Gastro Fridays: Food in Art (Felix Gonzalez-Torres)

By on May 29, 2009 in Gastro Fridays, The Gastronomical Leena | 0 comments

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A Portrait of Ross by Felix Gonzalez Torres @ Art Institute of Chicago.

********* Update: Whoa. WHOA. Sorry to have lost radio contact there for a good majority of the week! First, the Memorial Day holiday through me off by a day. Then early Wednesday morning, I had a lovely stomach attack (brought on by IBS complications) that ended with severe gastrointestinal stress and a quick and dirty trip to the hospital. Not a fun reality of my life, but one I have to deal with from time to time. The downside is, it tends to hurt, but the upside is I get to look totally cute and skinny in the days that follow. Lemons to lemonade, my friend. ********* Second update: While getting ready for lunch today with a friend (my first time leaving the apartment for three entire days!!), guess who threw her back out doing the stressful task of getting dressed? 70 year old Leena, that’s who. I swear I’m like Benjamin freaking Button here, a 70 year old trapped inside of a 28 year old’s body. Therefore, only two posts this week my friends, and I hope you can forgive me for the absence. I have a LOT of delicious eating & drinking to catch up on. ********* Happy Gastro Friday, fellow readers and gastronomes. This week, I’d like to chat a bit about the representation of food in art. Back in gastronomy grad school, only a week of one class was devoted to food in art, but it always intrigued me. First, there are so many different levels that food can be in art. It could be as simple as a painting of a bowl of fruit, or as complicated as an ad campaign for a high-end champagne company. It could literally be food– without a picture frame or a canvas to rest on. This could mean a dish of food beautifully presented at a restaurant and captured on film, or food presented as art in a museum or art gallery. Food in art, especially food in classical paintings, is really interesting to study because foods can taken on a variety of surprising meanings. For example, certain foods represent sexuality, a topic that couldn’t be openly discussed when many classic painting were created (and by “classic”, I mean Leena’s generic term for any painting made before 1900. Technical, I know). A suggestively placed banana, a tipped over bowl, and you got yourself some good old fashioned food porn in the most literal sense of the words. If a little Barry Manilow, a nice glass of Pinot, and sexy painting of a bowl fruit from the 1600s doesn’t get you all hot and bothered, I don’t know what will. But today, I would like to talk about food as art. In the opening photograph, you will see an average photograph of an art installation by late artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (for a MUCH better photo, go here) that I recently saw at the Art Institute of Chicago in their new Modern wing (Contemporary section) called Unititled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991. By the way, from my understanding, installation art is art that goes beyond the boundaries of typical art (that uses frames and easels) and expands into the environment of the viewer. Some installation art even requires audience participation, and such is the case for Gonzalez-Torres’s piece. It is essentially 175 pounds of brightly colored hard candy piled in the corner of one of the galleries, the ideal weight of his partner Ross before he died from AIDS. People are encouraged to take a piece of candy and eat it, and the slow diminishing of the pile of candy is supposed to represent the body of Ross, which slowly withered away from AIDS. Each day, it is refilled and the process starts again, so depending on what time of day you view the piece, it will take on different forms and different meanings. If you would like to read more about the artist and this particular art installation, check it out here. While the subject of this installation is a bit dark, this piece interested me for so many different reasons. First off, it gives you free food. I am always a fan of free food. But it also utilizes audience participation by having you take a piece of candy and literally change the look of the art yourself. I’ve been studying social media for the past two years, and audience participation has been an important concept that I come across often, especially via blogs and Twitter, so it is intriguing to see a piece of art utilize the same concept. The really interesting (and sad) part is that the artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, passed away in 1996, well before social media and the concept of participatory communication become widely used on the Internet. To me, that suggests that the idea of audience participation in almost any forum (at the very least, in art and communication) has a timeless quality. It is also sort of weird as you participate in taking and eating a piece of candy, because you see this odd juxtaposition of happy-looking, brightly colored candy that is supposed to represent something dark and sad, a man dying from an incurable disease, someone’s lover. Then when you actually eat the candy, it is a whole new kind of weird because it is like you are eating this dying man, a very macabre thought indeed.

An important and macabre moment– can you see the reverence on my face? It’s there, really. Promise.

Don’t get me wrong–it was delicious candy–but for me at least, the act of essentially eating a dying man lingered with me, and prevented me from truly enjoying the candy. And that is okay, because I think that is what the installation was trying to achieve. It is easy to eat food without thinking, it is something we all do several times a day. But to eat and really consider what that food means is a powerful experience, and that was one piece of candy I did not take lightly. Then again, I imagine such an act might not feel as powerful to someone of a stronger and more Christian persuasion, where partaking of the body and the blood of Christ is a weekly event. I was raised Hindu and while many of our religious ceremonies include eating food, none of them include eating food that is supposed to represent the body of someone or a god, so perhaps that is where my hesitation came from. The idea of drinking someone’s blood sort of creeps me out. Another thought that came across me was the idea of a man dying from AIDS, an act that can be very isolating, was posed against the concept of a communal pile of candy that everyone took and ate from, an very inclusive act. To me, that said that even though the death of his lover was a personal event, it represents a universal need for a solution to a problem that affects everyone in the world, AIDS. As you can see, I could go on about this and the many ideas and concepts it addresses for hours. I love this stuff. I suppose I wanted to highlight this piece of art because I feel it is a great example of something I taught to my high school food studies class a million times over–food can represent more than just something you eat for pleasure or nourishment. For another great example, check out this piece by artist Victor Muniz that I came across in Sydney, Australia.

Che (Sopa de frijoles negros) by artist Victor Muniz.

Feel free to share your favorite representations of food in or as art. ~LTG!

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