Cedar Lewisohn provides the first course of our new column, exploring the intersection between art and food: bon appétit.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have a chat with Fergus Henderson, the chef responsible for putting bone marrow and pork scratchings on the menus of some of London’s most chi-chi private views and after-parties. The history, vision and environment of Henderson’s restaurant empire, St. John, is intimately tied to his background in architecture. As a student, his building plans were designed around food. As he says, “buildings would end in feasts and the feasts would describe buildings.” St. John and the history of recent British Art are thoroughly entwined, the former having been the hip hang-out for many an art-world dinner and also the provider of culinary fare at numerous openings over the years. I ask Fergus why the worlds of art and food are so closely linked. “ The artists seem to keep the same hours as the chefs”, he replies.
After meeting Fergus, I set a date to listen to a Radio 4 show, The Architects of Taste, written and presented by historian and actor Ian Kelly. The show posed a question: “Can food ever be art?”, and did a good job of exploring the subject from a historical perspective. It was fascinating to learn about chefs such as Antonin Carème, and François Vatel, both of whom were pushing the art of gastronomy (Vatel, famously killed himself when a fish dish arrived late at one of his banquettes; Carème is credited as one of the key inventors of haute cuisine) over two hundred years ago. Kelly argued that if it wasn’t for the precedent set by such kitchen auteurs, the modern stereotype of the maverick, temperamental chef simply wouldn’t exist. The show also mentioned the Futurists’ madcap ideas about food (including a campaign against pasta, and foods you eat on a chair that shakes), a few of which you might find in an experimental contemporary restaurant such as El Bulli, which also got a mention. One problem with the programme, however, was that modern and contemporary art were largely absent from it. Yes, there were some descriptions of kitsch photographs of food made to look like buildings and some architectural models made out of jelly by a couple of old Etonians… but, really? The idea of doing a radio show about art and food and not mentioning an artist such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, is a bit like doing a show about ’90s Britpop and not mentioning Blur or Oasis. The general posh-boy tone of the show was also slightly annoying, if hardly atypical of Radio 4.
The last stop on my culinary odyssey was an ‘Art and Food Research Day’, an event that I organised for Sauna Gallery, just off of London’s Hoxton Square. For the event, Cumbria’s Grizedale Arts invented a recipe for vegetable barley soup based on Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s writings about food. The recipe went down well, although Ruskin’s personal life proved problematic to the debate. After the soup, writer Patricia Ellis gave a lecture on food and art in relation to Mesopotamia, which included details of how the ancient inhabitants of what is now Iraq enjoyed a nice locust kebab and pornographic bread moulds, among other exotic wonders. Performance group the Gut Club gave a lecture based around Joseph Beuys’ ideas of Der erweiterte Kunstbegri , which had something to do with the philosophy of food, aesthetics, and ‘eat art’: food as a way of life and life as art or a Gesamtkunstwerk with extra sauerkraut… all very German. According to the Gut Club, Beuys cooked on German TV, back in the early 1960s, as a way of spreading this message. They couldn’t confirm exactly what he created, but I’m guessing fat was a major ingredient.