and talk and laugh, gorging themselves on prawn brain and veal consommé – the only cutlery to be seen a cleaver wielded with brutal enthusiasm by a blood-bespattered chef. As each course is devoured, we toss unwanted remains onto this mound of animal mess, each new addition sending crackles, blips and disjointed spasms of noise juddering through a series of speakers dotted around the bare walls of Eastside Projects Gallery, housed on an old industrial estate in Birmingham.

Meanwhile in Berlin, a separate group of diners are teased and tempted with an almost sexual longing for what they put in their mouths. But hunger is soon sated, and desire quickly turns to something else: the remains of this gluttonous feast are left to stand and congeal. Long after the guests have departed, the discarded bits of unwanted food rest and fester and rot, in a glass-fronted gallery space, for passers-by to witness this brazenly provocative waste.

These two scenes are not simply isolated spectacles in their own right; they’re part of something bigger – something that finds its focal point, interestingly, not in Birmingham or in Berlin, but in London. The people responsible for the pile of bones are London-based food design group Blanch and Shock (although the event was put together by Companis), whilst the lady behind the ostentatious display of gluttony is Caroline Hobkinson, a food curator who divides her time between Berlin and London.

And there are others. Bompas & Parr are perhaps the best-known on the London food/art scene. A series of attention-grabbing events has cemented their place at the forefront of the current trend: a walk-in gin and tonic, a bowl of punch so big that visitors could row across it, and a project grandly entitled The Complete History of Food. In a sense, this kind of thing is nothing new – artists as diverse as Futurist founder Filippo Marinetti, LA-based feminist Judy Chicago, German conceptualist Joseph Beuys, Swiss assemblage-maker Daniel Spoerri and 1970s New York cool kid Gordon Matta-Clark have all worked with food to a greater or lesser extent. But a quick glance at the list of members of the Experimental Food Society provides a clue to the increasingly large numbers of individuals and collectives interested in the artistic possibilities of food and drink.

In some ways it’s hardly surprising that this is happening today. The world of food has been getting increasingly experimental for some years now, with the likes of Heston Blumenthal leading the craze for molecular gastronomy, sous-vides and liquid nitrogen. All across London there’s cocktail bars like 69 Colebrooke Row utilising micro-distillation and ice-cream parlours like Chin-Chin Labs employing  liquid nitrogen to serve hitherto unimaginable flavours.

But there’s more to what’s going on in London than simply some wacky cooking. For me, what makes the events involving the likes of Blanch and Shock or Caroline Hobkinson truly special, what makes them ‘art’ as it were, is the way in which the very process of dining is re-examined. By foregrounding the activity of eating in a social context these events highlight the idea of dining as performance; a performance in which we – chef, waiter, host, guest – all play a specific (potentially manipulated) role.

As Mike Knowlden from Blanch and Shock explains, “The first step in this process is seeing the interaction between the cook and the diner, and between diner and diner, as particularly rich. It is always interesting from a social point of view, and the exchange that goes on, for one thing, makes it implicitly political. From this point, you only have to introduce elements of control to make it into a performance. Give your cook a character, or give your diners characters, and there are endless possibilities.”

One such possibility occurred in February 2011, under the railway arches near London Bridge. I was at Eat Your Heart Out, a collaboration between Blanch and Shock and Kindle Theatre, as part of the Coming Up Festival of food, art and theatre. Set in a world of post-apocalyptic darkness, the conceit is that we feast upon the ‘guest of honour’ chosen at random from amongst the hundred guests. Interestingly, that guest of honour turns out to be me, and as I’m crowned and led away, there’s a real sense of spectacle, of being integral to the narrative. I’m led into a back room and given my meal, alone. It should be boring, but somehow the idea of being part of everyone’s dinner, their story, their experience, alters my own. I’m not simply eating dinner; I’m playing my part.

