By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04
Photo courtesy of Lee Mingwei and Lombard-Freid Projects

The meal is an enduring subject of aesthetic inspiration. ”
—Stephanie Smith
Deputy Director, Smart Museum of Art

Strains of jazz waft through the air. Laughter rings out. Conversation flows as effortlessly as the drinks. At the bar, musician Michael "Illekt" Milam takes green drink tickets and hands out bottles of yellow-labeled Cerveza Pacífico Clara. Behind him stands a white refrigerator adorned with two words: “FREE BEER.”

It’s not a phrase you typically see in a museum, but this gathering is about more than libations and good company. Called “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art,” the two-hour happening is an example of social artwork, part of the Smart Museum’s imaginative exhibition, Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art.

The show explores the idea of the meal as medium and investigates how the everyday act of sharing food and drink has been inspiring artists since the 1930s. A unique blend of installation and interactivity, the exhibition invites museum visitors to get involved through dozens of participatory moments.

Making one such moment out of a beer-drinking gathering was the brainchild of conceptual artist Tom Marioni, who has been hosting weekly beer salons for artists since 1970. The idea is simple: guest bartenders and creative individuals bond over what Marioni calls “the American sacramental wine.” This latest iteration, guest bartended by Chicago hip-hop group BBU, takes place in the Smart’s corner gallery.

Nearly 250 people show up, including a pair of College rugby players, a creative-writing program staffer, and a community organizer from the Northwest side. As they sip Pacíficos, more than a few share the same confession:

“The beer brought us in,” says Molly Mayer, a recent SSA graduate, “but we’re staying for the art.”

The history of hospitality

As anyone who’s planned a dinner party knows, hosting is an inherently creative endeavor. Like a painter mixing hues on a canvas, a skilled host brings together people, space, and meal in a way that leaves a lasting impression. Feast, the country’s first large-scale survey of the meal as medium, delves into how artists from around the world use food and drink to explore cultural norms, evoke contemplation, and spur connection—or, in some cases, disconnection.

“The meal is an enduring subject of aesthetic inspiration,” says Feast curator Stephanie Smith, the museum’s deputy director. “Think about some of the earliest forms of creative visual expression such as ancient cave paintings, where the act of hunting was depicted. That’s not a meal, per se, but it indicates deep, deep roots of human engagement with physical and metaphysical forms of sustenance.”

Feast traces the contemporary end of that phenomenon, starting with Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1932 manifesto, The Futurist Cookbook. Decrying Italian staples like pasta, the controversial Futurists called for “a light food that would foster a dynamic physical body,” says Smith. Their Turin restaurant turned dining on its head by offering experimental dishes that favored color and conceptual novelty over taste. Disruptive sounds, scents, or visuals were often part of the dining experience.

“It’s perhaps a darker side of hospitality,” Smith says.

The art of hosting

Since the Futurists’ experiment, a growing number of artists have used the meal to spark dialogue around contentious social and political issues. As part of Feast, artist Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (Food Truck) brings together Iraqi cooks and Iraq War veterans to serve traditional regional cuisine to Chicagoans via a mobile truck. On the South Side, Theaster Gates, director of the University’s Arts and Public Life Initiative, is hosting soul food dinners at the Dorchester Projects, where guests from different walks of life are encouraged to discuss themes of race.

In her project Open Outcry, artist Mary Ellen Carroll took dining to the Chicago Board of Trade, where she hosted a commodities-inspired lunch—the five-course menu included corn chowder and pork belly—to foster conversation about commerce, finance, food, and art. Her eight chosen guests included an organic farmer, a trader, and University faculty members philosopher Candace Vogler and economist Glen Weyl.

Weyl, an assistant professor whose research is often critical of Wall Street, noticed that diners with conflicting perspectives tended to be more polite than they might have been in a different setting. “You had to interpret for yourself what the norms were,” he reflects, “which is in itself a creative act.”

In her photographs in the exhibition as well as in her undergraduate course “Food for Thought,” visual arts professor Laura Letinsky explores similar themes of food, art, and engagement. “Art is very much about experience,” says the photographer, whose compositions of the familiar, yet unsettling, detritus of leftovers are part of Feast. “This work doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it exists in a relationship with people.”

The act of welcome

Feast, which runs through June 10, hinges on that dynamic interplay. Throughout the exhibition, the Smart staff is greeting visitors with the sweet treat slatko, a strawberry preserve offered in Serbia as a traditional act of welcome. Feast has challenged the museum to think about its own role as host, Smith says, raising questions such as, “What does it mean to be a hospitable institution?”

Student intern and fourth-year in the College Sarah Mendelsohn wrestled with that issue as she helped New York artist Alison Knowles reimagine her iconic performance project, The Identical Lunch. For months in the 1960s, Knowles ate the same lunch—tuna sandwich on wheat, no mayo, and a large glass of buttermilk or cup of soup—at the same Chelsea diner. In the late 1960s, after her friend and then-studio-mate Philip Corner suggested the performative nature of her lunch habit, she invited people to join her and to document their experiences, eventually prompting Identical Lunches around the world.

For the Feast installation, the Smart team wanted the work to feel as alive as those original meals. “There were a lot of questions about how to evoke historical performative events in a way that's relevant, exciting, and doesn’t feel like a dry museum exhibition,” says Mendelsohn, a visual arts and anthropology major.

The result: a world premiere of The Identical Lunch Symphony, where Knowles will “conduct” performers to mix identical lunch ingredients in blenders, then serve the soup to the audience. The event will take place on May 5 as part of the Smart’s hospitality symposium.

By challenging ideas about art and social connections, Feast has been transformative for artists and museum visitors alike, Smith says.

Feast has tapped into this unexpected capacity the Smart has to be a place that’s both rigorous and playful,” she says. The beer drinkers in the gallery would probably agree.

Originally published on April 30, 2012.