This Gray Center Mellon Collaborative Fellowship brings together artist Antonio Miralda and University of Chicago Anthropologist Stephan Palmié as they explore the intersection between food, art, and other forms of cultural exchange. This project also includes “Foodcultura: The Art and Anthropology of Cuisine,” a team-taught course with a particular focus on "Chicago's diverse and complex alimentary and gustatory worlds" being offered in Fall 2019.

Eating is a physiological precondition for the reproduction of human life. Yet while human beings are omnivores in biological terms, human food intake is neither random, nor based on genetically encoded taste preferences. Rather, contemporary patterns of food recognition, procurement, preparation, and consumption are highly differentiated in cultural and social terms, and have long and complicated histories. It is not just that local and regional cuisines exhibit historically and culturally contingent preferences for certain foods and food preparations but also that the foods people consume within a single society can come to symbolize both powerful senses of allegiance and deep social divisions. Similarly, patterns of food-sharing (or its avoidance) have long characterized the ways in which people conceptualize, inhabit, express, and delimit their ethnic, religious, political or even gender identities. What is more, certain foods (e.g. sugar, potatoes, corn, cocoa, coffee, codfish, or beef) have played a decisive role in processes of European overseas expansion, the establishment of colonial regimes, and the emergence of what is sometimes called the “modern capitalist world system”. Since the 19th century, the mechanization of agriculture, new techniques of conservation and conveyance, and industrial food preparation have, not only driven processes of global commerce and capital accumulation – and social dislocation; such dynamics have also significantly impacted the way the world eats today. 

Anthropologists have long given attention to human foodways – but up until quite recently, they have done so in an unsystematic, haphazard fashion. Food has figured prominently in theories of gift exchange, religious sacrifice, classificatory systems, the analysis of social structure and symbolic systems, but also political economy, cultural ecology, and applied work in famine-modeling, food security, and medical anthropology. More recently, food and eating have become the focus of an anthropology of the body, and have come to figure in attempts to theorize sensuality and the politics of pleasure and suffering. Art – here understood most broadly as the creation of “affecting presences” – has similarly long engaged with the theme of food. Depending upon how one might want to interpret the cave paintings at Lascaux, representations of animal prey can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic, and depictions of feasting certainly are prominent from Classical Greece onward. Food symbolism plays an important role in Christian iconographic traditions, and by the time of the Renaissance we begin to see both an increasing secularization of representations of food (e.g. in Acrimboldo’s mannerist tableaux, but especially in the rise of 17th century Dutch still-life painting). Since the 19th century, food has increasingly served as a subject of aesthetic experimentation – such as in Cezanne’s paintings of fruit which anticipate the abstractions of Cubism, in Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook, Dadaist or Surrealist experiments (such as Dalí’s Les Diners de Gala) or Warhol’s Campbell Tomato Soup serigraphs. But again, until quite recently, food remained a subject of artistic praxis, rather than becoming a medium thereof. 

As Palmié surmises, this may be so (in part) because the “culinary arts” (as they were beginning to become conceptualized in the works of Brillat-Savarin, Carême, Escoffier, or Dumas at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century) largely remained confined to the sphere of artisanry (with its own standards of excellence). Bourgeois high cuisine elaborated on the post-revolutionary French model and its aesthetic of refined dining transformed (female) domestic cookery and simple commercial hospitality into a domain where restauranteurs and (male) chefs could attain considerable celebrity. Yet the commercial nature of their craft and the ephemeral nature of their culinary creations militated against elevating their practices to the status of art production (as had occurred in the case of sculpture, painting, drama and music between the beginning of the 17th and end of the 18th centuries). What is more, with very few exceptions, it was not until the second half of the 20th century that cooking itself came to be perceived as a medium of expression by artists who had been trained in classical media. With the emergence of performance art in the 1960s and a more general search for unconventional media of aesthetic (and political) expression, food and cooking have now become a major focus in contemporary artistic production, ranging from Daniel Spoerri’s “Eat Art” of the early 1960s and Antoni Miralda’s first explicitly food-focused works at the end of that decade, to Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” (2014). 

Miralda is one of the most distinguished pioneers of “food art”. Representative works of his include Diner en quatre couleurs (with Dorothée Selz, Galerie Claude Givaudan, Paris 1970), a sixty diner event featuring color-coded dishes; Eat Art Bankett (with Dorothee Selz, Eat Art Gallerie, Düsseldorf 1971; Breadline (Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX, 1977); Mona a Barcelona (Galeria Joan Prats, Barcelona, 1980); Wheat and Steak (Nov. 7-24, 1981, Kansas City), a multi-day event including parades, museum installations, a meal at the board of trade, and other events geared towards maximizing citizenparticipation; Santa Comida (New York, Miami, Barcelona, 1984-2017), an interactive space centered on sacrificial offerings to Afro-Atlantic deities that emphasizes spatial movement, even as it has toured three continents in the past thirty years; El Internacional (1984-86), a conceptual art tapas bar and restaurant (incidentally the first tapas bar in the U.S.) set up in Tribeca long before that neighborhood (or Soho, for that matter) became a hub for the arts in the 1990s; the massive 1,500 square meters Food Pavillion at the Hannover Expo 2000, featuring a whole range of sub-projects (such as the African Projects, the In Vitro Wall, or the splendid Infinity Table, among many others). We could go on. But to just mention one of Miralda’s most recent projects, in April 2017 he and Alicia Rios staged ¿Garbage? in collaboration with the Faculty of Humanities and the Center for Visual Cultures of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a project centered on juxtaposing the famous farmer’s market below the state capitol with a truck configured as a “garbage museum” collecting the university’s garbage output on a single day with the participation of UWM students and local resident. 

Miralda’s work over the past four decades resonates directly with the focus on food and cuisine that has been developing in anthropology. Much as anthropologists have long harnessed ethnographic data to the defamiliarization of taken-for-granted – i.e. “normalized” and “naturalized” – ways of being in the world in Western societies, so does Miralda’s art deliberately “estrange” – i.e. strategically decontextualize and aesthetically as well as epistemologically recontextualize what is often taken to be one of the most “natural” aspect of human sociality: the act of preparing and consuming food. 

Through their fellowship project, Miralda and Palmié aim to explore several of the above themes with a view towards both the micro- and macro-politics of food. For what historical reason are people eating what they eat today? What kinds of historical and present power relations underwrite contemporary dietary patterns in different parts of the world? How does food come to express our identities? Why are some people starving in the midst of global plenty, and why is obesity posing a threat to the collective health of others? What relations exist between food, race, and gender? And why are patterns of food-intake (similar to patterns of sexual behavior) so strongly and pervasively tied to ideas about morality?