Food for Thought

Claudia La Rocco at Performa’s opening celebration

New York

Left: Dealer Amanda Wilkinson with artist Joan Jonas. Right: Artists Mike Kelley and Trulee Hall. (All photos: Amber De Vos/Patrick McMullan)

AS THE GLITTERY, moneyed mass of guests surged toward the open freight elevator Friday night on the fourth floor of X Initiative, it was difficult to escape metaphors involving lemmings and cliffs. Performa’s opening celebration, a made-to-be-eaten food installation by Jennifer Rubell (of, yes, those Rubells) called Creation, was all about quantity and consumption: a show of excess in a time of scarcity.

The elevator contained a tremendously stocked “DIY” bar. Guests needed only to pour, after grabbing one of thirty-six hundred drinking glasses—from goblets to jugs—and scooping out some ice from a giant heap slowly melting on its white platform and onto the concrete floor. Think Allan Kaprow’s Fluids. Sort of.

“Welcome to flu season,” choreographer Will Rawls quipped, digging into the ice with a big grin. “The only thing missing is a giant vat of Purell.”

True, though there were wet naps on the next floor, along with two thousand pounds of ribs. And shoulder-high rubber gloves on the floor below that, the better to fish cookies from vats of confectioners’ sugar. “For it to be really cool, it should have been a big mound of cocaine,” the artist and event designer Avi Adler pointed out. (Where’s Rob Pruitt when you need him?) But chef Mario Batali was in heaven.

Left: Amanda Burden, Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, and Michael Stipe. Right: Chef Mario Batali.

“I am profoundly happy,” Batali said, tucking into his ribs at the end of one of five long tables on the middle floor. He was beaming, resplendent in an orange shirt to match his Crocs and ponytail. “Half the people here look like they haven’t had a good meal in a month. That said, they’re getting one tonight.”

There were lots of tall, suspiciously skinny people in black (“high festive” attire, indeed). But designer Kai Kuhne was observed three-plating it on the ribs floor, while nearby, artist Mike Kelley was sneaking off with a mostly full bottle of vodka tucked under one arm and the flimsy excuse of not having a glass.

As designed by Rubell, each multifaceted level of the installation was meant to be participatory and communal; the movable feast, which Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg called “beyond her wildest dreams,” spent an hour on every floor, and also included three harvested apple trees, a ceiling unit dripping honey onto the ribs, and water coolers full of wine. The focused frenzy of the bar was really just a grander interpretation of what takes place at gallery openings all over this great city, but things got more interesting nearby in the one-ton pile of peanuts roasted in the shell when various people took it upon themselves to dive into the mound, from Alan Cumming to Performa board member Illya Szilak, who tried unsuccessfully to entice another woman into a bout of peanut hurling.

“She didn’t understand the Futurist aesthetic, which was all about food fights,” sighed Szilak’s husband, Chris Vroom, referring to the biennial’s current theme. “This isn’t a food fight, it’s an art event.” (Cindy Sherman, accompanied by beau David Byrne, had another take: “People are a little too dressed up for fighting.”)

Left: Collector Mera Rubell with friend. Right: Actor Penn Badgley.

The food got raves, but as art Creation earned mixed ratings. Some attendees questioned the clarity of Rubell’s vision in a way that recalled how Goldberg’s program of commissioning visual artists to dip into live art—with decidedly mixed results—has drawn skeptical grumbles below the enthusiastic cheers.

Still, Performa always seems to give people something to talk about, and skepticism can be as productive as enthusiasm. But what to make of the most engrossing and disturbing performative encounter of the night, involving collector Mera Rubell and a Jacques Torres chocolate facsimile of Jeff Koons’s blow-up bunny sculpture—the only one of seven that hadn’t been smashed by provided hammers? Claiming her three-year-old granddaughter had asked that this bunny be licked, not beaten, the collector put her tongue to work, cozying up to every camera within view.

“Mera’s really having her moment,” one woman commented wryly.

Jennifer Rubell: “That’s my mother.”

“That’s it, I have to go,” a third observer said, her eyes widening.

Luckily, of course, there was an afterparty in the offing. Perhaps the rabbit went, too.

Left: Jennifer Rubell. Right: The bar.

Left: Alan Cumming with Robert Wilson. Right: Cindy Sherman and David Byrne.

Left: Producer Mike Skinner with choreographer Will Rawls. Right: A mound of peanuts.