Death Eating: in the dinner party's ruins

| Edward Colless
 + Art Meat Flesh Oron Catts, 2024. Science Gallery Melbourne.

Death Eating: in the dinner party's ruins

Death Eating: In The Dinner Party's Ruins | Edward Colless

It may sound trivial, but artist-run dinner parties became something of a cool political fashion a few decades ago … not in the guise of domestic conviviality but staged, even with informality and discretion, in gallery spaces as casually performative works of art albeit honed with a clinical and conceptual purpose. By 1996 the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud had taken notice of the first gleaming of this mercurial, minor phenomenon—alongside and within artist-run-initiative spaces—as an item on what became his influential agenda of ‘relational aesthetics’. Dinner parties were a convenient template for artists to bring socially unrelated participants into a social relation as agents rather than audiences. Casual dinner parties ipso facto take place as temporary, semi-autonomous, communal environments. Unlike grand ceremonial banquets, they’re not aloofly expressive statements or dressed up in symbolic regalia but are foremost experiential and interactive. Within the jargon of this relational aesthetic, the relations that were temporarily fashioned between artists and participatory audiences in social formats like the dinner party were called by Bourriaud ‘microtopias’. But these weren’t simply feel-good sheltered or safe spaces. The agenda and invitee list for one of these dinners would be tactically focussed on a topical social context. The art of the meal would be the art not only of providing a connective experience but of enabling, even empowering, socio-political relations between the meal’s accomplices. This was a significant step away from the old-fashioned edifying Marxist-feminist group activity of consciousness-raising, and a step into the exercise of the Millennial generation’s flaunting of political conscientiousness.


Evidently, these dinner parties weren’t quite the chic or camp or rustic or raucous artistic bacchanales that were legends of bohemian lifestyle or occasions for championing aesthetic vanguardism. Their loquacious atmosphere had no truck with the relaxed revelry and hedonism of, say, Renoir’s ‘Boating Party’, with its attendees casually shedding chemises on the sun-drenched balcony of a riverside café. Nor with the discreet charm of filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s distasteful bourgeoisie, in tirelessly voracious attendance at purgatorial dinner parties (prompting one film critic to mischievously ask of Buñuel, ‘why is the co-eatus always interruptus?’). And certainly, no matter how hands-on, relational aesthetics supported nothing like the libidinal grotesquery encouraged by Otto Mühl when (prior to his conviction as a sex offender) he turned his division of Viennese Aktionismus into a mode of amateur, communal, abreactive, alimentary therapy. In Dušan Makavejev’s excoriatingly pessimistic 1974 film Sweet Movie a jolly dinner party at Mühl’s therapeutic commune voluptuously explodes into a grunting, coprophilic, vomit-filled food fight and orgy. Relational artistic gastronomy would never lose decorum like that. Admittedly, one artistic impresario has recently been staging what could be called relational dinner parties around the world (with a few in Melbourne) conducted with the theatrical novelty of a vow of silence as scrupulous as the rule of a Trappist refectory. I’m told this regulation charmingly takes the lid off diners’ inhibitions on non-verbal communication, presumably without taking the lid off the Id.

By a strangely ironic coincidence, a new style of dining that might fit some criteria of relational aesthetics was gaining global attention at just about the same time, but as an elite innovation in cuisine awkwardly dubbed by two food scientists (Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This in 1998) as ‘molecular gastronomy’. Still ranked as the most accomplished and significant example of this movement was the aesthetic tour de force of avant-garde degustation at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli restaurant in Spain (even if chef Adrià disagreed with the fashionable moniker). It may sound a stretch, but one could find some correspondences between the artistry in these two theatres of cuisine. By ditching the choices of an à la carte menu for a degustation, especially one with keenly practiced cultural politics of local produce—but in novel aesthetic and gustatory forms begging exposition, and even guidance on how to eat—Adrià laced the dining experience with a didactic focus intimately experienced by all diners in common on the night, a collective if minority experience which required a new type of conscientious attention. In a sense, the degustation effected the contours of a microtopia, although in a far more privileged sense than Bourriaud would have imagined or preferred. At which point we can savour the piquant contrast between the two culinary arts. Unlike the avant-garde attitude of molecular gastronomy, the relational art of the dinner party took on its most persuasive form as a post-vanguard, micro-political mini-conference, documented for a general exhibition audience as an artistic research-oriented roundtable. The artists who staged these relational collations were certainly not aspiring to chefdom; they posed as personnel facilitators as much as they did cooks, to a degree simulating—when not nakedly fetishising—corporate HR roles for focus group management and motivational coaching. Rather like helming fractious council meetings over muffins and coffee, modest but sociable food was the common denominator for an uncommon forum. The wake of such a dinner party would usually be left inertly on exhibition as props on the stage of their artificial hospitality, witnessing the service of a social or political therapeutic that the rest of us could only read about in the exhibition’s didactic panels or watch in the incurably tedious videos. Not all that appetising, and I’d not be alone in feeling little obligation to aesthetically evaluate the butt ends of a dinner party to which one was not invited. Even if unable to afford to go there, at least one could get the recipe book from El Bulli.

