A butter sculpture of Poseidon by Sonja Alhäuser was part of her Flying Buffet, based on one of her ornate recipe drawings. (Photography by Jeremy Lawson)

Table manners

The Smart Museum’s exhibition Feast explores hospitality and welcoming gestures.

Suzanne Lacy’s International Dinner Party map had not been on display since 1979, when it was part of a performance piece at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Lacy had sent letters and telegrams to thousands of women around the world, inviting them to host their own dinner parties that March 14, in honor of women important to them. She received more than 200 telegrams in response, as well as photos of women from Europe, Africa, and the United States participating in the cross-continental meal.

In the Smart Museum’s exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, the 20-foot map, with inverted red triangles marking the location of each dinner party, nearly fills an entire wall. The original telegrams sit in albums nearby. The 1979 event occurred on the eve of Judy Chicago’s famous Dinner Party exhibition opening, a tribute to the feminist artist (one of Lacy’s mentors). Chicago’s installation, on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, features a triangular table with place settings for 39 women from mythology and history. Her goal, the artist said, was to end “the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” In International Dinner Party, Lacy explains in a video on the Smart’s website, she examines hospitality as a political or radical gesture, as a kind of “kitchen-table diplomacy that’s enacted in the art world.”

Hospitality is on display and up for discussion at the Smart exhibit, which runs through June 10. Organized by the Smart’s deputy director and chief curator, Stephanie Smith, the show looks at the origins of participatory and performance art surrounding meals and presents different ideas of the duties of a good host. In the Smart’s lobby, for example, a silver tray holds a jar of preserves. A 2011 piece by Serbian artist Ana Prvacki, it’s called The Greeting Committee, a literal welcome to museum visitors. Each day between 1 and 2 p.m., a Smart staff member or student worker offers slatko, a sickly sweet strawberry jam traditionally served to guests in Serbian homes. You would be given a spoonful of the jam at the thresholds, Smith says, meant “to sweeten your visit and to sweeten your tongue so you don’t gossip. So it’s very genuine and also kind of controlling.”

Before Feast opened, Prvacki came to the Smart to lead a hospitality workshop for students and staff. “It got them thinking about body language and open kinds of posture,” Smith says, “ways that you can make eye contact.” Smith hopes that the lessons can help make the Smart a more “hospitable institution long term,” including how to greet people stopping in for a coffee and make them feel welcome. “We were initially just going to do this a couple times a week,” she said, but they expanded the jam service because visitors responded so well.

Inside the exhibit, the food art, at once familiar and unexpected, invites viewers to ask questions about the works. A three-dimensional still life by Daniel Spoerri—in which the Swiss artist affixed a meal’s remains to the surfaces on which they had been served and then hung the tabletop sideways on the wall—is a recent addition to the Smart’s permanent collection. The meal it documents was consumed June 17, 1972, at Spoerri’s Eat Art Galerie in Düsseldorf, Germany. With ashes and cigarette butts piled in an ashtray and plates nearly scraped clean of a hearty gravy, “on one level it’s totally beautiful,” Smith says. “On another, it’s totally disgusting.”

At the exhibit’s February 15 opening, the tableau, which Spoerri calls a “snare picture,” sparked a half-hour discussion between a Smart board member and her guests about why it was considered art. “It was left unresolved,” Smith says, but the group later attended a talk where Smith established “some of that larger context,” she says—“the fact that this piece came from the Eat Art restaurant,” a café that attracted both members of the European avant-garde and everyday Düsseldorf citizens looking for a meal.

As a contemporary-art curator, Smith takes the art/non-art conversation with a grain of salt, she says. The question doesn’t really concern her. But it does open up a conversation, both about where the work fits into a long history and also “about whether or not it’s good art and what terms we’re using to assess that.”

In Feast, part of the artistic experience comes from the blurred line between public and private. Meals, often a private experience, are open for public consumption here. Artist Marina Abramović’s Communist Body/Fascist Body, a video shown on a screen behind two tables and a mattress, depicts an original 1979 performance in Abramović’s and collaborator Ulay’s shared apartment. She doesn’t feel that her work is complete without the public, the Belgrade-born artist says in a complementary video. Her performance art is all about hospitality: “You actually open yourself to the public and show vulnerability, your contradictions, and be there in the full sense for them.” As Smith explains, the works in Feast sit at “the edge of art and life.”


The Smart Museum’s exhibition Feast explores hospitality and welcoming gestures.