28 October 2013


Exhibition antechamber to the Cut Your Teeth installation by Wolvesmouth + Matthew Bone @ SMMoACarolyn  
In "Feasts and Philosophers," her essay for the exhibition catalog Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum, 2013), Carolyn Korsmeyer makes a key distinction between hospitality at home and hospitality presented as art: "Offering up a cup of coffee to a guest is a hospitable act; offering a bite of food as part of an exhibit is a vivid comment upon hospitality....As such, it demands reflection and interpretation--of the gesture and its intent, of the privacy of the sensation and the public nature of the act." In the museum, therefore, objects and actions not only are. They exemplify. 

How is a dinner party in a museum substantially different from a dinner party in a home? Consider the case of Craig Thornton--a.k.a. Wolvesmouth, the underground-dinner-party-chef-turned-cult-hero of the vanguard food world whose richly creative and visually stunning multi-course dinners, served at an undisclosed loft in downtown Los Angeles, have brought Thornton sold-out traveling gigs, a profile in The New Yorker, and made his dinners among the hardest to book. The Santa Monica Museum of Art invited Thornton and artist Matthew Bone for a residency over two weeks in October. Thornton and Bone collaborated on Cut Your Teeth, an installation where they served a series of the sort of multi-course dinners for which Thornton has become known. 

Communal dining table with chandelier made from 7500 coyote teeth.
Diners exploring the installation before taking their seats.
What does Thornton gain by performing his loft dinners in a museum? The cultural prestige associated with art museums is always a temptation. But is there an advantage artistically? 

I haven't been to a dinner at the loft, but I've heard from those who have and, as a member of the Wolvesmouth mailing list, I'm familiar with the basic terms and conditions. In important respects, the dinner party at the museum was similar. The guests were strangers, paying customers, and welcome to bring their own drinks and share them. The meal convened around a communal table. Thornton served a set multi-course tasting menu. 

The diners take their seats, across from a dramatic diorama installation featuring various taxidermic specimens.
Hearing Thornton chat about his residency at intervals throughout the evening, I gathered that the differences he intended between the loft and the museum dinners are largely aesthetic.  

A fine example of taxidermy among various in the life-size diorama installation by Wolvesmouth + Matthew Bone.
I could see them for myself: Cut Your Teeth was an elaborate multi-sensory event. Thornton and Bone, who was present and helping with the dinner service, built an enchanting, and at points humorous, installation. There was a marvelous array of North American taxidermy in a lush, life-size woodsy diorama bathed in the violet light of a concert stage. Predator or prey? Some animals snarled at us, on the attack. Others were poised in flight from us. The animalia trailed on, over the long table setting, where twenty-six diners sat beneath a chandelier made of 7500 dangling coyote teeth; and overhead, in a wave of taxidermied black birds. At the gallery's back wall, a massive video projection of a wolf devouring a carcass in the snowy woods played continuously as we dined in contrastingly refined style.

Venison--pine gelee, blackberry meringue, cauliflower puree, hen of the woods, soil, blackberry beet, purple cabbage.
The sort of painterly presentation for which Wolvesmouth is well known.
We were instructed to eat this first course with our hands. 
My dining companions and I saw the humor in the "wild" way we were supposed to enjoy the first course (pictured above). "Eat with your hands!" The composition of the plate was similarly ironic in this context. As "wild" as a painting by Jackson Pollock. As "wild" as a reference to a Jackson Pollock painting in an art museum. 

Wolvesmouth + Bone in the kitchen prep area between courses.
On the back wall, a continuous video projection of a wolf feasting on a carcass.
Thornton and Bone also curated the event's narrative dimension. The nine-course feast gave the experience the skeletal structure of a conventional tasting menu, but there was much more. Diners were invited to also wander, take photos, talk to the chefs, explore the installation on our own between courses. A smart idea: let people weave their own tales, don't hold them "captive." Let them pace. Stake out their environment. Near the woods, I had an eye-opening conversation about the art and subculture of taxidermy with Bone. Apparently, it's customary to separate the squirrel's front and back sides. I enjoyed my talks with the diner to my left. We went down a rabbit hole pondering how many components are too many on a plate. I never came to a conclusion.

I overheard Thornton saying that this, to experience the dinner just this way, was what they were aiming for. He spoke of creating the conditions for a memorable narrative, one that would engage all senses and yield stories from our interactions with the setting and each other. 
A detail of the kitchen set-up at the back of the gallery.
Speaking of the temporal dimension: a reminder (above) of the organizational skill required to pull off a nine-course feast with the impeccable timing we experienced. Pacing is everything when telling a story.

Course 5 of 9, a knockout beauty:
Pork Belly--squid ink aioli, squid ink sabayon, blue lake, parsley, potato, almond
The taste of unctuous pork belly with crunchy candied almond was as memorable as the visual presentation.
Technically, an iteration of the same event could have taken place somewhere else, not in an art museum. But where else is it the norm for every detail of the environment and the performance to be taken as intentional communication? Where else will the duality of nature and culture be so readily converted into a commentary on that duality? Where else will a feast so easily become about the feast?