Everything is bigger in Texas. Jennifer Rubell takes on the Lone Star state, with, among other things, a gigantic pile of tortilla chips.
The leckerli were fantastic: dry, chewy, and richly flavored with honey and spices. “They’re from Basel,” Jennifer Rubell told me, as we settled in to talk at her Murray Hill home over mugs of tea. The reference to the Swiss city that also happens to be the site of Art Basel struck me as a glancing nod to Rubell’s position in the art world. A self-proclaimed insider (she’s the daughter of the Rubell family of collectors), it’s important to mention her background when talking about Rubell’s work. Growing up with art as a fact of life has given Rubell an innate understanding of the social interactions that happen with and around art. And in her art, interaction and reaction is the end game—by using food as her primary medium, she sweetens the pot for viewers unwittingly turned subjects. A fair trade off, if everything tastes as good as that cookie.
Hannah Hart I want to start at the beginning. I’m curious about how being a hostess as a young person, as part of a public family, influenced what you’ve chosen to do in your work, whether that contributed to your use of food as a way of bringing people together and engaging them in conversation.
Jennifer Rubell Yeah, I guess you can’t choose what medium you’re interested in. For most of my writer friends it starts with an unreasonable love of words, compared to other things in the world, and for me food occupied that place. Food, social interaction, the structure of celebration or the structure of social interaction particularly inside the art world was just always interesting to me.
My family has always entertained. My parents held this big party during the Whitney Biennial every year . . . it’s funny, things become a legend when actually they start off as some kind of party. Basically my mom made pasta and my dad made these long filets of beef (well, my mom actually made the pasta and the filets of beef, my dad carved the filets of beef) and I think what made those parties so significant is that there was no list at the door and they threw open their doors and whoever came, came. It was totally self-selecting, it was like an art opening, and so because of that people came who later on would become very significant artists, but they were kind of crashing in a way.
So my parents had that and then of course my uncle had Studio 54, and there was a lot of social engagement that I was exposed to that fueled my interest.
HH That’s interesting, because you have previously spoken about the immutable intimacy of having someone into your home, for food, and I think a lot of gallery spaces can feel very sterile—was your work a way to make those spaces intimate, to fill a room with strangers and make them eat with their hands?
JR Yeah, I don’t think you could have grown up more of an insider than I did, I mean I’ve been going to galleries since I was, whatever, in the stroller? I’ve been going to museums from a very early age, and still, I’m totally intimidated to walk into an art gallery, it still feels horrible to me. A lot of my work is a kind of correction for that discomfort. Most museums aren’t as intimidating as galleries, because they are for the general public, but museums too, you walk in and the first thing you’re trained to know about it is that you shouldn’t touch anything. So immediately, museums are these zones where you’re asked to turn off every sense except for sight, and then once in a while you have a sound piece, once in a while you have a piece that deals with other senses, but for the most part, it’s really radically anti-sensual. Transgressing that, or breaking that conditioning is very freeing. It’s certainly freeing for me.
HH I love the idea of the breaking down of discomfort being a transgressive act. Even the format of a lot of your work is, while perhaps challenging in content, formatted as a meal. So while you’re asking people to participate in a de-codified way with the museum or gallery structures, there is a different structure of the familiar mealtime overlaid, with you acting as the consummate hostess. And when you see photos of the events people are really enjoying themselves, it looks like there’s joyful participation.
JR There’s a joy, and people interact with each other, which is a huge part of it. They’re transgressing the one boundary, which is viewer and object, and then they’re transgressing another boundary, which is viewer and other viewer. They’re not just participatory, the pieces are communal.
But when you say hostess, you know, it’s a feminine position, making everyone comfortable and ok. I remember once saying to my parents when I was really really young, I said, “I know that my talents would be great for being a perfect housewife, only it’s the last thing in the world I want to be so what on earth am I gonna do?” I remember saying that so long ago, and it took me a long time to figure it out, or the art world had to go to a certain place, I had to go to a certain place, but that making people feel comfortable, creating a space where people can engage with each other, I like bringing in that intensely feminine, home-maker aspect to a museum. But doing it in a way that’s so monumental and heroic that it’s un-dismissible. You’re not just the wife doing it; you can’t in any way consider it diminutive. You have to accept it as some intentional gesture that has all the qualities of this very feminine thing.
HH I was a little jealous when I saw your work, because I‘ve spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about the idea of women’s work in the art world, and how traditionally things like quilting, fiber art, ceramics, and food, all have been relegated to the realm of craft (or as you say, home-making) unless it’s done on a much, much larger scale.
JR Craft or, bad art.
