How Do You Follow Heroin Lasagne? the Artist Who Wants You to Dice His Veg
By: Chloë Ashby
Before answering my questions about Fruits, Vegetables; Fruit and Vegetable Salad – his new exhibition opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art – New York-based artist Darren Bader says that he has a specific (read: irreverent) style and he hopes it’s not too much of an annoyance. I tell him it’s not an annoyance at all and start with an easy one: Where do you get your ideas? “Oh, you know, the magical world of ideas,” he replies.
His exhibition, which takes place on the eighth floor of the Whitney, comprises a previously untitled work that the museum acquired in 2015 but has never displayed until now. When viewers emerge from the lift on the eighth floor, they will discover a cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables, each variety presented as a sculpture on its own wooden plinth. Four times a week, museum staff will collect the ripened fruit and vegetables and – according to Bader’s instructions – make a salad. The slicing and dicing will be captured on film and projected in the empty gallery, after which the salad will be served to viewers. Staff will then replenish the plinths with fresh produce, and so the process will continue.
Nature has long had a role in Bader’s playful, provocative work. In 2011 he let loose two goats in a gallery. He intended to feature a couple of cats, too, but realised that wouldn’t do because – as he wrote in an accompanying announcement – “cat predator, goat prey”. Instead, he encouraged viewers to adopt a cat from an animal shelter in the East Village and, in that way, own a Bader artwork of their own. The following year, he created Lasagna on Heroin, which is exactly what it says on the tin: a serving of lasagne injected with heroin.
His works are a puckish update of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, which present objects from daily life (a urinal, a shovel) as high art. Although, as Bader points out, “We’re 107 years post-premiere of the storied ‘readymade’, so notions of high art and daily life are not what they were.” The installation at the Whitney also nods to other works across art history that have engaged with food. I mention Make a Salad by Alison Knowles, a founding member of the Fluxus group, which also included Yoko Ono. This 1962 performance piece, in the past few years revived at Tate Modern in London and on the High Line in New York, involved Knowles chopping vegetables in time to live music, then serving the mix to the audience.
There’s also that hovering green apple revisited again and again by René Magritte; Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s whimsical Vertumnus, which depicts Roman emperor Rudolf II as a Roman god made out of fruit and veg; and even Maurizio Cattelan's banana, which was duct-taped to a wall and sold for $120,000, before being eaten by another artist at Art Basel in Miami last month. Bader comes back at me with his own equally appetising affinities: early Gabriel Orozco, a Mexican artist who makes use of myriad found objects; Urs Fischer’s Untitled, which features the screwed-together halves of an apple and a pear suspended from a ceiling; and Hollis Frampton's voluptuous Lemon, a video work in which the titular object is lasciviously perused in light and shadow. In the past, Bader has described food as “nature’s impeccable sculpture”. I ask him to expand on that and he replies, “Human optics being human optics …”
To Christie Mitchell, the curator behind this exhibition, Bader’s work is about appreciating natural produce. “It’s a luscious thing,” she says, “but there’s also a hint of decomposition.” The salad-making is presumably, in part, a practical way around the work’s natural shelf life. Yes and no, says Bader. “With ‘no’, I’d guess I thought the mere display of fruits and vegetables wasn’t rigorous enough of an art proposition; the salad element added extra texture.”
And extra pairs of hands. The fact that the work involves not only Bader but also museum staff and viewers makes it highly collaborative. It’s a labour of love. “Well, yes, shopping for produce several times a week and then keeping an eye on it is not something that’s in our normal schedule,” says Mitchell. She adds, however, that the Whitney receives a number of requests from artists that are out of the ordinary. “Also, it’s been great to see the excitement of the staff in the Studio Café, for instance, who are always surrounded by art but not necessarily part of it.”
Bader’s edible artwork calls into question not only what art is, but also the way in which museums collect and display it. It stimulates thoughts about the relationship between art and consumer, as well as the consumption of food and entertainment. Plus, it’s funny. When I ask him whether sticking fruit and veg on plinths in a museum makes it art, he tells me he wouldn’t know. Either way, let’s hope it tastes as good as it looks. Speaking of which, what does it mean to eat a work of art? “Beyond my ken,” says Bader.