Likewise, back in 2010 I attended another Hobkinson-curated art/food event, at Trolley Gallery in Shoreditch, east London. Like the cutlery-less Birmingham Bone Dinner, guests are again forced to re-assess their strategies of interaction: with the food – some of which floats above us, some of which we eat with two-foot-long forks; with our surroundings – we each climb up stepladders to perch atop our allocated seats (wooden, canvas and precarious) high above the gallery floor below; and of course, with each other – none of us have been part of anything like this before.

Tellingly, Trolley’s Director Hannah Watson recalls, “it was particularly interesting the night of First Thursdays [monthly late-night openings across various East End galleries] when we kept the door of the gallery open so people could watch everyone having dinner, and because we had these really long forks people were feeding passers by.”

In this way then the guest (and even the passer-by) becomes part of the work, and is as much a performer as the so-called ‘artist’. And it’s this element that perhaps most appeals to London’s artists today. For some years now, an idea has been on the rise, of the artist as facilitator rather than simply ‘author’– curator rather than creator. One need only think of Simon Starling’s brilliant curation at Camden Arts Centre for example, or Turner Prize-nominated Goshka Macuga’s appropriation of objects and even the works of other artists.

Ideas around, interaction, democratisation, and collaboration are all also to the fore, and the current use of food as artistic medium incorporates all of these different strands. It sees the artist to some extent lose control of the work, in a way that is both unusual and exciting. As Caroline puts it: “I love that what I do works on different levels. If you don’t want to actively engage with the fact that you become the ultimate performer by eating the food than you can merely enjoy the flavours and the ritual of eating with other people. It’s almost like the Eucharist – whether you see it as connecting with the body of Christ or merely as a comforting ritual, it works on many levels.”

This idea of ritual is, I think, central. A ritual is something that people partake in – it’s interactive in that sense. But it’s also something which people watch, sometimes from afar, as a spectacle – something examined specifically in Caroline’s Das Grosse Fressen, during which cameras were placed inside the food in order to film the actions and responses of the guests. Eating – at least socially – is always a ritual in both senses: as something with which one interacts, and as something more distant, remote. And it’s this dichotomy which these food/art explorers are exposing, questioning, continually manipulating.

Given that Caroline works both in Berlin and London, it’s intriguing to see if there are differences between the ways in which the two cities approach these ideas. In short, since the likes of Spoerri and Beuys, Eat Art is reasonably well established in Berlin, so, as Caroline says, “there is less need to explain. But [in London] there is more of a hype around food, and consuming it is a spectacle. In Berlin everything is temporary anyway. The establishment is yet to be established so pop-up restaurants and underground places don’t have the same thrill as they have in established London.”

And yet this year the art-food crossover threatens to bubble over into the mainstream in London too, in the form of a major new exhibition at the Barbican. Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark looks at three pioneering figures on the New York art scene of the early 1970s, a scene not dissimilar in some ways to that currently facing London today. One of these artists, Matta-Clark, founded artist-run pop-up restaurant Food in 1971 with Carol Goodden, and whose notorious Bone Dinner formed the inspiration for Blanch and Shock’s cutlery-less shenanigans of 2010.

As Lydia Yee, the exhibition’s curator, points out, “Gordon Matta-Clark made work out of very modest materials, worked collaboratively with other artists and had a strong social dimension to his practice. He worked during a time of financial crisis and I think his practice can serve as a model for young artists today who also face difficult economic circumstances.”

As part of a series of events programmed alongside the exhibition, the Barbican is hosting food/art cross-over events by the likes of Companis and DesignMarketo. This is likely to bring the phenomenon to a whole new audience, and to introduce Londoners to the historical relationship between art and food. The more people who are informed and involved, the more the role of the artist recedes (creator to curator) and the more each and every meal gest re-examined and considered from new angles.And yet there’s something in the nature of these art events that resists what might be deemed mainstream appropriation. Informed by history, events like these happen in the now. Ephemeral, unpredictable and utterly exhilarating: what’s left over is simply memories – memories that are never simply left-overs.