Welcoming visitors near the entryway to the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee (2011–ongoing) consists of shelves of canning jars filled with slatko, a strawberry jam traditionally served in Serbian households as a gesture of hospitality. Translated as “sweet,” slatko is supposed to betoken a happy visit for the guests to whom it is offered. As Prvacki points out in a video on the museum’s website, however, anxieties about cultural protocol and the inherent asymmetries of the guest/host relation ensure that every hospitable act contains ambiguities. Indeed, one of the central premises of “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art”—an exhibition that bills itself the first major survey of esthetic practices centered on eating and imbibing and that features a range of mostly conceptual works by modern and contemporary artists-is that hospitality is frequently a bittersweet affair.
Consider Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991. In this iconic meditation on love and attrition, viewers can take from a pile of cellophane-wrapped candies arranged on the museum floor. The combined weight of the candies (175 pounds), which are depleted and replenished throughout the course of the exhibition, references the body weight of the artist’s longtime partner, Ross, whose AIDS-related death in 1991 inspired a number of memorable artworks.
Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (Food Truck), 2012, offers a likewise ambiguous way to tempt one’s taste buds. Consisting of an army-green food truck active throughout the Chicago area, Enemy Kitchen boasts a menu of Iraqi recipes served on paper replicas of Saddam Hussein’s former hospitality dishware. Servers are members of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War.
While focused primarily on contemporary practice, “Feast” also includes a section dedicated to the Italian Futurists’ culinary-esthetic happenings as well as several works from the heyday of Conceptualism. Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food (1971), an artist-run restaurant in downtown New York, and Bonnie Sherk’s Public Lunch (1971), a performance staged inside a tiger cage at the San Francisco Zoo, are paid homage in the form of documentary film footage and photographs. A wall-size world map commemorates Suzanne Lacy’s International Dinner Party (1979/2012), a project she did with Linda Preuss in which dinner parties honoring women were held in various communities around the world.
One room is reserved for Marina Abramovi´c and Ulay’s Communist Body/Fascist Body (1979/2012). Celebrating the former partners’ shared birthday, the installation reincarnates a performance undertaken 30 years ago at their Amsterdam loft. In the original work, arriving guests were met with two tables, one adorned with Soviet sparkling wine and simple tableware, the other with fine champagne and quality linens-references to the artists’ respective Yugoslav and German origins. Throughout the party, the hosts remained in bed at one end of the loft, supposedly asleep, a gesture that provoked widely varying responses from their guests. For the present exhibition, video and audio documenting the performance play alongside reconstructions of the two tables and the artists’ bed, prompting viewers to consider the work’s status as document, residue and art object.
The uneasy relationship between documentation and artwork is something that has plagued conceptual practice from its origins, and the artists of “Feast” take various approaches to the problem. A number of artists and groups (Mary Ellen Carroll, inCUBATE, Motiroti) use photography and artifacts from unique performances to create mixed-medium displays. Others (Daniel Spoerri, Rirkrit Tiravanija) incorporate actual leftovers in their assemblages and installations. For Lee Mingwei, whose The Dining Project (1998–2012) consists of one-on-one meals prepared by the artist, documentation is seen as a corruptive, if necessary, aspect of his practice.
Undoubtedly, much of the work in the exhibition can be fully appreciated only through viewer participation. Fortunately, a full program of events and symposia as well as several artist-organized happenings—Theaster Gates’s off-site Soul Food Pavilion (2012) dinners and Tom Marioni’s pop-up speakeasy, The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970-ongoing), among them—afford guests multiple opportunities to witness, take part in and, of course, taste hospitality in action.
The exhibition travels to the Blaffer Art Museum, Houston, fall 2013, and SITE Santa Fe, N.M., winter 2014.
Photo: (left) View of Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee, 2011-ongoing, showing the artist offering guests jam. (right) Photo documenting Bonnie Sherk’s performance Public Lunch, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo