Using fishing wire and a team of installers, Subodh Gupta has strung hundreds of disused cooking vessels from the rafters in Art Basel’s Unlimited section to create a large floating hall that is home to an Indian food restaurant serving free meals for the run of the fair. The project, titled Cooking the World (2017), is a classic Gupta spectacle—lots of small readymade things assembled into one giant thing. It is undeniably alluring; it is also more than a little obvious.
Text accompanying the piece proudly states that “in an age of migration and displacement complemented by increasing intolerance of the Other, Subodh Gupta’s work around the rituals and symbolism of preparation, presentation, and consumption of food has gained utmost significance” and that “offering to share a meal acts as the strongest indicator of inclusion and acceptance into a community.” Which, sure—but when you’re serving free meals to some of the most privileged people on the planet (a ticket for Basel costs upwards of $50), claims about community should probably be set aside, at least temporarily.
Having said all that, the food on offer inside the work is absolutely delicious.
The staff members of the restaurant work in Gupta’s studio, in New Delhi, and when I ate at their Basel satellite yesterday, they delivered a whirlwind 45-minute meal with grace. First came lentil soup that was a sumptuous yellow and tasted both smoky and tangy. Next was bhel puri that crackled with each bite, a potent mixture of light-as-air puffed rice and hits of savory, acid-hit vegetables. And then came khichadi, a soothing brew of lentils and rice, accompanied by super funky pickle vegetables. On to the main attraction: a thali platter with okra, rice, and papad, among other things, accompanied by perfectly plump shrimp that I could have had two, three, or four helpings of. The meal ended with cool, refreshing saffron yogurt that hid little slices of banana. It was glorious.
From outside the tent, throughout the meal, people poked their heads between the pots and pans, gawking at the action and snapping photos. Sometimes they accidentally knocked into the structure, turning it into a kind of remarkable wind-chime as metal clanged and clattered together. Inside, a casual camaraderie prevailed among the 20-or-so guests. An older husband-and-wife pair arrived and warmly announced “Italiano!” as they sat down and saw the menu, which is printed in English. Thankfully, a gourmand sitting a few seats down was from Italy and served as a translator throughout the meal.
The reservations for the restaurant are all booked up, but there were some no-shows when I visited and some walk-ins were able to find seats. So if you’re in the area, swing through.