HH Exactly. Bad art. And those mediums are being dismissed by this very male aesthetic, and I see your work address that conundrum really precisely, especially in the Made In Texas Nutcrackers.
JR First of all, art history is told in museums, it’s not told in books, that’s just a fact, so the kinds of issues that women—well, I hate generalizing about women, let me just talk about myself—some of the issues that a very feminine side of myself is interested in have to do with ephemerality in the same way that a lot of issues that male artists are interested in have to do with permanence. There’s something that draws female artists towards ephemerality and then when you’re dealing with the ephemeral, and art history is told through permanent objects, you have this immediate problem.
For me it was always clear that if I were going to frame what I was doing inside of art, I would only frame it there if it was going to occupy the dominant space. I’m not really interested in that secondary space. Even though that space is being re-examined and that primary and secondary isn’t so clear anymore, for me it’s 100 percent intentional to deal with the ephemeral in a way that is monumental. That’s at the heart of what I do.
HH Because of their shared ephemerality, in some ways food is the perfect medium for performance art, because both are temporal and experiential. But I’m curious whether you think there’s a dividing line between what’s happening in restaurants like El Bulli and food-related performance art.
JR Well with Ferran Adria, people make a mistake calling him an artist. I mean if he calls himself an artist then he’s an artist, fine—obviously Adria has done things that will have a huge impact on gastronomy for a very long time, a permanent large impact. But to me who you are is defined by the zone you choose to occupy. If what you do happens on a stage, you’re in the theater. If what you do happens in a museum, you’re an artist. If what you’re doing happens in a restaurant, you’re a chef. It’s the tradition you’re choosing to place yourself inside of.
HH In a restaurant, there is a very clear interaction between the diner and the chef, where the diner pays for the privilege of having food prepared, but when it comes to performance art those roles are less defined, and it’s a realm that the art world is still figuring out how to commodify. Meanwhile, your work is quite literally about consumption.
JR I have to say, I didn’t choose food to make a certain point. Obviously it’s this explicit form of consumption and art is a very specific form of consumption for a certain group of people, but I don’t really have much of a political agenda. I sort of look at the world and there is a ton of waste, and that I waste a few thousand pounds of food in a night . . . there are so many thousands of pounds of food wasted all over the place every single day for no reason, to me that doesn’t really matter. So the issues around consumption, the consumption of art, I don’t know that I have that much to say.
HH I feel like you are saying your work isn’t political, but Made in Texas is dealing with some issues that are very political in the food world right now.
JR I know, and I was aware of that when I decided to do it. I’m doing a big project about jobs, coming up, and I know it feels political, and I question myself because I don’t want to be coy, I don’t want to say my work isn’t political when it is. It’s truly not the origin of my work, or certainly not the purpose of my work. Made in Texas is about how there are these people who are doing this all the time on this equipment every single day of their lives, in their hairnets in these factories. So now they’re doing it on a pedestal in a museum. And it’s not a statement. I mean what are the politics of that, changing where it is so people see the condition of the workers? The condition of the workers are fine! When I do a site-specific project like that I just go to the place and look around.
Food factories are just interesting to me and that’s often where I start. I went to slaughterhouses, I just looked around Dallas and what I saw was a high degree of artisanal food-making being done by people who looked like what we might call unskilled workers. There is no such thing, but that’s what I saw. I felt like those people deserved to be on a pedestal. They were doing work that was really fascinating, and when the performance actually happened and people were watching it, they were blown away by what was being done. I found the winner of last year’s Texas State Fair salsa competition on the Internet, and introduced him to Doug Renfro who’s a big family-owned salsa maker. Now Doug is going to be bottling the salsa for Moses. And then Moses’s mom was on a pedestal that was the recreation of her kitchen making tamales, and they’re kind of starting a tamale business. So it’s all different layers of business: her kitchen on the one hand, and on the other hand Mrs. Renfro’s production line. I thought it was interesting to locate inside a museum this business introduction—business was created there, awareness of these companies—everyone was excited to participate.
The workers were excited to participate. The workers from this mozzarella company decided amongst themselves who was the best at making this Queso Oaxaca so they could go there and make it and do the best job, and it was really the best thing I’ve ever tasted. All this comes out of some impulse, and I don’t know what the politics of that are.
HH Maybe it isn’t inherently political in it’s intent, but there is a lovely statement being made about this obsession with artisanal and what that word means. People that put care into the work that they are doing don’t only take the form of 20-something white kids with good branding.
