The title of Darren Bader’s new Whitney Museum installation, “Fruits, Vegetables; Fruit and Vegetable Salad” is fully self-explanatory. Through February 17, a vibrant array of produce—a bushy bulb of fennel, exotic elongated grapes, and more—will sit on 40 individual plinths across the museum’s eighth floor. Four times a week, per the artist’s instructions, they’ll be harvested, chopped, and handed out as tiny salads with a side of olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper.
The museum acquired the work in 2015, purchasing a certificate of authenticity with instructions for installation. “The work consists of fruits and vegetables totaling any even number between twelve and infinity,” it read, not specifying the exact types but emphasizing the importance of variety. The point, according to Whitney senior curatorial assistant Christie Mitchell, is to highlight the inherent formal qualities of the titular items—in Bader’s words, “nature’s impeccable sculpture.”
“They do look so beautiful and kind of uncanny when they’re on these pedestals in the gallery,” Mitchell says. For the five-week duration of the show, she and a team of art handlers will thoughtfully source the produce from Chelsea Market and FreshDirect themselves. Eating the work, Mitchell adds, creates a transformative, “alchemical” moment.
The Ongoing Prank of Perishable Art
Historically, fruits, vegetables and other edibles have been the favorite subject of still-life painters, colorful symbols of bounty and wealth. But actual food as sculpture, the lovechild between the still life and the readymade, is so often a particularly obnoxious product: conceptual art that plays out as a practical joke—or the other way around.
The prankster associations with food art run deep. And O.P. (Original Prankster) Piero Manzoni “consecrated” 70 hard-boiled eggs with his thumbprint in his 1960 piece, Consumption of Dynamic Art by the Art-devouring Public, then fed them to viewers in a quasi-communion ritual, another farce on the alleged sanctity of art. (He too used the word “alchemical” when describing his cans of “Artist’s Shit,” where are exactly what they said they were.
A decade ago, Adriana Lara deployed the banana peel as the ultimate sight gag on the floor of the New Museum triennial: She instructed that a security guard would eat one banana every day then randomly toss the skin, violating the immaculate gallery space with literal (and to detractors, conceptual) garbage. When collectors would buy images of bundled hot dogs and padlocked Taco Bell tacos from Brad Troemel’s Etsy, he would mail them the actual sculptures—moldy or dripping with grease—rather than the photographs.
But it’s Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian that still stings in the collective memory. Depending on whom you asked, it was either a brilliant gesture or the nadir of artistic privilege: a banana duct-taped to a piece of art fair drywall, yours to recreate at home for the arbitrary price of $120,000. As the previous decade drew to a close, Comedian left us with questions about the art market’s place in the latest of late-stage capitalism, our own pretentiousness, and whether these questions would count as the work’s true substance. As Comedian’s image subsumed the mainstream news cycle, the artist had achieved a true feat: for at least a full week, he held our attention captive, and with seemingly little effort.
Fruit Sold Separately
Decades before Bader’s salad, Fluxus artist Alison Knowles served her own. Her performance piece Make a Salad debuted at the ICA London in 1962 as a kind of participatory concert—30 people eating her dressed vegetables to a musical arrangement. “Whenever you eat a salad, you are performing the piece,” Knowles has said, presumably including Bader’s, too. The work has been scaled up and restaged to feed thousands: at the Tate in 2009, on the High Line for Earth Day 2012, and at Art Basel in 2016.
These aforementioned works that are eaten or thrown away have no permanent physical body—they exist as documentation, sometimes an image, sometimes instructions referred to as an “event score.” In conceptual art, it’s the thought that counts, according to critic Lucy Lippard, who literally wrote the book on dematerialization in 1973. She described a new groundswell of works in which “[t]he idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap and/or ‘dematerialized’”—or edible. She also envisioned immateriality as an escape route from “art-world commodity status,” unable to foresee the kinds of prices a certificate could pull.
Lippard wrote of the late Roelof Louw, whose in 1967 Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), holds another clear precedent for Bader’s “Fruits, Vegetables.” In its original iteration, Louw had stacked almost 6,000 oranges into the shape of a pyramid, inviting viewers to take an orange and eat it, and to consider questions of viewer participation and the impermanence of form. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lauren Best, who exhibited Soul City in 2014, recalls all of the extremely cool visitors who have taken their orange from the bottom, sending the entire pyramid rolling across the museum floor. “That is the interesting point of the piece,” she assures. “It’s the patron who alters the form of the sculpture.”
When the Tate acquired Soul City in 2014, the press balked at its £30,000 price tag. A Daily Mail article headlined “Is this the craziest art installation yet?” worked out the price to about £5 per orange, which is wholly inaccurate. On top of the £30,000, the museum also shoulders the cost of buying the oranges themselves. Over its four-month exhibition, SMoCA estimates it went through about 15,000.
The Unpredictable Nature of Perishable Goods
The hazards of fresh products in a gallery setting have been well documented. Fuzzy fruits are bound to appear towards the bottom of Louw’s pile of oranges. And Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendor, an installation of sequined dead fish in plastic bags, has been pulled from exhibitions not once, but twice: first due to a refrigeration failure in 1997 that filled MoMA with an unbearable stench, then again at the Hayward Gallery in 2018, this time when its chemical antiseptic treatment spontaneously burst into flames.
Art destined to perish, however, does nicely lend itself to institutional critique: food’s propensity to rot is also a potent vehicle for political allegory and existential quandaries. The replaceable ton of bananas in Paulo Nazareth’s 2011 Banana Market/Art Market evoke sentiments of labor and resource exploitation in Latin America. Yoko Ono’s 1966 Apple—an apple left to decay on a pedestal—is a symbol of mortality. (John Lennon actually took a bite, later remembering, “I didn’t have much knowledge about avant garde or underground art, but the humor got me straight away.”) And the 2,755 oily bologna slices pegged to Pope.L’s Claim (Whitney Version) initially smelled at the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, but the odor reportedly improved as they cured—a pun that refers to both the maturation of preserved meat and the act of healing.
Bader’s “Fruits, Vegetables” isn’t “a candidate for a long term collection display,” Mitchell says, given the constant trips to Chelsea Market required to keep it fresh. It’s also most definitely a troll. Works like this prod us for a reaction, towards the outer limits of what we’ll accept as art—especially the volatile, ephemeral work that ripens, wilts, spoils, and disappears. “There can be an exceptional visual, conceptual, and aesthetic merit to so many things in the world,” the artist has said, including pineapples, fennel, and exotic elongated grapes. The resulting salad is a very polarizing joke. And if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.
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