The Ten List: Food and Art

by Theresa Bembnister March 2, 2011

Alison Knowles. The Identical Lunch. 1973. © Alison Knowles

From January 13 to February 4, 2011, a table of patrons in the second-floor cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art ate the exact same thing: “a tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with butter and lettuce, no mayo, and a cup of soup or glass of buttermilk.”

These identical lunches were part of Fluxus artist Alison KnowlesIdentical Lunch, an “event score” or improvisational performance script devised by the artist in the late 1960s after her studio mate Philip Corner noticed she always ordered the same thing for lunch at the neighborhood diner.

Dining and art often intersect. The act of eating or drinking, or preparing and serving a meal gives artists the chance to explore themes common to contemporary art—the body, identity, commerce, and the intersection of art and life. I’ve listed ten moments when eating and drinking have played important roles in the creation of art, or have become the artwork itself. Consider yourself forewarned: do not read this list on an empty stomach.

1. Yves Klein makes gallery-goers pee blue.
More than 2,500 Parisians showed up for the opening of Yves Klein’s 1958 Galerie Iris Clert exhibition, titled The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, or The Void, for short. While waiting in line (Klein allowed only ten people at a time to enter the exhibition space) guests sipped cocktails of Cointreau, gin, and methylene blue. Not only did the artist command the flow of bodies into the gallery, but he also exerted control over the flow of substances out of the visitors’ bodies—the cocktails dyed their urine blue.

Daniel Spoerri, Fallenbild mit rotem Teller, 1972, Essgeschirr und Essensreste, auf Holzplatte, Sprengel Museum Hannover © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2009; Foto: Herling / Gwose


2. Daniel Spoerri interrupts dinner.
In March 1963, Daniel Spoerri hosted a series of ten banquets at Galerie J in Paris, known for that period as Restaurant de la Galerie J. At a randomly selected moment, the artist interrupted his guests’ meal, removing the table for preservation. Dirty, greasy crockery, cutlery, tablecloths and glassware were glued to the tabletop; leftovers were lacquered and returned to their places. Spoerri turned the tabletops on their sides and displayed them as wall-hanging assemblages he called Fallenbilder or snare-pictures. Spoerri opened his own restaurant in Dusseldorf in 1968, where he created a series of 365 snare-pictures in 1972.


3. Andrea Zittel crafts a delicious, nutritious, timesaving meal.
Andrea Zittel streamlined the meal preparation process in 1993 with A-Z Food Group, a ready-to-eat concoction of dehydrated grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. With its twelve essential ingredients, Food Group, which resembles Fruity Pebbles minus the Day-Glo colors, can also be baked into a loaf or patties, or cooked as a stew. In 2000, Zittell installed the A-Z Food Prep Unit in her Brooklyn kitchen, which contained everything she needed to prepare Food Group in one compact space: refrigerator, dehydrator, cutting board and labeled jars with each ingredient.

4. A collective peddles tamales from a food truck.

Chicago-based members of the Tamalli Space Charros Collective sell tamales out of the tamalespaceship, a food truck purchased off of eBay with decoration inspired by Mexican sci-fi wrestling films from the 1960s. Taking their cue from the Stridentists, a group of artists, musicians and writers active in Mexico in the 1920s focused on improving life through technology, the tamalespaceship uses internet based social networks to broadcast its menu and location. Other notable street food art projects include Jen-N-Outlaw’s Fish Fry Truck in Brooklyn, by Paul Outlaw and Jen Catron, and Kansas City-based Kurt Flecksing’s S’mores Cart.

Tom Marioni, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, 1970 – 2008, 1979 installation view at SFMOMA; © 2008 Tom Marioni; photo: Paul Hoffman

5. Tom Marioni drinks beer with his buddies.
As a young artist, Tom Marioni convinced Oakland Art Museum curator George Neubert that partying with friends constituted a social sculpture. For The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art, from 1970, Neubert picked up some booze and met Marioni and 16 of his buddies at the museum on a Monday, a day the museum was closed to the public. The group drank, had a good time, and left the beer bottles on the floor for museum-goers to contemplate the next morning. The Act of Drinking Beer… has become a life-long project for Marioni, who serves beer to friends at Wednesday night salons he hosts in his San Francisco studio.

6. Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark nurture a neighborhood with FOOD.
Attracted by cheap loft spaces vacated by light-manufacturing businesses, creative types swarmed to SoHo in the early 1970s. In response to the neighborhood’s lack of residential amenities, dancer and photographer Carol Goodden and sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark opened FOOD, a functional restaurant-cum-artwork (which Matta-Clark even tried to sell, unsuccessfully, to dealer Leo Castelli.) The restaurant created a place for locals to eat and congregate, and employed artists, dancers and musicians, working flexible schedules which allowed them time to focus on their craft. FOOD provided a creative outlet for Matta-Clark, who performed his first cut piece while renovating the restaurant.

7. Artists gather to share a meal, and their hard-earned money.
A growing network of grassroots micro-granting projects, Sunday Soup boasts members in cities across the country. Participants gather for an affordably priced meal, and after listening to grant applicant proposals, vote to determine which project deserves a grant funded by the income generated from the meal. Soup (or Stock, Sprout, Feast or Bread, as gatherings are called in some cities) provides not only financial support, but also a platform for discussion, collaboration and networking.

Allen Ruppersberg, Al's Cafe, 1969-1995,

8. Al’s Café dishes up Earth Art.
Visitors to Al’s Café, which operated near downtown L.A. every Thursday night for three months in the fall of 1969, swore the diner looked as though in had been in business for years. But the classic Americana décor—checkered tablecloths, picture postcards and autographed photos—was purely the fabrication of artist Allen Ruppersberg. The food, prepared by Al himself and served by a staff of waitresses, looked nothing like average diner fare. The café served beer and coffee, but items like “small dish of pinecones and leaves” weren’t edible. Rupperberg’s unusual menu grew out of his earlier terrarium sculptures, and served as a sly response to the then-popular Earth Art movement.

9. Rirkrit Tiravanija whips up some curry.
For Untitled 1992 (Free), Rirkrit Tiravanija cooked curry and rice in a makeshift kitchen in the office of 303 Gallery, and offered it, self-serve, to the public. Untitled has since become synonymous with relational aesthetics, defined by Nicolas Bourriaud, the French curator who coined the term, as “a theory of aesthetics in which artworks are judged based upon the inter-human relations which they represent, produce, or prompt.” In other words, Tiravanija created a situation that encouraged social interaction; strangers shared a table and a meal, and hopefully, a conversation.

10. Marije Vogelzang lulls gallery-goers into a carb coma.
For her contribution to Performa 09, self-proclaimed eating designer Marija Vogelzang installed a pasta cooking station/sauna in 41 Cooper Square. Visitors watched as the balls of dough they picked up upon entering were flattened and boiled in a pot of steaming water. Afterwards, participants had the option of adding pepper, olive oil or grated cheese before enjoying their freshly cooked pasta. Vogelzang found inspiration in the Italian Futurist Cookbook, which, years before the advent of the Atkins diet, warned readers that indulging in pasta would make them sluggish and overweight. In Vogelzang’s installation the steam, the heat and the carb-loaded pasta combined to intensify that effect.

This list is by no means exhaustive, although I did work up an appetite while putting it together. Are you an artist who works with food? Do you know of any great food art projects? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Theresa Bembnister is a writer whose last known address was Marfa.


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The Orange and the Grey… @ James McGirk May 29, 2011 - 09:39

[…] history of intervening in the body – Yves Klien once handed out cocktails laced with methylene blue, a chemical which dyed gallery-goers pee […]

melinda barsales May 29, 2011 - 17:39 Reply
Mysoon Rizk April 29, 2013 - 15:50

I too used to think that Nicolas Bourriaud coined the phrase “relational aesthetics” until I was recently reading a Rosalind Krauss article (from 1990) that referenced a Robert Morris essay employing the identical phrase in 1968.


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