 + Art Meat Flesh Oron Catts, 2024. Science Gallery Melbourne.

It’s worth an aside however to defend one gratifying memorialisation of dinner party debris. Daniel Spoerri’s 1960s tableaux pièges or ‘snare pictures’ were the rubble left from meals hosted for other artists with dirty plates, cutlery, wineglasses and empty cigarette packets besides overflowing ashtrays, all fastidiously glued down to stained tabletops in their naturally terminal disarray and then hung on the wall as souvenirs of an indulgent evening. In the spirit of the neo-dada that was hip at the time one could slyly call these perilous assemblages ‘assisted readymades’. In recognition of that legacy, Spoerri pointedly did one hosting Duchamp. A better tag might be the one that had traction in 1960s European art, Nouvelle Réalisme. Coined by French critic Pierre Restany, it coincided with the promotion of other sexy stylistic modernisations: the New Novel (Nouveau Roman) and the New Wave in cinema (Nouvelle Vague), but don’t associate it with anything New Age. The new realism of Spoerri’s dinner parties was anti-idealist and also deliciously absurdist: it wasn’t the wit, charm, erudition or bellicosity of a salon-style evening that was documented but its trash, elevated to a meaningless relic or tabernacle. Life and art merged (as it did with Piero Manzoni canning his own shit for sale at the market price of its weight in gold) not with spiritual enrichment or political liberty but as a nihilistic joke. Spoerri even started his own restaurant in Dusseldorf in 1968, notoriously (at least allegedly) having on the à la carte menu exotica such as rattlesnake and elephant’s trunk; but having the meal “snared” and signed by the artist at Restaurant Spoerri would cost an extra thousand deutschmark on top of the bill. You have to admit, given this would probably be the prime reason for going to his restaurant, that’s pretty funny. And it may be transactional, but not relational. Relational art feeds on piety, and there’d be none of that served at Restaurant Spoerri.

Not all relational feeding troughs, however, were dutifully bound to forging transient microtopic safe spaces. I still recall one especially impious and unsafe artists’ dinner party from twenty years ago that was held in a Brunswick storefront gallery called Ocular Lab when Bernhard Sachs hosted some twenty guests within its totally blacked out and crypt-like interior. An already claustrophobic chamber was crowded and layered floor to ceiling with Sachs’ then characteristically monumental and enigmatic black drawings of haunted souls flitting through louring layers of scaled-up x-ray appropriations of arcane old master works. The dress code called for black, and with fittingly themed tact the air was chokingly thick with particles of graphite and charcoal lifting from the wall drawings. About the only colour in the room was provided by candlelight flickering through glasses of red wine, and the pots of smouldering lava-like fleshy cassoulet in goose fat gravy endlessly served up by artistic collaborator Alex Rizkalla. Hardly a lettuce leaf in sight. In fact, the meal was so carnivorous I was surprised the stomachs receiving it didn’t start digesting themselves in the rush. The evening was obscurely called ‘The Polish Game’ (that’s the country, not a reference to suavity or a glossy emulsion); but for its voluptuous excesses it could also have been titled, after the ostentatious banquet in Petronius’s Satyricon, ‘Trimalchio’s Feast’. After its guests left at the approaching dawn, the dinner table was duly left unkempt and I’d dare say unapproachable during the remaining days of exhibition. But there was nothing micro-politically virtue-signalling about the testimony of that dirty dinner table. It weirdly acquired the melancholic bedlam of Miss Havisham’s forlorn, gloom-infused, mouse-infested and cob-webbed remnants of her doomed, unforgotten wedding party kept on morbid display in Dickens’ Great Expectations. If Miss Havisham’s bio-hazardous feast was an obscenely uneaten ruin and bitterly instructive testament to unconsummated desire, Sachs’ shrine was an undigested, ruinous surplus: an unincorporated, incorrigible ghost of guilty pleasure. Call this ghost—in the Dickensian idiom of his Christmas Story—the ghost of dinner-parties-yet-to-come: ‘the very air through which this Spirit moved seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment…which left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.’ Or call it—like its ghastly, punitive heir in Harry Potter —the Death Eater.

