Sweet and low

Social interactions, dining and food, and their curious role in artistic practice. By Christabel Stewart and James Wilson

Tank _autumn 2016_62UNITED BROTHERS, Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent?, 2014 © UNITED BROTHERS. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

The idea of art as an ephemeral gift, rooted in social relations and utopian sociality, was commonplace in the 1990s and early 2000s. The movement that Nicolas Bourriaud termed “relational aesthetics” in his 1998 book emphasised artists’ production of social space – organised, in many cases, around food.  

Perhaps the artist most associated with relational aesthetics is Rirkrit Tiravanija, the Buenos Aires-born Thai artist, famous for staging dinners and meals in galleries – cooking Thai food tom kha soup, pad thai and Thai green curry at his shows. In 2003, Tiravanija collaborated with artist group SUPERFLEX to create Social Pudding, an installation in which communities in Leipzig, Germany, were invited to make and share their own desserts. Tiravanija traded the concept of social fabric for social pudding, likening the layers of social, business and personal matters to the coconut and orange layers of the Dr. Oetker-inspired pudding itself. Tiravanija’s meals are underpinned by a utopian perspective on globalisation, one that mirrored the media’s concurrent preoccupation with the global village at the turn of the 20th century. 

A counterpoint to Tiravanija’s world is found in the Americana of David Robbins’ Ice Cream Social. Ice cream socials are communal events held in small American towns where neighbours come together to share cake and ice cream. Robbins, known for his work that tracks the boundaries between art and entertainment, replicated these events in big cities, examining the self-conscious and theatrical nature of social gatherings: “players conspiring in the enjoyment of enjoyment”, as he put it. The first Ice Cream Social was held one January night in 1993, in a Manhattan branch of Baskin-Robbins. Over a 15-year period, Ice Cream Social oscillated between art forms: a novella was published, ceramic bowls were made and a TV pilot was filmed for the Sundance Channel, ricocheting from installation to entertainment to social commentary. The last Ice Cream Social, held in 2003 in Des Moines, Iowa, occurred in the wake of the Iraq war and at the same time as unrest around the G8 Summit that was being held in Évian-les-Bains, France.  

The Ice Cream Social events traced the growing anxieties around relational aesthetics, and the perception that they lacked a political stance. As Hal Foster put it, in his 2003 excoriation of the movement for the London Review of Books, “Arty Party”: “Art collectives in the recent past, such as those formed around AIDS activism, were political projects; today simply getting together sometimes seems to be enough. Here we might not be too far from an art-world version of ‘flash mobs’ – of ‘people meeting people’, in Tiravanija’s words, as an end in itself.” 

At Frieze in 2014, UNITED BROTHERS, an art collective made up of the brothers Ei and Tomoo Arakawa, presented its installation, Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent? The brothers handed out free bowls of “Fukushima Soup”, made by their mother from daikon radish that had grown close to the nuclear power plant, which exploded after the 2011 tsunami. Here food in the gallery spoke not of global interaction, but of contamination, climate change and pollution. A gesture of hospitality became a challenge to its audience to accept it.  

A similar provocation can be found in the work of Cooking Sections, a “duo of spatial practitioners” called Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe. Their work The Next “Invasive” Is “Native” was made up of installations in five ice-cream shops in Glasgow during May 2016, and later at OPEN SOURCE in Dalston, London. Glaswegian ice-cream shops were mostly opened by Italian migrants at the beginning of the 20th century, and were described in the press at the time as promoting “bad habits and promiscuity”. Cooking Sections made ice cream from Japanese knotweed, the famous “plant that ate Britain”, an “invasive” and “alien” weed extremely difficult to remove. Knotweed, it turns out, tastes similar to rhubarb when cooked. Set against the context of the refugee crisis and the EU referendum, the installation seemed to reflect growing popular anxieties with the very globalisation that was so celebrated by a previous generation of artists. 

In 1971, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark was helping to run the FOOD restaurant alongside several other artists, when he proposed to fellow artist Lee Jaffe, that Jaffe cook himself as a human sacrifice. “Just imagine,” Matta-Clark wrote, “what a fabulous treat you would make.” Such playful communion seems to underpin artistic engagement with food; the Futurist Cookbook, certainly, seems to have its tongue firmly in its cheek, as do many of the utopian works that make up the canon of “relational aesthetics”. But as the global system moves towards protectionism, localism and even parochialism, it is interesting to see an engagement with an altogether more problematic sense of social relations: contamination, pollution and infection. §

Tank _autumn 2016_63Rirkrit Tiravanija and SUPERFLEX, Social Pudding (installation view at 1301PE, Los Angeles, 2004), 2003. Courtesy the artists and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London 


Tank _autumn 2016_64Cooking Sections, The Next “Invasive” Is “Native”: The Plant That Ate Britain Ice-Cream, 2016. Commissioned by VERBureau for Pokey Hat, Glasgow International 2016. Courtesy the artists

Tank _autumn 2016_65David Robbins, Ice Cream Social (installation view at Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, 2011), 1993-2011. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York