The Dragon in the Room: Art, Eating, and the Aesthetics of Mission Chinese Food
In his recent foreword to Nordic chef René Redzepi’s Noma cookbook, artist Olafur Eliasson writes about the potential for finely crafted food to sharpen the senses against the blunting, taste-leveling forces of a relentless consumer culture.1 Cooking is described as a discipline analogous to art making; eating is always an interpretative act, and no two people experience the same dish in the same way.2 Further, the ability of food to intervene against the estrangement capitalism effects is the same potential with which art is often simultaneously charged and credited.
Socially engaged art practice particularly has a pragmatic relationship to food. Food is necessary and often communal, and there’s a substantial history of artworks that attempt to generate a sense of community through shared consumption.3 Food becomes an ephemeral vessel for a larger idea about social relation and, in some cases, is a byproduct of a dematerialized artwork. There are also countless events organized around the symbiosis between art and food, such as food events held in art spaces, which aren’t considered art, but still make use of food in a considered way.
Though art making and food making share some of the same concerns and even some of the same conditions of reception, they’re not often considered party to the same aesthetic, political, and social debates—they’re not considered part of the same lineage. There’s a breach between the way food and art are discussed in relation to ethics and politics, in part because of traditional aesthetic philosophy: in Heidegger’s terms, an artwork’s materials must be used, but not used up—a work of art reveals truth about itself and the “earth” without being consumed in the process.4 Kant writes that a judgment of taste must be disinterested: it cannot regard an object that fulfills a basic bodily need.5
Today, when ideas about art’s location and relevance are shifting radically, can terms commonly associated with art—ambiguity, beauty, truth, satire, and social relation—be used to discuss what we eat? Can there be a place for aesthetics in food discourse, and can a commercial food-based enterprise also be considered in an art context?
Mission Street Food (now Mission Chinese Food) took place in San Francisco’s Mission district two nights a week from March 2008 to June 2010, and operated out of Lung Shan, a dimly lit Chinese food restaurant that did most of its business in takeout and delivery. Chefs Anthony Myint, Danny Bowien, and Ian Muntzert presented thematic menus—Beef Seven Ways, Old School vs. New School, Mission Stoned Food—and, in an homage series, they re-created dishes served at three-star Michelin restaurants (including Redzepi’s Noma). The food was illuminated only by Christmas lights taped to Lung Shan's walls, which were coated in posters of pastoral landscapes and Chinese government officials mounted on horseback. Guest chefs were invited to execute their own experimental menus. Tables were communal so that parties of two were seated facing each other at tables for four. MSF was—as MCF continues to be—based on a benevolent business model; all of the proceeds after food costs and chef stipends were donated to a different charity every week.
Many socially engaged artworks aim to challenge the dominant model of capitalist exchange by moving toward production based on social exchange. MSF was entirely charitable, negating the draw of capital; MCF utilizes a mixed model, operating for profit and charity. Their blog serves as a site for both fundraising and self-satire—a textual counterpoint to a kind of benevolence that is admittedly capitalist: it seeks to do good, but also to bring in business. In a post entitled “The Proverbial Dragon in the Room...or Webathon as Community Building/Art Installation,” MCF asks readers/diners for donations toward the purchase of a sixty-foot long dragon costume to be used as a chandelier, with the ultimate aim of attracting more customers to donate more money to charity. The dragon is likened to “a mascot for optimism,” “tangible evidence of community-building,” and a kind of “urban barn-raising in the age of Twitter.”6 The Mission Chinese Food Dragon Remodeling Project recently exceeded its fundraising goal, demonstrating that the restaurant has an actively engaged public that wants to see this thing in the space enough to pay to make it happen. The diners’ performative engagement will be documented through photographs mounted on the walls of those who invested in bringing the dragon to MCF; they become stand-ins for the officials, who will feature much less prominently.
An experience is aesthetic when it allows something ordinary (eating, for example) to be perceived, felt, and thought outside of the frameworks that ordinarily make the thing easily legible and immediately recognizable. The rules that govern ordinary experience become suddenly mutable, but not predictable. Considering a food-based practice in an art context means examining the invitation it offers its public to re-imagine everyday interactions and experiences. It means looking for its roots in the history of visual culture and considering the restaurant site, its products, and its activities as artworks—occasions to reimagine our roles in relation to one another. Art world references mentioned on MCF’s blog and on museum labels in the unisex bathrooms (“galleries” 1 and 2) at Commonwealth, MCF’s full-time charitable sister restaurant, range from Banksy to Christo, from Surrealism to relational aesthetics.7 But MSF/MCF is never positioned as an art project, except jokingly. Though the restaurant doesn’t aim to participate directly in art discourse, it affirms that the art world is not the only (and maybe not even the best) domain in which aesthetic experiences can occur.
MSF/MCF’s address is not didactic or pedagogical, not presented in a lecture or a debate. It exists as an invitation: a Chinese donut stuffed with duck and wrapped in a rice noodle.8 The restaurant’s model presents a complicated set of relationships that are as small as chef-cook-diner, but which are able to stretch to include the relationship between a diner and a nonprofit organization, or even between a Kickstarter donor and the (questionable) modes of production that made the cloth costume/chandelier in Beijing. The restaurant’s references continue to spill and get mixed up with each other, and resist being neatly summarized. Conviviality and charity are complicated by irony and self-critique; criticism coexistent with homage; and the acquisition and display of an object is driven and funded by a strong social under-pinning. When one consumes a meal at MCF, one first and foremost meets a basic bodily need, but also takes part by answering to a set of proposals. The food is used and used up, but the aesthetic possibilities of the restaurant are left open.