We have had decades of criticisms of the museum and the gallery as institutions that, to put it kindly, are politically reticent and socially restrained. However, many of these criticisms work in a way that is oppositional, polemical, and fueled by anger, for better or worse – for instance, Lorraine O’Grady’s and Adrian Piper’s critiques of whiteness, Louise Bourgoisie’s work, and other works by seminal feminist artists of the 1960s onward.
However, there are similar questioning practices that occur in a different key: less acerbic but no less body-oriented interventions. Until recently, I had only encountered positive approaches to re-imagining the museum in the pages of art history textbooks, specifically in commentary about Happenings in the rat-ridden lofts of SoHo in the 1970s. These Happenings focused on reclaiming art-subjects as living, breathing, sweating and hungering subjects.
At the MoMA a few weeks ago I went to a Diego Rivera retrospective. It was a Target Free Friday so absolutely mobbed, and the normal art population was intensified by the population swells that occur in New York City around the holidays. After looking at the Rivera retrospective I made my way to another summary kind of exhibit, with works from the 1980s to the present. DeKooning and Keith Haring offered the urbanesque, humorous takes of our postmodern jumble, and Doris Saxedo’s work, La Casa Vivada reminded the viewer of the latent violence inherent in modernity and unequally distributed between geographic centers of privilege and poverty, especially striated along lines of race and class. And on and on.
Three hours later I felt the strain of my book bag and realized that it was past dinner-time. It was then that I smelled the curry …
I was confused, wasn’t the MoMA cafeteria in its own wing on the 2nd floor? I walked towards yet another installation piece and then saw what appeared to be an incomplete room—wooden wall, ceiling and doorway beams were installed, and empty cardboard boxes were strewn about with the labels “Eggplant,” “Rice,” “Carrots.” I saw people perched at round tables laughing and eating something out of small yogurt cups. There was in fact a wooden window that framed these acts of gustatory enjoyment. So I followed my nose, and stomach to what seemed to be another partially constructed doorway, was redirected to yet another doorway and hallway, was moved forward by a guard and met a man wearing a chef’s hat, standing behind a table with neatly laid out spoons, cups, napkins and two large crock pots. “Thai green curry on fragrant Jasmine rice. Temperature wise, it is very hot.” This was the only sentence the man serving food would say unless prompted otherwise. Two guards were there to regulate flows of people to make sure that everyone received a small serving. On the front of the table was pasted a paper titled “Thai Green Curry Recipe.” To the left of the table was a refrigerator with a broken latch, gallon bottles of water inside and plastic cups on top. I received my portion of curry and sat at one of the small tables, watching equally puzzled but pleased art denizens take curry and seats, cautiously walk to the fridge, take water, pause about whether to leave the water out, or in, cap on or off.
About fifteen minutes later the artist had the guards pause the flow of people to reorganize the table, replenish his supply of rice and curry, and put fresh water in the fridge, from boxes of water to the side of it. “Why do they put an empty bottle back in the fridge??” he lamented to the guard, moving quickly and decisively, throwing the empty bottles into empty boxes and moving back to his station. “Thai green curry on fragrant Jasmine rice.”
This happening, occurring for three-hour shifts on weekdays and later in the day for part of the free Friday evening crowds, emphasized how absent the museum is of smell. It offered a subtle critique of an ocular-centric museum experience where works are engaged at the level of sight and analysis but less at the level of bodily knowledge. It raised the question: Can a work be tasty? Sour? Sweet? It also, in my view, highlighted how the experience of museum viewing involves a level of ascetic practice, denying hunger and thirst (especially for those who cannot afford museum dining) to become somewhat liberated from our appetitive drives to follow the more ideal. And it created an alternative: in the weird space of Rikrit Tiravanija’s happening people softened, smiled, relaxed, and talked to each other instead of trying to solitarily master an understanding of a work. Might it not be productive to not be restrained but generous, effusive, sensorially rich in our engagements with artwork and with other art lovers?
Finally, the work also highlighted the labor that goes into food preparation and how placing it in a museum space gives it a kind of visibility usually is denied to the majority of food service workers in the United Space, in particular people occupying low income brackets. One comes into contact with a food maker when it is in an intimate setting, when one knows the chef, or in “low grade” spaces like mall or airport food courts. The exhibit troubled the contractual/private divide that food consumption and preparation occurs in to politicize it, remind art goers that they are human bodies too, in a relationship of dependency with a world that we rely on to nourish us, both aesthetically and physically.