The Value of Food: Sustaining a Green Planet
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street
October 6, 2015 to April 3, 2016.
By MARK BLOCH, APR 2016
The Value of Food: Sustaining a Green Planet is a religious experience masquerading as an art exhibition of 50-plus food related works, hosted by NYC landmark church (a perennial center for progressive events and projects) Cathedral of St. John the Divine and expertly curated by Kirby Gookin and Robin Kahn.
By shining nurturing curatorial light on food security, accessibility, and sustainability, it yields a crop of social justice, the environment, support for the arts, and community involvement. Visitors to the bays, chapels and gardens of the Cathedral can journey through the cycle of food production via a seven part site-specific mandala of Water, Soil, Seed, Farm, Market, Meal, and Waste, creating new dynamics between art, food, architecture and piety.
The enormous structure easily could have “swallowed up” this show but Gookin and Kahn have planted a seed inside this architectural behemoth’s 14 bays and 7 chapels that magically grows a temporary transformation of all churches, everywhere, from giant symbols of oppression and ossification into 7 very useful spokes of a wheel or, better yet, a pie chart, that leads, optimistically but cautiously, from seed to meal, empowering local artists and the surrounding community of potential visitors to contemplate what is on our plates.
The integration of so many works of art seamlessly into this religious space is effective. There are some contextual standouts like Christy Rupp's “Moa,” a model of a bird that went extinct in 1838 constructed out of fast food chicken bones in 2007 and reborn as part of the Cathedral's central altar, or Linda Weintraub's "Let Us Eat the Colors of Nature's Spectrum" featuring 56 jarred food containers literally transmitting glassed haloes from a sunlit room into the adjoining hall, drawing potential viewers in. Another spectrum of light hits the sculpture of a marble, permanently-enshrined deceased bishop directly on his heart. A shiny, fresh apple, changed regularly, waits between two chairs to be meditated on as a spiritual symbol. Outside, seven apple trees grow next to an innovative vertical garden, Claire Pentecost's "Growing Pillar," with over 50 edible plants, from tomatoes and cucumber to basil, parsley and onion.
Like Gaudi’s exotic and experimental Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, this more traditionally constructed Cathedral will probably always remain unfinished, due to now-landmarked buildings adjacent to it that will prevent the south to north cross from ever reaching fruition. The result is an unusual house of worship that is a single vector, long, tall and chubby without its cross piece, reminiscent of an elongated legume from Alison Knowles' overflowing survey of bean-related works produced between 1963 and 2015, viewable here in the St. Columba Chapel. But the glaringly unfinished section of the Cathedral's missing cross seems “corrected” by dozens of new figurines made by Tom Otterness, (who is as much a staple of New York’s cultural diet as the Cathedral, thanks to his figures that adorn the 14th Street stop on the A, C and E subway lines) placed like a match made in heaven into a tower of existing little nooks that climb upwards toward the awe-inspiring tall ceilings of the structure. Rumor has it that once this ideal spot for his plaster castings was discovered, he created more, just for the occasion of this show.
Otterness was also was represented by his ambitious and physically heavy work "The Tables" from 1986 that was no doubt painstakingly transported here, bringing together the bronze figures and the limestone surrounds of the church. Finally, Peter Lamborn Wilson's "Night Market Noodles" (2015) and a marzipan sculpture nearby, occupied reverent niches near the altar in the St. Ansgar Chapel. Despite its nutritional value, the show is a remarkable survey of contemporary art stretching from Rirkrit Tiravanija to Mike Bidlo to Alexis Rockman, from Ben Kinmont to Cara Walker to Gordon Matta-Clark. The curators’ fondness for Nouveau Realisme and its offshoots is reflected by the inclusion of Daniel Spoerri, Dieter Rot, Josef Beuys and Arman as well as Fluxus stalwarts Knowles, Robert Watts and Larry Miller, who, by the way, provided one of his chewed postcards for thought.
Pascal Bernier’s "Piglet Farmset" in the Farm section gives new meaning to the phrase “smoke and mirrors” with instant involuntary invocations of mental images of smoked ham or sausage that squeal and congeal in the world’s nutritional pipelines. Speaking of colorful conduits, Stefani Bardin, in collaboration with Dr. Braden Kuo, created a powerful video and installation called "M2A (Mouth to Anus): The Fantastic Voyage" comparing an actual look at the digesting of whole vs. processed foods via the swallowing of a gastrointestinal pillcam. There are other powerful videos by Christian Jankowskuy and Coleen Fitzgibbon.
There were some other works striking for their practicality and functionality. Also in the Farm section, Suzanne Anker’s illuminated installation of "Astroculture (Shelf Life)" looked like a scene good enough to eventually eat from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a sterile presentation of seeds growing in a futuristic green-house environment while housed in the St. Boniface Chapel.
In the Waste section, Tattfoo Tan's “New Earth” project explores environmental remediation as does Mel Chin's "Revival Field Diorama," a 2014 work. Their powerful art of process demands detailed perusal, most exemplified in real time by the inclusion of a live bee hive in Jan Mun's "BeeSpace: Audio Observation" (2015) that is installed in St. Ambrose Chapel. That work appears with less functional but equally thought-provoking pieces that delight and amuse as well as challenge.
The show is an homage to human intake, and like any good feast, impossible to recall and describe in full. There are photographic images of food stamp recipients as well as petri dishes, pollution and mold. A group called “Eating in Public” provided "Share Seed Stations." There is work on seed banking, urban foraging, rooftop farming and composting.
The curators admonish us that food is not a meal until it is shared. So this exhibit about the cooking and sharing of our rituals for eventual digestion designed to improve the quality of our physical, mental, and (thanks to its location) spiritual well-being, helps art reach new audiences and elevates it to social sculpture.
Indeed, when curator Kahn included her 1991 neon work, "Who Cooked the Last Supper?" it illuminated an important part of her own artistic practice that echoes Ines Doujak’s sentiments in "Your Land Is Our Land." Both works address centuries of earthly imperialism and biopiracy that obscure and erase paths to the age-old nurturing, voluntary service that has always made participation in the sustenance of ourselves, our families and our green planet, a central part of our lives.
Like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s practice of creating awareness and solutions via soup kitchens and civic gatherings as well as through concerts, exhibitions, and performances, The Value of Food, like their previous show The Value of Water, highlights a harsh forecast of self-responsibility for artist and viewer alike: not only do companies like Monsanto contribute to our malaise when they prefer to leave us in the dark as we eat, but that when 40% of the food in the U.S. is collectively thrown away, a personal call to action is necessary for every one of us who eats—if we are interested in continuing to do so. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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