JR But look, art is political, life is political. I think looking at things that people don’t look at is political. Or the role of art, the role of a museum is to get you to look at things with a heightened awareness, that’s the difference between looking at a urinal in a museum and a urinal in a men’s bathroom. You’re assuming the artist had intent, and you’re assuming that you’re meant to look at this and apply to it anything, that you can actually place the weight of thought on this object and it will hold. That’s what a museum and an art object is. So sure, if that’s political then my work is political, but I guess when I hear the word political I associate that with a really narrow and uncomplicated agenda, with a very one-sided agenda: that I’m pro-worker or anti-rich people or whatever. I’m much more interested in a 360-degree view of everything.
You have the viewers looking at it, which is a part of the piece too, and one of the most interesting things I found is that if I did that piece in New York, there would be this immediate understanding of it as a critique of capitalism. There was no understanding of it as that in Texas. Nobody walked in and felt uncomfortable, basically people walked in and thought it was cool to see this stuff being made, This is delicious, what an interesting way to see this, there was no understanding of it as a political act there.
HH Your work that I’ve seen in New York is much more in direct correspondence with the Art World, proper: the Warhol head piñata, the Jeff Koons chocolate bunnies, the carrot seed bed . . . all of that is in such a specific conversation with the New York lexicon.
JR Yes. But you can also see that as a continuum in my work. The next few projects I’m doing all seem political even though they’re kind of not. I’m doing a project that seems to have to do with race, I’m doing a project that seems to have to do with the economy. When in fact, who knows what they’re about?
But because of my background and because I was so intimidated to be an artist and to in any way suggest that I could participate in this tradition, I have a lot of anger towards everyone who made me feel intimidated to do what it is I have to do and so in a lot of the work there’s this bashing in Andy Warhol’s head, cracking Jeff Koons’s bunny. Kind of getting rid of everyone so I can do what I have to do. I like the bit of violence.
HH It’s cathartic. I’ve noticed in your work the playing with of the line between the pleasurable and the disgusting—an enormous pile of ribs dripping with honey for example—and to me that’s almost unavoidable, with all of our cultural baggage around food, the way you eat in public, and how you eat and the perception of the link between the way that you look as the result of what you eat.
JR The food I choose for my shows is pretty shockingly technically chosen. Food’s a really complicated medium, and I’m really grateful that I had the dark ages in my life in which I really learned a lot about food handling and food making and hotel and restaurant food service. All of that stuff really served me very well because it’s potentially poisonous, it’s totally temporal, and a lot of my decisions are purely technical, the solution to a technical problem, even though in the end you can read a lot into it. When I did the melting cheese heads, cast from my head, it was Fontina cheese: I tried 30 cheeses and Fontina was the one that could both mold properly and melt, it was just the correct one—with the help of the nice people at Murray’s.
In every show I do there’s not necessarily the function of it serving as a dinner, less and less actually, but whenever it does do that . . . there were the ribs dripping with honey, meanwhile on the tables in those giant pots there were like ten healthy things to eat. There’s certainly a kind of abandon, and a decadence, but the abandon has a lot more to do with transgressing the boundary between viewer and artwork than to do with eating any kind of food. I categorically refuse any moral positions for food, I don’t believe some food is good and some food is bad, obviously if something is super fatty you eat a bit, if something is 90 percent water, you eat a lot. I eat absolutely everything, it’s not so complicated. I refuse to look at food the way sex was looked at once, and is actually still looked at today. I don’t think it’s appropriate and when you look at our country and the effect of seeing food that way, as opposed to countries where food isn’t seen that way, it’s pretty shocking. Whenever anything is demonized, and put into a matrix of morality, people get so out of control. But when it’s something like water, well, most of us drink a reasonable amount of water, not too much, not too little, we just drink water.
But of course I like that component in the work. I’m obviously dealing with something that’s heavily loaded in our culture.
HH The issues of allowance and the forbidden in food are at work very explicitly in the apple trees piece, that are all about taking down the forbidden. And those trees, on their side with red apples strewn over the floor, are visually arresting.
JR They’re unbelievable trees. I got those trees from Mr. Wickham, Tom Wickham, and he has a lot of acreage of waterfront land in the North Fork, so he cut down those trees for me. This is very interesting, because people had these massive issues with me cutting down those trees, it was so horrible that I’d cut down trees, just for art, but actually buying those trees from Mr. Wickham—first of all those are not native redwoods, they’re trees on a farm, and they were past their producing prime and were going to be cut down in a year or so anyway. Mr. Wickham sold them to me for the price of what they would yield for the rest of their life. So the trees to Mr. Wickham, who is actually the farmer and they’re actually his trees on his land, are purely a commodity. It’s funny, people think it’s more cruel to cut down a 21 year old apple tree, but in fact it’s more cruel to cut down a 1 year old apple tree—if you want to think of it as cruel at all, if you’re inside that language.
