Spotlight Art

How food performances are allowing art to break out of the gallery

Smitha Cariappa lies in Buddha posture and invites audiences to “sieve flour on the figure lying on the floor”.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist

Is the act of making rasam dramatic? The pop and crackle of mustard seeds, the sizzle of curry leaves, the bubbling lentil and tamarind broth are all drama, you could argue. Bengaluru-based artist Pushpamala N. decided to show, not tell.

Earlier this year, she made rasam for a very surprised Hyderabad audience as part of a performance called Gauri Lankesh’s Urgent Saaru (rasam in Kannada). With dramatic make-up, bright red sari, golden crown, and an extra pair of faux hands, she made rasam dressed as Mother India. Pushpamala says it was her way of remembering a dear friend, the slain activist-journalist Gauri Lankesh. There was no message in it, she says, for that trivialises the performance.

As I sit in front of hot puris and potato curry at the dining table in her house, I assimilate the idea. Hours of prep, a silent performance without eye contact, to be digested (forgive the pun) without any message. It’s a challenging attempt at communication, and that’s what the best food-based performance art does.

“The act of preparing the rasam was like a ritual, and complex,” says Pushpamala. “A lot of nuances happened simultaneously. The sound of chopping vegetables, the aroma of the rasam, the taste of it.”

Italian artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was probably the first modern to talk about it. In his 1932 book, The Futurist Cookbook, he cast the making and serving of food as cutting-edge performance, involving music, fragrance and technology. The idea has been taken ahead many times over, notably by artists such as the New York-based Rirkrit Tiravanija, who uses cooking as communication. Since the early 1900s, he has prepared and served food for gallery visitors.

For Goa-based curator Lina Vincent, who conceptualised an exhibition called Good Food India for ARTPORT last year, food provides multiple entry points for viewers and audiences. It’s like the flash dance of the art world, only more intimate. Food, she says, helps break boundaries between viewer and artist.

Spiced and glazed

Art galleries and museums traditionally come with barriers to mass consumption. Food performances, by actively engaging with taste and smell, allow art to break out of the largely visual gallery context.

Serbian artist Katarina Rasic at Mumbai’s Juhu Beach.

Serbian artist Katarina Rasic at Mumbai’s Juhu Beach.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist

For Bengaluru-based Smitha Cariappa, who has done food-art performances since 2001, it was the perfect fit. She started with an installation, Spiced, Sliced, Glazed, as a take on fine dining. She arranged seven tables with different foods, both real and ceramic, and placed on them a poem about food.

Jaipur-based Layla Freechild’s community ‘suppers’ is a life-culture project that engenders community spirit and sharing. Subodh Gupta’s Cooking the World (2017) at Art Basel — where he served Indian meals at a community table under a canopy of cooking vessels — was about sharing meals while highlighting migration and displacement. Removed from art, preparing and serving food in India has traditionally incorporated ritual and performance.

Mumbai-based Serbian artist Katarina Rasic wore a long cotton dress and sat in Mumbai’s Juhu Beach in November last year and, more recently, during the lit fest in Hyderabad. She placed cut fruits in small containers and invited onlookers to sample it and write whatever came to mind about the fruit on her dress. She chose mornings to be at the beach, when it was filled with joggers and walkers. Most of their jottings were thus about health and fast-paced lifestyles.

At the lit fest, however, the audience, more at leisure, wrote about memories the fruits evoked. One wrote a simple thank-you note, one wrote about remembering his mother in hospital, while another commented that a particular fruit reminded her of how her father-in-law had ill-treated her. “In my act, the idea of someone cutting and giving you food evokes the motherly feeling, of warmth, as people gather around and eat. As the performance evolves with the venue, I would like to do it in different places. Not a gallery though, where I feel the audience will be aware of what to expect. I would rather do it in a public area where the audience can be taken by surprise and the responses are varied,” says Rasic.

Cariappa does something similar, as she lies prone and invites audiences to “sieve flour on the figure lying on the floor”. It invokes a gamut of reactions, as people pour wheat or ragi flour on her, or sometimes popcorn and spaghetti. “Most of them are considerate,” she says, “but some put the flour on my face, covering it up completely.”

To shock and move

The act has a subtle socio-political stance. In Colombo, during the civil war, she lay in a Buddha posture, denoting that humanity was at peril. “I have improvised this act in different cities over the years,” she says. When the dissenting VAG Forum of artists from Bengaluru curated a show called Foodu last November, Cariappa lay under a ladder and picked on small cubes of beetroot and carrot, this time commenting on the stress of eating healthy.

Serbian artist Katarina Rasic at Mumbai’s Juhu Beach.

Serbian artist Katarina Rasic at Mumbai’s Juhu Beach.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist

As a medium to shock and move audiences in equal measure, the Kolkata-based award-winning artist Paramita Das could not have chosen anything better than food. In 2014, Das stood at a bus-stop in Bengaluru holding a tray of glucose biscuits. Her clean-shaven head, heavily kohled eyes, and large bindi were conspicuous enough to attract an audience. She urged them to chew a biscuit and spit it into her palm. She then proceeded to eat the half-eaten biscuits. People shrank back in horror. But as she ate the regurgitated biscuits slowly, one man offered to do the same for her. It was an unexpectedly compassionate reaction. The act, ‘Chewing Lump’, was meant to highlight how “everyone is connected to each other and uses another’s energy to sustain”.

One artist in the audience said that he had wished for some notes to accompany the work because some viewers just stood by nonplussed. “The whole act became just a spectacle for them.”

Does using food necessarily break the barriers between art and the public? Art historian Pramila Lochan thinks that in a public space, the people around are not particularly curious to see what and why an artist is doing something. “When there is a mixed audience, the message gets diluted in some ways. Are the artists able to address that? Is the message really reaching out? What is the objective of the whole performance?”

From the classic still life of food, artists have moved to exploring food’s social constructs such as agricultural practices, the impact on environment, or effect on lifestyles. They are using food to explore ideas of consumption and consumerism. Austrian performance artists Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter comment on food waste and the artificiality of fine dining with their Honey and Bunny routines. In one act, for instance, they are mummified in plastic wrap, and cut endlessly through layers of plastic before getting to the food on the plate.

As I leave Pushpamala’s apartment complex, the security guard asks me, “Oota aitha?” (Have you eaten?) There is an instant connect. If I were an artist, I would use this in my act. I reply, “Aithu, nimmdu aitha?” (I have, how about you?)

The freelance writer believes that everything has a story waiting to be told.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 2:38:21 AM |

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