Interview with Terri CohnNovember 9, 2010
Terri Cohn is a writer, a curator, and an art historian, and considers these facets of her career to be intertwined through her research and writings in the areas of conceptual art, gender, social sculpture, and current public art practices. Here, she talks with Art Practical about the use of food in art, from Joseph Beuys' social sculptures to recent gallery dinners, pointing out pervasive themes and the rise of the spectacle in contemporary art practices.
Art Practical: How did you first become interested in the subject of food and art?
Terri Cohn: In the early ’90s, I became involved with Conceptual Art, which really shifted my whole world. I was a contributing editor to Artweek, and was asked if I was interested in interviewing Tom Marioni, who was doing his beer pieces. I went to his social gathering, and it was interesting to realize that beer is something that loosens your tongue; you become more social when you have a drink. It was one important introduction to how food and drink were being used in art-making contexts. I became invested in the actions component of Conceptual Art. For a lot of artists who grew out of that period (the 1970s), food was one of the media they were using.
AP: Do you think the food was an accessory or the primary subject?
TC: It depended on the artists. Alison Knowles, who is one of the core Fluxus members, did this piece called Identical Lunch, where she and someone else ate the same lunch at different places at the same time. She also did a performance called Make a Salad (1962)—it was a massive bowl, and she made a salad and then fed everyone at the performance. The part of Fluxus that she helped develop were ideas about "everyman" and assigning value to everyday rituals.
Joseph Beuys used fat and honey as materials. Fat, a food-related material found in animal tissue, was the ideal material for him; it signified chaos, warmth, and the potential for spiritual transcendence. He believed fat was psychologically effective, in that people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings. He also did Honey Pump in the Workplace (1977) at documenta VI or VII, and used honey in his 1965 action, How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare. He anointed his head with honey and gold and said, “In mythology, honey was regarded as a spiritual substance and bees were godly.” He imbued the organization of bees with the principles of socialism, arguing that the end product is made through principles of cooperation and brotherhood. They’re all metaphors for community and social engagement and what he called warmth work.
AP: Would you consider those some of the more significant projects done with food?
TC: From a historical perspective, yes. Shelley Sacks, coordinator of the Social Sculpture Research Institute at Oxford Brookes University, did a piece called Exchange Values, in 1992. She was interested in the labels on bananas, as there are numbers on them. She tracked them and discovered that the numbers were all related to farms in the Windward Islands. She went there, met with and interviewed the farmers, and got involved with ideas of labor, the chain of production, and the idea of food representing social and cultural capital.
Rirkrit Tiravanija has also been involved with food, though his projects—for me—became far less successful. Rirkrit had been commissioned to go all over the planet and cook these meals in museums, and people would get a teeny bit of food; there were crowds of people, and the residue was shrink-wrapped and put in a gallery. There was something about it that didn’t exactly work. The intentions might’ve been good, but it didn’t translate well. It was more of a spectacle ...
AP: … than what you experienced?
TC: The purpose of working with food, in most of these cases, was to create a sense of community, to sit and talk to people, and what’s left is a temporary bit of residue—the point is really about the social engagement. I didn’t get the sense that the social engagement was central to [Rirkrit’s work]. Alison Knowles’ intentions were somewhat different; with her salad piece, there was this level of engagement that happened, and the food was, in some ways, the gift at the end.
AP: Have you noticed a shift in the way that food has been treated in art since 2000?
TC: The growth of food as spectacle began to happen, and I think it’s coincided with art as spectacle—art that’s not just object-based, but performative, became commodified in various ways. These projects grew because they started being hosted by museums and galleries. These events brought people in; they could become fundraisers and donor events. There’s a lot of discussion about how Rirkrit’s things became appropriated by the museums because it was a way to bring in people who might not otherwise go to the museum.
Food has always existed as a metaphor for conceptually-based artists; it just started to snowball since 2000. Before New Langton closed, they were having a series of dinners; a lot of them seemed over the top in terms of what the different people who were curating them were trying to do; there would be some historical presentation and a dinner around it, and it would be performative. I respect what people are trying to do, but for a lot of them, it just seemed like food was accessory.
I like the idea of what Laura Parker has done because she’s not trying to upstage the integrity of the food. Years ago, she began to draw fruits and vegetables, and then she started to photograph the farmers. The project grew to where she became interested in working with the farmers. She got engaged with soil and started these dirt tastings, which are incredible. It’s not that you eat the soil, but she wanted to have people understand the idea of terroir, which we talk about relative to wine, but not to food. If you put a little bit of water in a little bit of soil, mix it up, smell it, and then eat something that is grown in that soil, it’s an astounding experience; you realize that you’re tasting what you’re smelling. She’s encouraging people to really think about the land and where their food comes from; she doesn’t stray into this area of the food becoming sort of uber hip. There’s a real intention to what she’s doing.
AP: Do you think that some of this highlights something about social practice as a genre?
TC: Yes, though I think there’s a lack of clarity in food-as-art events. Whenever there’s a new paradigm that comes into prevalence, a lot of artists explore it from a creative perspective. I think that’s where we are; even though the paradigm isn’t new, the amount of interest is extreme, in part because the gallery system is kind of dead right now. We always assign value to food, and there’s the idea that people are interested in food and will go to food-related events and perhaps even pay to go to them, but they won't necessarily go and spend thousands of dollars to buy something else, like a photograph.
But when’s a dinner a dinner and when is it an art event? Eating dinner with people in a gallery context is not a bad thing, if concept and intention are part of it.
Ed. Note: For more on Laura Parker, see "Farm Fresh Art: Food, Art, Politics, and the Blossoming of Social Practice," in this issue.