But . . . the piece is about temptation, destruction . . . for me that whole floor (there were the trees and then these big construction bags of powdered sugar with cookies buried inside and these yellow radioactive gloves to reach inside, and then there were the Koons chocolate bunnies) in the Creation story was about the end of paradise, the fall into decadence and earthly pleasure, and the pleasure of destroying. The powder for me was a little inside joke in my own brain about a giant mound of coke, about just being covered in a giant mound of powdered sugar coke. And the apple trees were a part of that, destruction for pleasure.
HH It makes getting cast out of paradise look like a lot more fun.
JR What’s funny is the story of being human begins when we’re cast out of paradise. Everything about art, everything about humanity exists once we’re outside of paradise, so for me it is the more exciting part . . . well, it starts to get good when Eve is created and then you know . . .
HH You mentioned your dark years and I’m curious how you eventually came to start making art.
JR What happened was I just started doing it without knowing or admitting to myself that that was what I was doing. Other people started calling it art and I looked at it and said OK yes, they’re right, that’s what I’m doing. I didn’t want to be an artist because I’m not a performer, so that realm is out, I have no interest in video, I have no interest in painting, in drawing . . . I’m interested in making sculptures but only in the way I actually make them, I wouldn’t be interested in making non-interactive sculptures. Basically, I’m totally uninterested in making non-interactive art, so the thought of making interactive art hadn’t really crossed my mind. Thank god I found it, or it found me. My life from the outside looked great but I led an extremely unsatisfying life. I just felt very unknown and my skin out was totally separate from my skin in. There was no connection between those two worlds at all.
HH You wrote in an artist statement that your work is a questioning of art and all that exists to support it—can you talk a little more about what you meant by that?
JR You look at a museum like MoMA, the St. Peter’s of museums (there are a lot of St. Peter’s of museums, but in the United States MoMA is clearly the one): they hold around 450 events a year, meaning everything from a small board meeting to a party in the garden to corporate meetings that pay to use the MoMa space . . . but you think of MoMA as a kind of non-physical space, as the physical incarnation of the canon of modern art, and you’re ignoring all of these other functions that it serves, as an institution. That’s one, and they have restaurants and a food and wine industry that make something like 36 million dollars a year (that number is a few years old, but generally speaking). So to view it in this way that’s totally pure, or totally centered on one facet of what they do, is blind to the institutional reality of museums. And while the numbers are different because the numbers are in every way inflated at MoMA, that fact is true for every museum around the country. Every museum does fundraising. If you look at a museum director, the amount of time that he or she spends on fundraising versus curatorial decision making, obviously it’s not even close. Fundraising is a major part of the role of a museum director.
So the work that I do exists in a space that serves a lot of the functions that museums need. Yes they have the function of filling their galleries with the best work being made in a given time, contemporary museums being the best work being made today, but they also have functions of raising money and helping to cement people’s social status in the art world. When I say everything that supports that, I’m really just talking about the functions of the museum that the lay viewer is just not awake to. You don’t walk into a museum and feel it as having that purpose. But what is so shameful about a museum figuring out how to better sell to its consumers? Or sell to its supporters?
HH And as art is seen as a luxury, it has to be self-sustaining. It can’t rely on external demand.
JR It’s not toilet paper! You need to have a reason to get involved with it. That might end up being just looking at art for the pure love of art, but it often doesn’t start as the pure love of art. And for me the work that I do, which note: I have not done a project at MoMA, but it really exists at the intersection of those two functionalities. Often I will do a project that replaces the gala at a museum, I’ll do an edition of the salsa I mentioned, and people can just buy it and eat it, but it’s an edition of art.
HH Or even at the beginning of your shows you have a pile of booze that’s a play on the free-for-all that happens at a gallery on a Thursday night.
JR It really is, you have the gala to get everybody drunk and then you have an auction, that’s what a gala is. But it’s all covered up.
HH I always joke that the worst time to look at art is during the openings, and your work forces the issue: you want a drink, you have to engage with the drinking paintings.
JR In getting people to engage, I call situations like that prompts . . . food is a pretty good prompt, but liquor, there is no better prompt! That’s what the drinking paintings are all about, getting people to touch a painting.
HH Are those paintings refilled, once they’re in museum collections?
