Last night I ate the art at the Dallas Contemporary.
Everyone there did.
It was an installation/performance art piece, one of the Contemporary's LEGENDARY events, called Made in Texas and created by New York artist Jennifer Rubell, and the point was not just to see the art, but also to touch it and smell it and eat it.
Had someone walked in off the street not knowing it was a gallery space or an art show, they might have simply called what they were seeing an open kitchen -- a series of platforms with people creating cheese and tamales and salsa and one with an actual mountain of chips on it. But that's precisely the point, according to Rubell. It's all about context.
"For me, putting them on a pedestal puts them in a language of beholding. It forces you to consider what you're looking at. Making it visible is one part of it," Rubell said.
And they certainly were visible. Guests watched them work and enjoyed samples and engaged in conversation with those creating the food. Sure, you may have had a chef or two come to your table before. But when was the last time you engaged with the workers on the line? Last night, even the people folding the napkins were exposed and part of the show. They were individualized by way of their visibility.
"It's so easy to think of everyone in a hair net as a whole." When Rubell came to Texas and began discovering what she called artisinal businesses, she came upon the idea for the show. In essence, she tore down the walls that generally block those eating from those creating.
"See where they're making the tamales?" Rubell asked me. "That is a replica of Yolanda Silguero's kitchen, Casa Silguero. That's her machinery. It's seriously the best tamale I've ever had. It's not just the best tamale I've ever had. It's actually the best thing I've ever eaten."
But for Rubell, it's not just about the exposure of the food being prepared. It's also about the museum as an entity unto itself, which is the second piece in terms of what inspired her to mount Made In Texas.
"I'm particularly interested in the functionality of museums beyond the functionality of showing art," said Rubell. "I'm also interested in the museum as a place that serves an economic function. It's all interesting to me."
It was fascinating to talk to her. But also to watch her as well, striding through the room in all black -- jeans, boots with oversize buckles, leather jacket, and rhinestoned tee. She talked to guests and joked with the workers in the "kitchen." She seemed enthralled with the process and the interactions. And, quite literally, blown away by the people making the food. "Every person working here is so talented it's crazy."
Last night's event did serve several functions -- showing art, raising money for the Contemporary, and bringing people together. But it also connected people in other business ways. Rubell says that plans were even made for bottling and selling the salsa Moises Silguero (State Fair winner for "best salsa") was there making.
Rubell sees this usage and understanding of the museum as an institution of many functions as a vision of things to come. "A museum as a place where you look at stuff is an accident of history," she said. "It could be a way to look at things in a heightened way. But the traditional 'you can't touch, can't eat, can't interact' idea of a museum is antiquated and not in touch with what artists are thinking about today."
Alongside the platforms, there was one, long, communal table with a red checkered cloth and tiny flower flower arrangements on it. I always find the community table thing a little daunting, especially when I'm going somewhere alone, like last night.
But I lucked out, as I usually do, and met some other art lovers, probably the youngest of the guests, who turned out to be stellar company. They seemed really turned on by and tuned into the event. I think Rubell would have been delighted.
There was something strangely lush about the food. And it tasted so good. Really, really good. I wouldn't have called myself much of a tamale fan before. But now... And I don't think it was just the taste. I think it really was the experience as well. Watching the preparation and meeting the preparers made the experience sweeter, more intimate.
This certainly brings up the "But is it art?" question. It is, after all, a back of the kitchen tour basically with barrels of beer for self-service and bartenders at the ready with wine and iced tea and even a sparsely filled, dark VIP only room.
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But I'm with Rubell on this one. Art is anything that we raise to the level of art, anything that we examine with an art eye, for better or for worse, good or bad. It doesn't have to be pretty. It just have to be something to be considered. Think Duchamp's urinal, Dali's lobster phone, Abramovic's live nudes. The museum context makes them art.
The giant pile of chips at the entrance is still haunting me. It reminded me of a massive pile of fall leaves. I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to jump into it. Don't ask me why. Rubell seemed amused at the idea when I told her about it. Anything would have amused and interested her, I think, as long as it was organic to the event.
But I didn't have the nerve. Maybe next time.