The process of preparing, eating, and talking about food has become not just a spectator sport, but a viral topic of current culture. For Rainer Prohaska, the MAK Center's Austrian artist in residence, the making and eating of a meal is an immersive, collaborative experience, and a work of art. Last Thursday night marked the final performance of his six-month residency at the Schindler-designed Mackey Apartments, where Prohaska and his assistant Eva have designed a version of their internationally mobile kitchen for the Los Angeles premier of Restaurant Transformable (Director's Cut).
Prohaska's meal begins with a reservation. The 20 or so participants arrive as casually as guests at the dinner party of a friend, helping themselves to cold beer and wine and browsing the small apartment, decorated with the stuff of Prohaska's work. On the wall: canvasses spread with the corpses of meals past, old food preserved in yellow formaldehyde like specimens in a natural history museum. In the front yard: a long table, and on either end, a small table and two chairs suspended above the yard on wooden stilts for diners who prefer to eat their potatoes at higher altitude.
According to Prohaska, the energetic host, the night and the food depend on the people. It's an exercise in what Nicolas Bourriaud calls relational art. Long, red tie-down straps are draped along the back wall like clothing lines, strung with various blueprints: recipes stained with vintage victuals, kitchen maps, philosophical manifestos on the tradition of food and the collaborative nature of its assembly. In the center of the room is the stage, a long table lined with parchment paper, laid with clean utensils and various instructions for an assembly line of cooks that he coaxes from a curious crowd. One person chops garlic according to a hand-drawn illustration of mincing, another slices cabbage while the person next to them massages pork with salt.
At some performances, cooking utensils are outfitted with mics and Restaurant Transformable's resident DJ mixes the sounds, giving voice to a poppyseed grinder, overlapping the timbre of forks whisking eggs in glass bowls and gnocchi dough being slapped around on a wooden cutting board.
The topic of Prohaska and Eva's meals changes constantly, but each evening is based on a single ingredient or culinary technique. One night: ruminations on tartare. Another night: playing with potatoes. The idea, Eva explains, is that international cuisines differ from each other in presentation, but tend to recycle ingredients. The Central European cuisine is served in Korean ceramic bowls with a choice of chopsticks or a fork. The potato dumplings remind some of matzo balls. The sweet gnocchi dipped in butter, poppyseed paste and powdered sugar, resemble Tangyuan, Chinese dessert dumplings filled with black sesame paste.
Prohaska began thinking about food as a subject for media arts many years ago. His first attempt at a collaborative cooking installation was back in 2001, in his sister's garage, Eva recalls. He invited people to dinner at 9 p.m., and they were there until 4 a.m. They all ended up spending the night.
Restaurant Transformable is “the opposite of a cooking show,” says Prohaska. It's a temporary installation that he builds, deconstructs, and rebuilds again. No meal is the same. It is prepared and consumed, recalled later as the memory of poppyseed paste on the tongue, a remembrance of meals past colored by specific ingredients, the form they take, and the people who manipulate and taste them.
“It's a bit clinical for cooking,” says one guest, lifting his glass for a swig of Charles Shaw. “But I'm hungry, and it's a tease, so I'm into it.”
By midnight, the few remaining guests sit outside at the long, makeshift dinner table, speaking German and English. A number of stray, uncooked potato dumplings lie on the floor inside and a neat stack of dishes lines the kitchen sink. In Europe, Prohaska performs Restaurant Transformable for hundreds of people live, which is a much different experience, Eva explains, than the parties of 10 to 25 diners that they have hosted at the Mackey Apartment over the past six months. Rainer will reconstruct his mobile kitchen one last time, at the MAK Center on September 3, as the finale to his Los Angeles residency, but his performances are through. Art is, after all, aperitif.