All of which is to admit by long-winded diversion a rather banal confession that critically reviewing an artist’s dinner party as a work of art (relational or otherwise) is perhaps better the province of a food critic. But I found some reprieve in this task when world-renowned bio-artist Oron Catts (also famously co-founder of the bio-art syndicate Symbiotica), welcomed us at his recent Art Meat Flesh banquet with a warning blasted through the mike: ‘This is not a fucking dinner party!’ Well, no and yes. Despite the hospitable delivery of eight courses to tables by jaunty waiting staff and the host’s buoyant repartees guiding us through the degustation, it certainly was neither a relational performance nor an orgiastic blow-out. Was the Meat in the title an ironic pun on the hospitable verb ‘meet’, with the insinuation of an unnatural Incarnation of art made flesh? Pegged fortuitously to the opening of the Not Natural exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Science Gallery, this evening of culinary exoticism—the sixth iteration of the event (previously in Holland, Finland, Norway and Ireland)—promised its attendees ‘an eye-opening cooking show’ about the future of food in which they would be ‘confronted with the issue of lab-grown meat, experimental food science and the ethical dilemmas of food sustainability in the face of unprecedented population growth and increased climate disasters.’ Sadly—to some in the audience—even if the issue was on the agenda, actual lab-grown meat was off the menu that night. Australian health regulations weren’t permitting it. (The risk may not only be of contamination, I was told, but also—probably due to the propensity for Frankenstein-like genetic tinkerings in synthetic food science—of contagion).

This absence was a bit of a disappointment, given Catts’ years of experience growing the stuff in labs without too many hitches. An early moment in this career thread of his was way back in 2003 for the exhibition L’art biotech in Nantes, where Catts along with collaborator Ionat Zurr tissue-engineered in a microgravity bioreactor a chunk of frog’s leg meat outside the animal as an ironic gourmand treat for a panel of variously discerning and disdainful French volunteers (an art critic, a philosopher, a curator, et al). Then in 2008, enlisted as part of a BBC documentary on combatting climate change, Catts took a piece of his lab-grown steak to celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal at his signature restaurant The Fat Duck, outside of London. For a chef renowned for trompe l’oeil fantasias, and for someone who in his courageous quest for novelty has tried, I recall, eating a bull’s raw eye-ball on camera (to quickly vomit it into a nearby kitchen bucket). In the documentary Blumenthal, while offering congratulations to Catts on the artistry and science of the feat, looks apprehensively if not querulously at the lump placed on the table nearby as if it were something truly inedible in its obdurate alienness. He declined to taste it, apparently citing a legal hurdle—his exclusive contract with Channel 4 did not allow him to be shown doing anything that looked like cooking or eating for a program other than his own. Even so, would there have been an opportunity for an off-camera amuse bouche? I guess not.

 + Art Meat Flesh Oron Catts, 2024. Science Gallery Melbourne.

Diners at Art Meat Flesh didn’t have to face anything quite as existentially or legally daunting; although the message of the evening was that this moment of truth—confronting synthetic, bio-engineered or radically alternate food as a necessity rather than a novelty—can’t be put off too much longer. Yet if the food served up that night came within the connotations of the Not Natural exhibition to which it was adjacent, then it was the more malleable unnaturalness of encountering something uncustomary or unfamiliar rather than outright alien. The event’s promotional gloss advised coming with ‘a strong stomach’. That evidently meant bringing the courage not only to face ingredients that one might balk at when seeing them served on a plate, let alone when putting them in your mouth. It also meant having the determination to confront the likely drastic and dystopian changes in diet referred to by several chefs at the event with the dire forecast that we will soon ‘fall off the plateau of global food production.’ And when that happens, what abyss do we fall into? ‘Shortages of land space on the planet mean a shortage of meat for farming’, declared one chef, ‘with delimitation of agriculture and disappearing biodiversity’. With the reversal of our climate catastrophe unlikely, food science should—with all the portent of a sci-fi disaster movie—urgently research ‘substitute foods’.

