Thursday, October 22, 2009

Food, art, community

I WROTE ABOUT last Saturday's Futurist Banquet over at Eating Every Day, but find I have more to say about it; and comments more general than my eating blog is meant to convey. Over there I simply record the day's intake, really, though of course I hope there's occasionally something more interesting than the daily inventory. There I list and describe; here I usually intend something more speculative or fanciful. There I hew to discipline: I may go a day without posting, but never three. Here I would like to publish frequently, but more frequently, especially lately, find reasons to abstain.

But this Futurist Banquet — now there was something to experience, to celebrate, to consider, to think over. And the more I think about it, the more I discuss it, the deeper and more complex, even dense and manifold, it becomes.

I can't give the event justice; that would be a scholar's work, certainly a critic's. I've only seen two other discussions of the event so far, here and here; each has better photographs than mine, the first of them has video as well. Each of them steered me further to the webpage describing the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's series of events connected to its show Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism's First 100 Years, among which this banquet was the only event I attended. (If I lived closer to San Francisco I'd have attended others.)

(Since writing that paragraph — this blogging sometimes spans a couple of days — I've found much the best account, written by Marcia Gagliardi for her Tablehopper blog, here, complete with links to a number of YouTube videos and Flickr still photos.)

Here's what SFMOMA promised us:
Feeding on Futurism's appetite for destruction, OPENrestaurant revisits F. T. Marinetti's provocative Futurist Cookbook from 1932 — which combined polemics with actual recipes designed to transform society — and realigns the movement's arguably fascist palate with a more sustainable approach to life. Look for cyclists delivering a locally sourced "wild beast" and a women-only kitchen carving edible sculptures against a backdrop of stadium seating, emergency sirens, and spinning walls. Guests attending this clamorous banquet can expect to exalt in sounds, smells, and constant motion, and delight in, among other things, beef ice-cream cones, avocado cocktails, and flying panforte.
All this added up to a sort of closing bookend to a mute conversation I've been having with myself (and, in my imagination, with Curtis Faville) about the position of cuisine among the items generally though of as making up a culture. The opening of that conversation has to do with the significance, now in the early 21st century, of cuisine as an "art," whatever that is. This close is not about art; it's about rite. (I'm aware of Walter Benjamin's comments on the links between the two.)

The Futurist Banquet was given, after all, in the context of "high art"; the locally much-vaunted SFMOMA building was intended as its architect to be a sort of contemporary cathedral, a great public space offering refuge, reflection, but also social and even commercial activity, just as did the great buildings of the European age of cathedrals (and, though he didn't say so, the earlier one of the great Mediterranean-basin mosques). (I write this from memory: I interviewed Mario Botta a number of years ago, when his design for the building was first announced.)

I disliked the building when it was completed. It's too small, physically, for its ambitions; it keeps changing its mind about its materials; its reliance on artificial light and materials greatly compromises its evident (though vague) yearning for transcendence. It doesn't make me think of Chartres, or Winchester, or Cordoba; it makes me think of the Greyhound bus station in Oakland.

But the engineers of this Banquet overcame all this with one simple, elemental, authentic stroke, bringing in the fragrance of fennel and flesh. The Futurists of Marinetti's day were in many ways a bunch of dilettantes, men (no women) of independent means, well-read; brain workers. They meant to replace backward, peasant- or bourgeois-based, complacent society with industry, war, discipline, above all energy.

To their credit, the engineers of this Banquet — I'm not sure exactly who they were, though OPENrestaurant clearly played the central role — went a big step beyond the Futurists. Relegated them to the past, in fact: with respect no doubt; with charity; but still with recognition that the Futurist moment is well behind us. What we need now is to replace a complacent industry- and war-based society with one more holistically grounded in a more natural economy.

That smell of burning flesh and fennel galvanized the crowd, immediately summoning instinctual responses. And by doing that it brought many of us out of our individual preoccupations — fashion, tech, art, whatever it was motivated our curiosity to attend in the first place — and knit us into an impromptu community. All around me, as the 1200 feet of aluminum foil was stripped from the carcass (I thought of Duchamp's "Halo of the Bride"; others thought of the Shroud of Turin), as the women carved the steer (I thought of avenging Furies; others thought of vestal virgins), I saw facial expressions, heard involuntary vocalizings, that revealed surprise and awe and utter focussed awareness — you can see this too, in the YouTube videos — that can only be compared to religious experiences.

By a lucky coincidence we'd already planned a trip to a Portuguese community in the Central Valley, Thornton, where we'd see a bullfight, two evenings after the Futurist Banquet. The Portuguese end their bullfights with a line of eight forcados challenging the by now spent but still dangerous bull. At an invisible signal the lead forcado suddenly runs headlong at the steer, leaps over his head and between his horns, and grabs the animal around the neck; his companions rush to follow him, the last of them grasping the bull's tail; after quite a tussle the animal is brought to the ground.

That leap between the bull's horns always makes me think of the Cretan bull-vaulters. The bullfights, even the bloodless Portuguese bullfights, are of course illegal in California, as I understand it; but because they are associated with the religious celebration (in Monday's case the celebration of Our Lady of Fatima) they are exempt from this ban. In spite of Walter Benjamin, the component of RItual (and awe) are still associated with art, for bull-dancing, even bull-fighting, like cuisine, is an Art, an art enduring from less sophisticated societies, whose communities gathered around fundamental needs and instincts.

The smell of flesh and fennel must have permeated the fires on the beach before Troy, the sacrifice of Abraham, the underground temples of Rome, and the forecourts of the mosques and cathedrals. They finally made an honest woman of Mario Botta's temple to modern art, and I was very lucky and grateful to be there. Proud, too, that so much of the inspiration and the work and the spirit of the event is attributable to the community that has evolved through the years at Chez Panisse.

No comments: