There’s something admirable about the art world descending on the old Williamsburg Savings Bank for a “special food performance” by artist Jennifer Rubell to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Performa, the performance art biennial that will hold its sixth edition in New York next year. I can’t think of a better place for the cultural elite than a refurbished bank with an oculus dome skylight meant for a cathedral. Who knew the underbelly of the Williamsburg Bridge had the metaphorical capacity to host an evening fêting the Renaissance—a nod to patronage, undoubtedly—the night’s theme? I asked a 40-ish-year-old woman with ample eye glitter and cartoon-sized pearl earrings about her hat. “It’s a fez.” How does it fit into the Renaissance? “It’s the Ottomans. They had a Renaissance, too.” So has Brooklyn! No one made this joke at the party, so I will.
The dinner was at least worthy of another, more carnal, time. The room was organized around a centerpiece sculpture—not unlike a Medieval guillotine from what I could make out—into which guests were encouraged to throw out their dinner with the plates. (I would say with the bathwater, but to be honest the food didn’t look too shabby for gala fare.) Or so I heard, strongarmed as I was by a PR girl downstairs during the first course to atone for my being late, but marking my entrance was a residue of leftovers and broken china littering the sculpture site.
Let me just say, never have I—not even in a private home—seen so many long knives literally foisted onto drunken guests willy-nilly. All the more dangerous because no one, it seems, had any interest in staying in their seats, least of all the artist Laurie Simmons, one of the “Renaissance Women of Performa” being honored, who ran a greeting line out of her table. Having recently moved from SoHo to Brooklyn’s sorry equivalent, she’s “coined a new term: Williamsburg-level incompetence.” (This according to her daughter’s Twitter.) But the Brooklynites were not in charge this evening because chef Mario Batali volunteered his able services, moving deftly from table to table, hammy hands splitting suckling pigs snout to groin with a knife of his own. Not a gleam of pig juice splashing his trademark orange crocks.
“I’ve cut up a few pigs in my day,” said Batali. When was the first? “I was six.” Where was that? “Seattle, Washington.” He flipped the pig over as if he were giving an infant the Heimlich maneuver, then pressed freshly cut “pig kidney” into my palm. Chewy.
The tables were fashioned out of elongated sawhorses affixed with cardboard-like tabletops, which after dinner, in the night’s most precarious turn of events, were smashed with industrial-sized hammers distributed by servers to gleeful diners. A hearty whack unleashed an explosion of stringy confetti hidden inside the tables. (Spending money is cathartic, no?) The guests were all seated on the same side of the tables, facing a stage, a set up that didn’t necessarily welcome lively conversation with your neighbors (you only got two). The guests of the guests were all texting, presumably for company. I somewhat ambitiously squatted down on my heels to interrupt Broadway star Matt Doyle, tagging along with his Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer, whose face was buried in his phone. Who are you texting? “Oh please,” he said. “I’m Instagramming the slaughtered piglet.” What did I miss at the beginning of dinner? “There were all of these rubber chickens hanging [from the sculpture] and all these deviled eggs below,” he said. Everyone was instructed to hit the rubber chickens, which would unleash a sprinkle of paprika onto the eggs. Did Doyle hit a chicken? “Yes! I seasoned my egg.”
One of a slew of waiters—all of them male—serving us in assless chaps and cotton jock straps explained that the event’s organizers “wanted ‘physically fit dancers.’” His comrades loaded up the gold holsters resting just above their groins with sticks twined with Brussels sprouts. Imagine how a girl scout might carry an American flag if patriotism, rather than hedonism, was having its parade day. Some costume! The waiters wandered between rows, holding the sticks confidently at crotch-level, and encouraging guests to cut off a portion of the vegetables with steak knives. “I feel like a mohel,” said art collector Don Rubell, squeezing my elbow. (The waiter-dancers were getting paid $200 a head for the trouble of risking circumcision.)
For his part, Alan Barlis, a robust principal architect at BarlisWedlick Architects, was wearing a…tube as a collar. “Can you explain what’s around your neck?” “This is a ruff, as you know,” he said. Oh, I do. “It’s an HVAC duct. My friend Nancy Poses,” a Whitney board member, “has a photograph in her house by a Dutch man. He also wears a HVAC duct.” Thus making Barlis one of the few who internalized the theme correctly.
Dustin Yellin, wearing an oversized Revolutionary War soldier’s coat and a silk cravat, was noticeably hyped up. I asked the artist “How do you feel?” He leaned closer, swaying from foot to foot. “I feel like I’m in a 900-mile town. I feel like I’m 900 miles from town.” He said for breakfast he’d eaten “liquid yogurt.” I asked if his assistant bought it for him, and he said “no my gay lover, the lover that lives with me.” I said, “I’m pretty sure you’re straight.” He said he couldn’t answer that. Did Yellin ever have a life-changing experience? His response: “I was thirteen. There were farm animals.” What did he do to the farm animals? “Ask me a better question.” I asked him what his Performa commission would be like. “There will be choirboys. And a minister.” What happens to the choirboys? “Ask me a better question.” I asked if he’s religious. “God, no,” he said.