And descending into the deep basement theatrette of the Science Gallery on the night felt like being summoned into a subterranean bunker, post apocalypse. Sure enough, there was no fucking dinner party layout waiting for us there. Instead, café tables and stools were arranged for cabaret seating in front of a TV studio set which displayed two high tech kitchen galleys backed with live-feed screens at a scale suitable for the bridge of Star Trek’s Enterprise. Gleaming sterile stainless-steel benches and culinary instruments laid out like surgical tools shown by roving cameras in close-up aptly insinuated the décor of both a bio-chemical laboratory and a hospital morgue. The prospect of grand guignol horror abated slightly when two teams of chefs, three personnel each side, answered their curtain calls not as cast for a forensic pathology experiment but for an Iron Chef challenge. And, keeping tightly to the format, after a didactic fanfare and brief introductions of the contestants, Catts (assuming the role of the television show’s flamboyant MC Masaharu Morimoto) whipped away the cover over a glass bowl with the gleeful flourish of a magician to reveal what the evening’s ‘secret ingredient’ would be.

Crickets! My heart jumped. My gorge rose. My throat went dry. Yes, there they were: an abject mass of black spiky insects held aloft in what looked like a goldfish bowl. Each team’s four dishes had to find some competitively epicurean use for these—not as mere exotica but as future-oriented food in an otherwise food-depleted world. Guignol horror flashed back briefly, up from under the floorboards, when I couldn’t help but recall that seething vat of crickets in the 2013 apocalyptic movie Snowpiercer, the food store for the working class in the tail-end section of a train carrying the last of the human species in a frenzied race against a terminal winter. The ominous drama of the Science Gallery’s gastronomic challenge was given more swerve by a continual sequence of digital countdowns projected over those live-feed screens at the back of the set. The chefs fought against the clock, racing to beat its alarms while preparing each dish. Oron Catts fought against the clock, eyeing it fretfully to get his well-rehearsed Master of Ceremonies commentary out in time. The waiters fought against it to efficiently serve up each course before the next plating up; and we in the audience felt the same urgency of programmed performance, conscious of our own contingent shelf-life as consumers. No relaxing into a luxuriant menu and comfortable conversation leaning back over a glass of wine. The event was not just running to a tight schedule. We seemed to be all, actually and figuratively, running out of time. This was no fucking dinner party.

So how did the crickets make their way into the degustation challenge? Even if the rule was given a bit of slack within their meticulous, daring and often ingenious menus, the two teams went into combat not just over different ways to serve crickets but over the Weltanschauung—or at least the culinary ideology as well as pragmatics—that could familiarise crickets as a future staple foodstuff.

Team A, as it was called (Cal Calliope, Paul “Yoda” Iskov, Lindsay Kelley), drew vigorously on wild indigenous ingredients: native grain for damper, bunya nut purée, charred warrigal greens, munyang tubers, dune spinach, saltbush, kangaroo fillet with ‘roo tail jus … and with those necessary crickets appearing in the flour used for polenta, as crumbed coating on the kangaroo fillet, as crackers served with green tree ants. This was a complexion of foods bringing the smokey scent, atmospherics and terroir of an outback campsite harvest into the studio set. Precisely because of that accomplishment, their menu had a precocious but also precious pitch at the gourmand skills and ecological ethics of consumers. ‘The best free-range kangaroo’, one of their team explained with a didactic connoisseurship not out of place in a Michelin star restaurant, ‘is from Western Australia: they’re leaner, treading light on the land spreading seeds as they travel, sustaining local biodiversity; and best prepared as fillets threaded onto skewers for overnight curing.’ That last piece of advice may have shocked some animal welfare advocates in the audience, though it was persuasive: according to the audience mood elicited by the MC, the kangaroo fillet was exquisite. Indeed, it was. This stress on artisanal aptitude made for an expressive but also what I imagine would be an expensive menu. After all, how much is a kilo of cricket flour these days, let alone fresh green ants or kangaroo sourced in the remote outback? How likely is the scrupulous delectation of outback resources going to serve as a sustainable pantry for those future millions of increasingly hungry consumers?

