So colossal and performative--and immersing--and involving of me--was this extraordinary work at Rice in the Spring term, and so pressing have been these 28 essays and lectures and books and stuff, that I've only just gotten enough perspective to be able to write a little bit about it here.
With any luck we will be making a book or even books about it, with amazing pictures, video, and essays (and other accounts) to preserve this necessarily fragile work of performance art.
Food and eating as performance, which of course it is. A meal, don't we eat them all the time? And don't we eat the rest of the planet, while we do that? And so isn't a meal a synecdoche (and more than that) for everything that we do (wrongly) to other beings on Earth?
What if the meal was compromised in some way?
What if its deliciousness or the camaraderie of dining-with were shadowed by something (or some things) that were ethically or politically distasteful, not to mention disgusting?
And what if you could, in a strange impossible yet amazingly do-able way, taste this very distaste, in the very food you were eating?
What if a meal were not just a singular event, but a gathering together of multiple times and places? Isn't this always the case, since we eat beings who evolved over billions of years? And crystals? And water?
What if you could somehow taste all this--“outside the work” of the meal?
Outside the work is a literal translation of hors d'oeuvres, and here is the brilliant quilting point that Zurkow puts pressure on in this piece, a gastronomic feast and tasting of deep time, as we all liked to put it, and still do.
One entered a space illuminated like the Arctic. Cold too: a space whose air conditioning, even for Texas, was particularly refrigerant (and so globally-warming).
An Arctic whose whiteness was replicated with styrofoam table decorations. Gigantic ones.
In this space, a huge long banquet table, reminiscent of those Renaissance displays of absolute power that still haunt us and which we still repeat.
At the table, invited guests, sitting in a cubic fishbowl since the building was made of glass. The “unlucky” not-invited ones could press their noses against the window and look in wondering what they were missing.
An uncomfortable space then, if you think there is no class.
And indeed if you think that there is no class distinction between humans and nonhumans.
For instance, at a certain moment you were forced to dig for fish in a gigantic ugly ball of salt, bringing up Melanie Klein-like male fantasies of macerating the mother's body. And when you dug it out, it was kind of ugly and nasty and salty, yet delicious.
You drank algae--because you can, because there are technological devices that can make it possible. You poured it into a test-tube and toasted the evening.
You drilled for metaphorical oil (alcohol) in a metaphorical well (amazing dessert).
You ate off beautiful soft plastic place settings, decorated beautifully and informatively with ecological and geological thoughts, like poems. Plastic place settings. Plastic. Beautiful plastic.
With perfect (dis)taste our host, the artist, toasted and described and led us through the meal, performing the cynical reason that an Oxford don at high table performs, not knowing or caring very much which medieval ceremony one is having to act out at this or that point--and not quite caring whether it's medieval or medievalist--and, in your drunken haze you wonder whether the medievals knew or cared either. Just going through the motions.
With an extra twist of lemony self-congratulation, as in a banquet at the UN or at some international meeting on “climate change.” Here we all were. We cared.
Trapped in a fishbowl of hypocrisy, seeing yourself trapped in the fishbowl, seeing how seeing yourself trapped was also a symptom of begin trapped, and on and on. The awareness-of-hypocrisy fish being eating by the cynicism fish, being eaten by a higher-level hypocrisy fish. A giddying struggle to transcend, thwarted at every turn, yet still you kept trying to rise above it all.
Isn't that the trouble with being human?
“The vicissitudes of this life are like drowning in a glass pond” (Trungpa Rinpoche).
And, confusingly and wonderfully, not entirely disgusting, not entirely delicious, not entirely cynical or hypocritical. Weirdly and dizzyingly uncertain at every turn and at every level. It made you laugh and it made you cry. I mean, we were sitting in the Arctic watching the destroyed world, and eating it. And reflecting on that. And on and on.
Ballet-like servers who brought out dishes but never returned them. A huge pile of dirty detritus, plates, cutlery, stacked up, never to be withdrawn. Outside the work. Seeing how things are produced. Seeing the wiring, what gets hidden in upscale restaurants.
But not totally constructivist. The food is still delicious (or is it?). The performativity is warm, non-confrontational. You can't laugh knowingly about seeing how it's all done.
The next day everyone had an opinion about what had happened. This was a symptom that none of us had a clue. It truly gapped my mind.
Several months later, I'm just beginning to be able to write about it. And now I understand, having written this post, that it wasn't just logistics that prevented me.
This was a conceptual work that was truly nonconceptual. A squared circle. Wow.