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"That's a really sick piece," says artist and writer Matias Viegener, pointing to a 16th-century painting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Viegener and his two partners in an art collective known as Fallen Fruit were leading a tour and had stopped in front of the painting Lot and His Daughters by Dutch Mannerist Joachim Anthonisz.
"He's seducing his daughters, and they're eating sinful food and wine," Viegener says. "It's about temptation and decadence. A lot of the fruit is moral."
"Grapes are really about temptation," adds David Burns, another Fallen Fruit member.
They passed a still life by Pieter Claesz from 1647, featuring a plate of herring, a glass of wine and a peeled lemon. "Lemons in Holland were so exotic," Viegener offers. "The most expensive thing on here is the lemon, and it's just pornographically laid out for you, this sexy lemon."
Then he adds: "We've become fetishist even though we didn't start out that way." He is speaking of Fallen Fruit, which began in 2004 in response to a call by The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest for artwork that offers viable solutions to political and social problems.
As an antidote to waste, hunger and autocentric alienation, the group went about finding and mapping places in their Silver Lake neighborhood, where fruit grows beyond private property lines and can be taken by the public.
Next up on the tour was a painting that had long been an inspiration for the group: Abraham van Beyeren's Banquet Still Life. The circa 1667 work depicts a sumptuous feast of lobster, peaches and melon arranged on a table covered in rich textiles and silk. Last month, Fallen Fruit purchased and vacuum-sealed each piece of food appearing in the painting, tallying up the present-day price of the items (about $40) and displaying it in a vitrine in front of the artwork.
That project was of a much larger Fallen Fruit residency at the museum during most of this year, and it coincided with a boisterous, jam-packed day of activity last month, titled "Let Them Eat LACMA."
More than 50 artists, art collectives, musicians and writers stormed the museum that day, staging happenings, installation and performance across the entire campus. About 7,500 people attended the free event.
The lineup included Anne Magnuson, performing a tasting menu of Oscar Wilde's Salome, getting so close to the artwork she set off warning alarms; a procession by the thunderous ensemble Killsonic, which at one point jammed enough people into the Barbara Kruger elevator in BCAM that it threatened to stall; five gardens installed especially for the event; a watermelon-eating contest hosted by drag queen Miss Barbie-Q; a doughnut wall; a sampling of prison food; a mandala assembled from a year's worth of plates; actress Karen Black reading poems about the wonders of fruit; a fish taco harvest (LACMA requested that the fish to be killed off-site); and a chance for people to actually eat the museum, thanks to artist Emily Katrencik, who grounded up edible pieces of an interior LACMA wall, mixed it with sugar and handed it out as candy.
It's hard to imagine LACMA condoning any of this behavior, let alone all of it. But the museum cleared it all after numerous rounds of vetting, with the participants submitting and revising proposals and Fallen Fruit working closely with the museum's security, curatorial and conservation staffs.
"It's kind of like reality TV," Austin Young, the third member of Fallen Fruit, says with a laugh.
"Yeah," Viegener said. "It seems spontaneous to the audience, but it's really planned out."
After mapping the public fruit in their neighborhood, Fallen Fruit went on to provide fruit tours where participants are encouraged to pick and keep public fruit and to stage numerous other projects, including Public Fruit Jams and a transportable orchard planted along the U.S./Mexican border.
"In the past few years, we've learned that fruit is such an interesting topic because it can be the subject of something and an object at the same time," Burns explains. "As a symbol, it's an idea that's so ubiquitous and at the same time so personal. It has a really amazing way of moving through things — it doesn't really have a boundary."
Fallen Fruit's work serves as an exploratory way to interact with public space and art; one that feels liberated, urban-minded and, in the case of LACMA, perhaps just a bit subversive. Although fruit and, by extension, food are Fallen Fruit's central subject matter, in the larger context of their output, it can look more like a means to an end than the end itself.
The tour of paintings marked the trio's first trip to the museum since the Let Them Eat event. They point out, a bit wistfully, places in the museum where some of their favorite performances had taken place.
Standing by the van Beyeren still life, Burns says: "There's some art that maybe doesn't speak to you when you're a student or a kid, but looking at these paintings in a different way, this has really become one of my favorite periods, when you really start studying things and looking at different relationships. The fruit opened the door."