Artist Erik Benjamins has developed a professional art career largely off his amateur interest in cooking. While a grad student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he redesigned a restaurant's menu with poetic footnotes, set up an Indonesian cooking workshop in an outdoor art space at MIT, and invited himself into strangers' homes to cook an Indonesian meal using their own ingredients.
The Culver City - based artist's latest project is a Sriracha cookbook that can only be viewed in a light-tight box at the Chinese American Museum. That means you'll have to physically visit the exhibition L.A. Heat: Taste Changing Condiments in order to transcribe the seven original recipes from L.A. chefs including Kuniko Yagi, Matthew Biancaniello and Randy Clemens. The 30-person group show, which opened March 13 and runs until July 12, might be the only art show ever themed around Southern California's most legendary hot sauces: Tapatio and Sriracha.
Demand for the chili paste skyrocketed after rumors of a Sriracha shortage circulated due to the partial shutdown of Huy Fong Foods' Irwindale factory in November. The inaugural L.A. Sriracha Festival sold out in October, a single packet of Sriracha was listed on eBay for $10,000 in December, and brands including UV vodka, Lay's potato chips and Pringles cashed in on the chili craze by rolling out their own versions of Sriracha-flavored products.
In L.A. Heat, artists including Benjamins have taken their Sriracha devotion to a new level. Long Beach graffiti artist Sket One, a condiment connoisseur who's previously modeled his "dunny" toys after bottles of Heinz ketchup, French's mustard and Hershey's chocolate syrup, contributed a Sriracha dunny doll to L.A. Heat, in addition to a series of red, green and white fire extinguishers bearing Huy Fong Foods' rooster logo.
Street artist Slick also repurposed the Sriracha logo for a metallic sculpture with a double meaning. His three cans of Pepper Spray are aerosol paint cans designed from Sriracha's color scheme. Bold, graphic paintings from Phung Huynh, The Chung!! and Sandra Low are tributes to Sriracha's firmly rooted place in pop culture and Southern California folklore.
Benjamins' Searing Red Dust (The Vanishing Huy Fong Foods Cookbook) is one of the least visual, most secretive pieces of all. Comprised of recipes from seven innovative L.A. chefs, the book of looseleaf prints was made using an alternative photographic process called Inkodye, which will overexpose over time and eventually fade the text completely.
So what's the point in creating a cookbook that will eventually become illegible? Benjamins, who makes his living as a full-time professor at Loyola Marymount University, says he wanted to give the cookbook a sense of ephemerality, "which is why the recipes are in this light-tight box that keeps them safe until they're viewed. There's this idea that the life of the work, whether it fades fully or not, is limited to the duration of the exhibition."
Other recipes in the book include the Whole Enchilada from Matthew Biancaniello of Eat Your Drink, buffalo chicken wings from Huy Fong Foods, soy-braised potato from Kuniko Yagi of Hinoki & the Bird, kabocha ravioli from Jack Benchakul of Cognoscenti Coffee, Sriracha falafel wrap from Randy Clemens of The Sriracha Cookbook, and hot coco mezcal ice cream from Natasha Case and Freya Estreller of Coolhaus.
"It was less about making the recipes jive together as they would in a normal course offering, but more about seeking out these kinds of recipes that are dealing with the ingredients and the flavor profiles of these things at large," Benjamins explains. But if you're looking to make your own chili cashew negro or hot coco mezcal ice cream, you'll have to visit the show to uncover the slowly fading recipes.
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Benjamins says, "Only for this little sweet spot of a moment are you able to visit the recipes, transcribe them and actualize them, hopefully in your own home space, and in a way, finish the project there."
L.A. Heat: Taste Changing Condiments runs through July 12 at the Chinese American Museum at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.