Can Food Be Conceptual Art?

A food-driven installation at this year's Frieze Art Fair brings up a debate that is older than you might think.

  • FOOD, a Soho restaurant from the '70s, was the inspiration for an installation at this year's Frieze Art Fair.
  • Joshua David Stein argues that Guy Fieri's restaurant in Times Square is conceptual art. (Photo: flickr/missmeng)
  • Stein says good execution does not save the "banal" ideas at Brooklyn Fare. (Photo: flickr/Mark & Andrea Busse)

For those with gastronomic leanings, the buzz at this year’s Frieze (the magnificent art fair mounted on Randall’s Island this past weekend) surrounded a recreation of Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD, an experimental restaurant on the corner of Prince and Wooster in Soho, where artists cooked for artists from 1971 to 1974. To tweak the concept for today’s audience, the fair also employed big-name New York chefs to cook for art fans in a tent on Randall’s Island. In a Bon Appetit piece titled, “Is It Food or ‘Food’? Restaurants Are Taking the Place of Conceptual Art,” Joshua David Stein jumps from Frieze to the dining scene at large to explore the ways in which food and art overlap.

In the piece, Stein draws a distinction between food and “food”—the latter being a conduit for ideas that extends beyond the basic notions of sustenance and hospitality that anchor restaurants. For him, the Frieze installation was “food,” but with the likes of Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese) and Carlo Mirachi (Blanca) rather than artists steering the menu, it strikes me as more food (and theme restaurant) than he or anyone in the art world would like to admit.

Art-world illuminati would have been better served intellectually by trekking to Times Square for a platter of “Guy-talian nachos.”

But while we may disagree on the status of Frieze within this dichotomy, Stein’s investigation of food as conceptual art warrants deeper investigation. It is not a new idea: Rirkrit Tiravanija has been fusing two worlds since the early 1990s, and Stein’s argument that some top-flight restaurants are “food” rather than food—based on Sol LeWitt’s theories about conceptual art—doesn’t inspire any new “aha” moment. However, his mention of Guy’s American Kitchen + Bar in this context is both insightful and fascinating.

Stein writes, “Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar might be cynical and evil, but it is conceptual art.” He then goes on to deride chef Cesar Ramirez’s high-end chef’s table, Brooklyn Fare, with Lewitt’s own words: “Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.” The contrast between the frosty tipped megastar and the Michelin-starred apostle of avant-garde cooking makes Stein’s arguments compelling and pushes them beyond elitist haute-cuisine backslapping. He also brings up the new-school red sauce joint Carbone,which he says hits the sweet spot between these two extremes: “Schlocky” Italian-American fair with a elevated sense of self-awareness, and the environment to match. There is no mistaking Carbone for a chain, just as there is no mistaking Fieri’s monolith for anything other than constructed experience.

True execution of the concept at Frieze would have been to follow Matta-Clark’s lead and employ artists to cook (the art world is excitedly talking about performance art as a collectable, anyway). Instead, what could have been a brilliant installation ends up looking more like a play on the Carbone idea: Outrageously self-aware, yet not enough so to realize the folly of the play. Art-world illuminati would have been better served intellectually by trekking to Times Square for a platter of “Guy-talian nachos.”

[via BA]

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