Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Delectable Evening of Imperfection (to honor Martha Wilson)

We attended this delicious evening where art and food combined...

An account the chef/artist Ame from her blog: Food Poetics

This past June I had the honor of staging a dinner at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee Wisconsin, one of several events fĂȘting artist Martha Wilson. Along with a touring retrospective at another gallery, this smaller show, “The Personal is Political” included contemporary Wilson photographs in one room, and two rooms with regional artists presenting pieces made in response to Martha’s influential work. The show’s title refers to a 1970’s postmodern Feminist slogan that pointed to domestic space and the body as sights of both empowerment and contention. Now-a-days, as Deb Brhemer the director of the gallery points out, the phrase is "more likely associated with the locavore movement, and resistance to fossil fuel consumption." 
Wilson is the founding director of The Franklin Furnace, a preeminent alternative artspace in NYC that has, for the past 35 years fostered performance and installation art (my own work included) as well as an artist’s book archive that is now co-housed in the Museum of Modern Art. Martha’s own art work, starting from the 1970’s has explored how women’s identities are shaped by cultural forces, power relationships, and now, aging. In photo, video and live performances Wilson has created role-playing self-portraits; the femme fatale, the butch, the bitch, the business exec to name a few, or staged pictures of herself bruised, as a man, or old when she was young; posturing or transforming one way or other. 

Martha is a friend, mentor, and a champion (the one and only piece of art I ever sold, a series of six framed prints about HIV, she purchased) so it was a great pleasure to look through her archives in search of images and ideas as I planned the event. It was fun, almost triumphant returning to Milwaukee where I'd lived for 9 long years, and none too happy ones. Deb Brehmer, who opened PSG after I left, was and is a good friend, and coming back to present a performance felt exciting. 

I decided on a three-course meal- one for each of the gallery’s rooms, and teased out themes from Martha’s work for each setting. It was a feat, working long distance with Deb, arranging for tables and waiters and wine. I did some of the cooking in Bklyn before jumping on a plane carrying a suitcase full of ingredients I was afraid I wouldn’t readily find in Milwaukee, then camped in a friends kitchen to prepare the rest. The gallery has no kitchen so we borrowed hot plates from an old catering buddy and dishes from an artist who’s made his home into a museum of collections. We poured over literally hundreds of plates and bowls to pick out a glorious assortment of mismatched chipped china, silver and crystal and torn and stained linens to set the tables for what was to become “A Delectable Evening of Imperfection.”  

Guests gathered in the vestibule for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; tiny bite-sized gems of color and taste: crostini of fava and pea puree, wild mushrooms, and colorful vegetable brunoise sprinkled over roasted garlic butter served by three waiters costumed in Martha persona drag.

First Course: Imperfection

Here we set a long narrow table with seats for 26 guests. Down the center was a still life of unusual 
fruits and vegetables; puckered, thorny, oddly colored specimens (yucca, calabaza, chayote, purple 
asparagus…) interspersed with candelabras. Pink crystal water glasses and goblets filled with rose’ cast 
refractions of pale pink light on elegantly laid chipped china and battalions of tarnished silver.  
Waiters now in neutral black wore a changing display of cut-out Martha masks to serve a salad of foraged
watercress and hand picked local greens, shriveled tomatoes and toasted pepitas, alongside a vegetarian tamale (made locally by Mamasita's) with raw tomatillo salsa and pan seared shishito peppers.
Both food and setting played with surfaces masking delectable insides, a matter of disparity between presentation and value. 

before each course I came out wearing a mask of myself and explained what the guests were about to eat.

                                                   2nd Course: Transformation in Multiple Plates

                             Deconstructed Miso

In the next gallery guests were seated at small tables lined with layers of butcher paper, newsprint and pages from the arts section of the New York Times. On each table was a shiso plant (carried from my garden in Bklyn) with a pair of scissors, a dried shitake mushroom with a small hand grater, and a bowl of nori flakes with serving tweezers. Each place was set with a Chinese soupspoon and a bowl containing a schmear of blonde miso, tofu cubes and scallion greens. 

Now the waiters wore double masks (side to side or front to back.) Martha diptychs of contrasting images. Martha made up as Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton himself, a reflection on the double standards of attractiveness for aging men and women. Martha's torso 30 years apart. Ditto with her profile.  The waiters made the rounds, first pouring kombucha or beer, then dashi into the bowls so guests could stir miso soup, adding snippets and flakes from the tables' condiments.  When the soup dishes were cleared waiters bundled the top layer of paper table covering and began filling clear blue recycle bags with the discards.
Second small plate: sambal egg with green papaya salad served on compostable dishes. Again the waiters gathered the top layer of table covering.  
Small plate three: sushi rice with black sesame and homemade pickles (wild ramp, hakurei turnips, green daikon…) and again the bundling of disposables.
Small plate four: cheeses and dried fruit. 

Each of these courses represented different transformations: 

Fermentation (bacterial transformation.) 

Pickling (a form of preservation.)                                                         Drying/dehydrating.                                                                                                       Eggs.                                                                                                      Cheese (an enzymatic transformation of liquid into solid employing chemical agents and time.)                                                                                                So too kombucha and beer.  

So too, the accumulation of recyclables now strewn about the floor. 

Between plates Deb invited the artists with work on display to speak about the ways their work had been influenced by Martha's. There was a push to explore the legacy of feminism which is currently, mistakenly brushed aside as being no longer relevant. Contradicting this trend is Martha’s newest work with its insistence on calling attention to the aging feminine body, so often disparaged or ignored.
Guests were invited into the next room for course three: Reflect/Reveal.

No tables or chair for this course. Milling about guests were served cake and ice cream on mirrored plates, and a ceramic mug of sparkling wine. Decaled onto the mugs (for sale in the gallery gift shop) was a reproduction of Martha's "Marge, Martha, Mona."

This piece pictured Martha, enigmatically smiling under a towering blue bouffant, positioning herself within the cannons of art smack dab centered between high and low. For service, the waiters donned appropriate wigs and smiles.

The cake, a moist Ottolenghi Orange Almond Upside Down Cake used fruit that needed peeling and nuts needing cracking and I liked that these actions; the peeling and cracking were about revealing inner goodness. I liked that it was an upside down cake; a topsy turvy change of perspective is always revealing. The ice cream, a rich vanilla was served with a drizzle of fruity olive oil and sea salt. For me, this combination is a revelation, an unusual pairing of ingredients that transcends expectation. The guests were left holding mirrors, hopefully used to look upon themselves with the same gentle humor Martha turns upon us.  

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