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Monumental edibles at the Getty Contemporary

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
IN THE 17th CENTURY THEY REALLY KNEW HOW TO lay on a spread. From the days of Louis XIV at Versailles until the mid­19th century, the great courts of Europe supported an entire genre of art-making devoted exclusively to the design and creation of fantastic presentations of food -- monumental in scale, surreal in their baroque excess, and currently the subject of a fascinating exhibit at the Getty Research Institute. Assembled by curator of rare books Marcia Reed, the show gathers 70 cookbooks, commemorative programs, playing cards, popular prints, scrolls and menus from the centuries in question, as well as presenting a modest example of a molded sugar centerpiece depicting the Palace of Circe, faithfully re-created by English culinary artist Ivan Day. Tracing the history of public food sculpture from the banquet tables of popes and kings to the Cuccagna street festivals of Naples to annual Swiss Wine Harvest parades that continue to this day, "The Edible Monument"'s engravings depict massive agglomerations of fruits, candies, breads, roasted pigs and chickens, pastry and molded sugar paste, as well as candles, flowers, precious metals, wooden scaffolding, papier-mâché and stucco. Formed to resemble scenes from classical mythology and the Bible, or mountainous landscapes, the massive centerpieces were populated by sugar-paste sculptures in the forms of municipal demigods and mythical beasts, and may have been designed by artists such as Bernini.

But where these extravagant private displays may be appreciated as more or less benign examples of conspicuous consumption, taking it to the streets resulted in a more grotesque spectacle. Usually built in the town square, the Italian Cuccagna monuments were temporary food-encrusted landscapes based on the medieval legend of the Land of Cocaigne, which survived into the 20th century as the hobo legend of Big Rock Candy Mountain. A parallel universe made of porridge, with butter trees and cheese mountains, rivers flowing with honey and wine, and rainstorms of cakes and candy, Il Paese della Cuccagna was a peasant's paradise where well-dressed, well-fed citizens passed the time eating, playing games and making love. Translated into a lavish street spectacle, though, Cuccagna took on somewhat more perverse overtones. A typical Cuccagna monument built for the marriage of King Ferdinand in Naples in 1768 was designed to resemble a fortress of food on top of a slippery mountain of mud, surrounded by a moat full of live fish. On a signal from the King, the desperately poor street people of Naples were allowed to swarm the massive structure, flailing through the water and clambering up muddy slopes to grab what vittles they could -- a most inventive amusement for the noble audience.

Apart from the sheer story value of this neglected art-historical stream, I was struck by the number of its similarities to contemporary art practice. While religious street festivals have been cited as precursors to 20th-century performance art, the notion of grand-scale ephemeral public sculptures -- particularly ones that are offered for literal consumption, engage on a multisensory level, and precipitate what amounts to a spectacular collaborative performance (the crowd's behavior having been essentially choreographed for an aesthetic effect) -- is alien to most of our concepts about what constitutes art. So while an artist like Rirkrit Tiravanija gets famous for cooking and serving Thai food for gallery visitors, or Veronika Dreier casts human figures from strawberry ice cream, and while recent public spectacles -- from the Nazi Nuremberg rallies to the Yippie/Chicago Police Department collaboration of '68 -- are critically recast in terms of their aesthetic import, the cutting-edge synthesis of all these trends can be found not at UCLA grad reviews, but in musty tomes from the vaults of several libraries. In this sense, the exhibition sort of reconciles the concerns of the 20th century's avant-garde with J. Paul Getty's notorious lack of appreciation for contemporary art, though just next door a more direct approach is under way.

Mister Getty made no bones about his disdain for modern art and architecture, yet in his will he made no stipulations for the museum to stick to the Greek statuary and 18th-century French frou-frous that had so tickled him in life. In spite of this, a certain inertia has prevented the Getty from launching full bore into the contemporary art world. Until now. Across the patio from the Research Institute, in the Museum proper, "Departures" features the work of 11 contemporary Los Angeles artists commissioned to respond to works in the permanent collection with unique original pieces. Curated by Lisa Lyons, who has overseen less ambitious Getty forays into contemporanea by Ed Ruscha and Alexis Smith, "Departures" is a Trojan horse­full­of­old­man­spinning­in­his­grave strategies.

By serendipitous coincidence, Lyons begins her "Departures" catalog essay reminiscing about a seminal childhood art experience over an elaborate 2-foot-high jade centerpiece in the shape of a mountain landscape. Ruminating on the intimate, anti-blockbuster appeal of museums' permanent collections and the local community, particularly artists, and given further impetus by a video work in progress by Judy Fiskin, Lyons conceived of "Departures" as a way to haul the Getty's purview wholesale into the 21st century. Her final 11-artist selection, while covering all the bases and containing no real wild cards, is just idiosyncratic enough to avoid seeming unadventurous.

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