 + Art Meat Flesh Oron Catts, 2024. Science Gallery Melbourne.
 + Art Meat Flesh Oron Catts 2024. Science Gallery Melbourne.

Alternately, Team B (Jialin Deng, Andrew Laslett and Peter Wright) took up a broader geographic palette, montaging (not quite fusing, sometimes compromising) familiar regional features of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese street cuisine in a postmodern cosmopolitanism of “world food”. Elaborately poised in presentation and elusive in texture and taste to a degree of being almost too subtle, their slider-sized chicken bao bun, sushi-styled salmon canape and wedge of brisket were, behind the trompe l’oeil, all plant-based substitutes with the meat and seafood ingredients put in scare quotes on the menu for anyone missing the irony. There were moments too that one could call witty. The brisket, made from watermelon, did look unnervingly like human tongue (and felt like indulging in a cannibalistic French kiss). Intense spurts of wasabi pearls punctuated the slipperiness and creaminess of one dish with a nod toward the distinctive globules of molecular gastronomy’s spherification. And the vegan simulations of meat were tactically disrupted (one chef, I think, slipped in the word ‘enhanced’) with spiced worms and, most spectacularly, with crunchy gold-dusted whole crickets squatting, as if ready to spring, alongside coconut crumbed cricket protein balls. Gold-plated (almost) crickets! This was not just camouflage. This would be an enhancement fit for Cleopatra’s legendary dinner party with Mark Antony when, as told by Pliny, she bested Antony’s reputation for lavish feasting—and in the same move seduced him—by serving up a goblet of vinegar into which she dissolved one of her precious pearl earrings, then to quaff the priceless draught.

Along with such seductive conceits, both teams of chefs offered solicitous, if also daunting, speculative fictions about post-historical foraging. If one side devised the ambience of a local campsite as its nexus for survivalist epicures, a kind of gastronomic arte povera, then the milieu for the other was a globalised even orbitalised laboratory, a space lab of hyperreal bespoke food industry for escapees at the end of the world. These were artistically as well as polemically exciting entertainments, deftly marshalled into visionary purpose by Catts’ fluent and frenetic showmanship. But a spectre haunted both options throughout the night, perhaps the ripest slur against our species as ‘necrovores’ or Death Eaters: and that was the spectre of Soylent Green. The eponymous 1973 dystopian sci-fi movie (based on a 1966 novel by Harry Harrison) is set, as happens when actual history overshoots its sci-fi predictions, in our future-past age of 2022 by which time global ecocide and population overcrowding have pushed the world ‘off the plateau of global food production’. In the backstory, this has prompted the giant commercial food corporation Soylent to release their latest mass-produced synthesised food: a green wafer, allegedly made from ocean plankton. Nutritious and yummy, and ubiquitous if monotonous. But behind the scenes, the oceans are dying and incapable of providing the plankton to make the new Soylent Green. A detective investigating the suspicious death of a Soylent executive coincidentally discovers the secret evil machinations of the company that is covering up something much worse than the murder of a refractory board member. The detective pays the price for this trespass, and in his own dying breath shouts out what has since become a cult meme: ‘Soylent Green …it is people!’ The world’s food source, it turns out, is harvested from mass assisted-suicide centres styled like vast airport check-in concourses that offer haven to those multitudes who queue day and night having given up trying to survive exhausting and despairing and hungry lives. Can we imagine the mass harvesting of black crickets in the way the Soylent Corporation promoted phoney plankton-based green wafers? Oron Catts evidently had such a grim vision in mind when he asked off-the-cuff at one point, ‘Is tricking ourselves going to save us?’ And then, with the game show reaching its final countdown, he delivered the most sombre reality check of the evening: ‘This is not the future … the future won’t be a game. It will be desperate.’ Gulp. For sure, it won’t have the discreet charms of relational aesthetics or the politesse of its microtopias. It certainly won’t be a fucking dinner party.

Art Meat Flesh, Devised by Oron Catts, Science Gallery Melbourne, University of Melbourne. Friday 22 March, Saturday 23 March, 2024.

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