bean-in review

The Meal as Form

Ted Purves, professor and chair of the Fine Arts graduate program at California College of the Arts (CCA), says many artists use food and meals in their work because it provides an accessible form. “Most people aren’t necessarily going to know how to be part of an art piece,” he says, “so artists [working in the social realm] will begin with a form their audience is familiar with—like a restaurant—and then they’ll play with it.”

Socially engaged artworks especially benefit from this approach. “It’s through form that the rules of interaction are set,” he explains. “In a common form like a painting, there are clear rules around how you make them, where you put them, how they’re seen.” In the world of socially based art, says Purves, recognizable forms are just as necessary.

Bean-In, an April 2010 event, is one project that relied on the meal for this sense of structure. A temporary, free restaurant established at CCA by artists Mark Gravel and Natasha Wheat and designer Sarah Magrish Cline, the project stemmed from a series of meals Gravel had been serving at Mission Boutique Gravel and Gold. Wheat saw Bean-In as part of a larger “investigation of the convivial experience” happening in today’s art world. Her approach is to use food as one of many sensory experiences in a space, a kind of accoutrement to a larger, conceptually based project. “If you were just giving away food in a gallery I wouldn’t necessarily consider it art,” she says.

Bean-In took place over the course of twelve hours, during which participants could wander into a room filled with living, potted bean vines, eat a free bean-based meal, and lounge on recycled burlap coffee bean bags. “Micro-lectures” were delivered as a complement to the visual and gastronomic experience, and a set of accompanying posters leading up to the event referenced the be-ins and sit-ins of the 1960s.

Although Wheat has worked to incorporate larger questions about agriculture and food production into past works, these recent pieces use food to transform her audience into co-participants in the work. “I was interested in creating a reciprocal relationship, rather than just expecting someone to view what I’d produced,” she says. Food is a worthwhile way to create that relationship because it’s something with which all people know how to engage, she says. “In art spaces, many people don’t feel entitled to their opinions, or you’ll hear them say things like they ‘don’t understand’ the work.” When food comes into projects, however, the same viewer/participant is more likely to feel included and to let their guard down.

She points out that museums and galleries normally fit into a kind of biological schedule; “We fit them in between meals,” she says. When an art space is also a meal space, however, she says she’s observed a marked difference in people’s receptivity to new ideas, and that “people are really present when they’re not thinking about getting to their next meal.”

via Art Practical