"The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals"

By Birnbaum, Charlotte | Artforum International, April 2016 | Go to article overview

"The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals"


Birnbaum, Charlotte, Artforum International


"The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals"

GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, LOS ANGELES

"THIS GRAFFITI-ARTIST-TURNED-CHEF Is Lighting Up the Paris Restaurant Scene," reads a typical gastronomical write-up today. Whether cooking on a remote Swedish mountain or in a laboratory-like kitchen, the contemporary master chef prefers to be portrayed as an artist. And perhaps even more than an old-fashioned Michelin star, a massive tome from a major art publisher seems to be a mandatory requirement. Yet if the dialogue between food and art is livelier than ever, last year's mammoth survey "Arts and Foods--Rituals Since 1851" at the Milan Triennale made it abundantly clear that the conversation has been going on for quite some time, indeed has been central throughout the modern era. Just as chefs have long identified themselves with the arts, there's nothing unusual about artists expanding their practice into the realm of cooking. Remember F. T. Marinetti's Futurist banquets and Salvador Dali's bizarre 1973 cookbook Les diners de Gala, with its surreal recipes for frog pasties and avocado with lamb brains on toast? Or think of Andy Warhol's charming 1959 Wild Raspberries, with its obvious references to French master chef Marie-Antoine Careme, not to mention all of the artist-run kitchens, from Daniel Spoerri's restaurant in Dusseldorf in the late 1960s and Gordon Matta-Clark's Food in New York in the '70s to Rirkrit Tiravanija's experimental meals today.

But these examples pale in comparison to the material presented at the Getty Research Institute's extraordinary exhibition "The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals." Assembled by chief curator Marcia Reed, this was a show that rendered visible the ephemeral but spectacular arts of the dining table that evolved during the Renaissance and culminated in the Baroque. Like fireworks or dance performances (two things incidentally taking place at many such feasts), the key ingredients of these gastronomical creations were short-lived. Says Reed, "Defying categories of art history and museum collections, edible art formed a conundrum: It was created for the magic moment and not meant to endure or be collected. These exquisite creations were the exact opposite of that cliche of aesthetic appreciation, timeless beauty." The ephemeral quality of most culinary projects is of course a challenge for anyone trying to make an exhibition about them.

Since the real performances have long vanished, the curator has to rely on documentation, reconstructions, and the display of all kinds of utensils and textual sources. This may sound dull, but in "The Edible Monument" the materials were of such fundamental significance to the field that the result was far from disappointing. In fact, it's fascinating and rewarding to see so many key historical sources collected in one space and structured according to themes such as the public celebration, the court festival, and the heraldic table monument made out of sugar, flowers, and fruit.

Among many legendary accounts of great meals, few gastronomical extravaganzas of the first order have been so well documented as Senator Francesco Ratta's 1693 feast at the Palazzo Vizzani in Bologna, meticulously depicted in two booklets and at least nine prints. A giant circular table allowed all the guests to be seated as equals and offered all a great view of a silver mountain on which four river gods and their monstrous pets relaxed under a palm tree. On closer inspection, this enormous centerpiece contained a universe of mythological decorations and culinary sensations. A 1693 etching by Giacomo-Maria Giovannini after Marc' Antonio Chiarini is the perfect introduction to the world of flamboyant displays: It depicts an excessive banquet table inside the palazzo's curiosity cabinet, with luxurious silver tableware installed on a wall, opposite slanted mirrors that would reflect and magnify the infinite riches.

Many of these banquets were exclusive events for highly distinguished guests, but others were democratic, free-for-all street parties. …

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