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The chef's art

A new movement is turning meals and hospitality into a new art medium.

By Carol StricklandContributor / December 21, 2011

Artists Daniel Castano and Jonny Cigar served their third course – ramp, morel, black garlic, and cippolini – aboard an 'L' train in the New York City subway system in May.

Courtesy of Steph Goralnick/a razor, a shiny knife

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When Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija prepared curry on a hot plate for visitors to a SoHo gallery as his artwork "Untitled (Free)," it "was the launch of Rirkrit's career as a social sculptor," says Laura Hoptman, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 1992 work also became, she adds, "one of the landmarks of what's come to be known as 'Relational Aesthetics.' "

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The term, coined by French critic Nicolas Bourriaud in 1998, refers to art in which meaning is created through social exchange and audience participation. A culinary subset of this genre – in which artists prepare and serve food, using the meal as medium – has recently moved from the art world's back burner to the communal table. A successor to Modernism and Minimalism, call it "Mealism."

The recipe for this genre might go like this: Take a scoop of Happenings, a dash of conceptual art, and add a dollop of performance art. Sprinkle liberally into museums and galleries. Shake. Serve to the masses.

Until Feb. 8, visitors to MOMA can sample art they can sink their teeth into at a reinstallation of Mr. Tiravanija's seminal work now called "Untitled (Free/Still)." As the fragrance of coconut milk and cilantro wafts through the air, museum director Glenn Lowry notes, "Our olfactory sense tells us something unusual is happening in this gallery."

"It's not an object to be looked at that constitutes a work of art but an experience," chief curator of painting and sculpture Ann Temkin explains, adding, "The artist's role is to be a catalyst of that experience." For Maggie Wrigley, who polished off a bowl of curry after a conversation with strangers, it isn't just empty calories.

"It's switching the game around and surprising people," she says, "especially here in such an institution."

Hospitality as a medium ...

The Taiwan-born New York artist Lee Mingwei is at the forefront. "Most of my practice is about hospitality, generosity, and sharing," he said in a recent interview. He initiated "The Dining Project" in 1995 as an MFA student at Yale University, inviting strangers to dine with him. He recruited participants with posters asking for people interested in introspective conversation and food-sharing, telling volunteers, "Just bring your sense of joy and curiosity."

Mr. Lee has been called by Mr. Lowry "a social conceptualist whose medium is hospitality." The artist will re-create the one-on-one dining experience for an exhibition called "Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art" at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum Feb. 16-June 10, 2012.

Stephanie Smith, curator of "Feast," explains why interest in this way of working has expanded like a soufflé: "It's connecting into the widespread interest in being more attentive about what and how we eat and with whom we eat." In addition to the increased number of artists using social activity as their medium, the emphasis on food reflects the popularity of celebrity chef shows on television; the locavore, slow-food, and sustainable-agriculture movements; as well as increased interest in the artisanal and domestic arts.

… and cake as a study in soil

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