JR What museums often do is cut off the original intent of the work so you have the drinking painting and you have something on the wall saying what the drinking painting once did. Because if people are taking drinks in a museum then the other paintings are put in danger. But in the document that comes with the work it gives individuals and institutions permission to alter the purpose of it. To not fill it, to fill it but not to let people take from it, to fill it but only let people take from it on one o’clock on Saturdays, but it just requires them to put text next to it explaining that decision making process. Because interactive work creates a lot of problems, it’s like OK, we’ve now taught everybody not to touch art, now we’re going to let them touch it! How do we put the genie back in the bottle? So I wanted to allow those paintings to exist as indicators of that problem, even if they couldn’t live for that moment in the way they were intended to live, I wanted it to be explicit what that they were intended to do that and explain why they weren’t doing that. Which is not in any way a fuck you to the museum. To me the utility interrupted is every bit as interesting as the utility being there.
HH You did a piece shortly after the royal engagement in the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London called Engagement. It’s participatory, but it’s definitely a break from your food-based work.
JR Well there was no delay, because Stephen Friedman asked me to do a show with him and he asked me right at the time, right before they got engaged, and I saw that photo and I knew I wanted to do something around that photo. Again, it occupies that hyper-feminine territory, of looking at that photo and having that fantasy of marrying a prince, even if you’re someone who’s so not wrapped up in all that. It’s still a very common fantasy, or let’s just say it’s a fantasy for me. And because she’s a commoner you can really get into it. I just wanted people to be able to literally stand in her place and put on that ring.
HH Although to me it becomes an almost dark piece, because you feel the weight of what she’s taking on. In the gallery directly behind the sculpture, you have the drink paintings which are filled with alcohol from the glory days of the British empire, and the ring from Will’s dead mother who died as a result of paparazzi. It has the darkness of wish fulfillment that comes with a pretty heavy price.
JR And you know the paintings in the back room are the exact size of the painting that was hanging behind them in the announcement photo. And it was William the fourth in the painting, and the prince will become William the fifth when he becomes king. There’s so few occasions to really have that kind of iconographic propaganda. That piece to me was a real breakthrough for me because it dealt with interaction that had nothing to do with food. Somehow that ring was every bit as tempting a prompt as a drink or food. You get up there and you put your finger through and every single person was like Woohoo! Everyone reacts in their own little way. And because she’s a commoner, she’s anywoman. I was really interested in something Anna Wintour said, how Kate is always dressed appropriately for her age, and basically we’ve barely heard her voice, and we see her dressed in what on any other person would be like, regular clothes, and it’s amazing to me how really you can plug anyone in there.
To me the mannequins in Dallas connect with that piece because there’s food involved but in a very nominal way, and there’s this same idea of . . . the Prince William piece was a portrait of female emotion in which I’m basically creating a portrait of a woman where I’m not involved in the selection or depiction of her. The nutcrackers in Dallas: she’s obviously in this odalisque position, a very very traditional female nude position but your position in regard to them, using them to get something that you want, touching them in whatever way you want, it’s very undirected, and you can’t accept it as a fixed view of a woman because the viewer brings their engagement with her.
HH When Hillary Clinton was running for president I saw in a store these Hillary Clinton nutcrackers . . .
JR Those were a big inspiration for me.
HH I just thought they were so egregious, and I just couldn’t deal with them, and yet I understood where the impulse to diminish her power came from, and why some people would find them hilarious. And I thought of that immediately when I saw the mannequins but I also thought of Duchamp’s Étant donnés where you look through the peephole and you’re so aware of yourself as the viewer and there are people watching you as they wait for their turn to look.
JR I’m a huge fan of Duchamp, and I was also really thinking of Nude Descending a Staircase and the mechanization of women. For me I make things and then I think about them, and I don’t really try to understand them too much beforehand. The sexual presence of those mannequins and whether using them to crack nuts hypersexualizes them or desexualizes them . . . when you walk into that gallery . . . you have to fiddle with the nuts a little bit to get them to crack right, and people are like in her crotch. It’s more like a vision of people, and the sound that’s created is really intense. You see these paintings and sculptures of nudes and they’re there to arouse, they’re there to create desire, and here the desire is created and you can actually touch it, and is that more satisfying—or, in a weird way, less satisfying—than beholding it from afar.
HH They again come back to the idea of utility, because in making them tools they become useful rather than just visions of lust. It’s the furthest point of the objectification of women.
JR They’re literally utilitarian objects, making a woman into a nutcracker. But maybe because they get this robotic look to them, they feel really not-passive, and they feel like empowered female objects. The other thing is, mannequins in their original purpose are really for the gaze of women. They’re for shop windows, for women to look at them and identify in some way and buy the dress they’re wearing. We’ll see in time what those mean. My take on William today is totally different than my take on it when it was made.
Rubell’s current exhibition, ‘Made in Texas’, opened September 25th at the Dallas Contemporary.
Hannah Hart is a food editor and writer with a BFA in Art. In the evening, she likes to cater your parties.