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Bring Me the Head of...
Freemans Restaurant - Rivington btwn. Bowery and Chrystie
October 27-November 20, 2007
This year's PERFORMA 07 performance art festival has been a windfall of offbeat events that test the limits of a medium that is inherently irreverent. One of the most peculiar of the lot was Serkan Özkaya's Bring Me The Head Of... at Freemans restaurant in the Lower East Side.
Working with Freemans chef Jean Adamson, Özkaya presented the U.S. premiere of his performance as part of the restaurant's weekday lunch menu. It was a piece curated by Performa's Defne Ayas — though I can only imagine what her role in this context would mean; did she pick the restaurant? The cynical side of me thinks the selection of Freemans' lunch time menu was as much a ploy to drive traffic to a locale otherwise deserted for the second meal of the day. Regardless, conceived as an artwork, half the "performance" of this dish is out of sight of the viewer, since it is assembled and prepared in the kitchen but still, one imagines or hopes, under the magical hand of an artist that was intimately involved in its original creation. I personally had fantasies of Özkaya adding the finishing touches to each plate before it exited the kitchen (perhaps I have seen Ratatouille too many times).
Now for my confession: I am a devout fan of Freemans and knew little if anything of Özkaya's work before this performance. I had seen his collaboration with the New York Times, but knew little else of the Istanbul-based artist. I arrived at the restaurant expecting a sumptuous feast, eager to try what was put on my plate and hoping my food allergies (nuts mostly) wouldn't interfere in my aesthetic experience. With only the name to go on, I imagined that Özkaya and Adamson had concocted some head-like dish composed of elements as attractive as they are delectable — a higher-order artisanal tofurkey I surmised. The title of the work made me think of Salome and her deadly, consuming desire for St. John the Baptist which eventually spelled his end. "This has got to be interesting," I anticipated.
I walked down Freemans' quirky alley entrance and picked my table in a half empty restaurant, awaiting my lunch companion. I looked at the menu to discover that Özkaya's dish was confined to dessert and not the main course as the name, I thought, suggested. Bring Me The Head of... for dessert, huh?
I ordered a diet coke and racked my brain to figure out what an appropriate starter would be for an artwork listed as "warm rum spice cake with candied ginger and cream." I chose the trout, since I thought the head with eyes intact would put me in the mood.
The trout was divine but I rushed a little, eager to partake in the unorthodox performance. I ordered dessert and waited, trying to imagine what the Turkish artist, known for his conceptual works often grappling with issues of appropriation, would create. Then I started to wonder: where does the performance start and finish? Is my waitress the commissioned performer? Is it simply an object? Should I ask to watch the chef assemble it?
Soon enough my polite waitress arrived with dish in hand. Composed of a teddy bear head of rum cake sitting on a cloud of cream, the dessert was garnished with an off-centered bow tie of mint sitting beside some candied ginger sprigs. A toupee of cream completed the composition. Sitting in Freemans dining room, which is known for an overabundance of taxidermied animal heads on its walls, I felt the absurdity of my meal amplified. This childhood toy was recognizable only by its small round ears, poking out of the orb of cake, and the metaphor seemed to extend into associations between childhood, sweetness, and its consumption.
I was a little upset at the notion of eating a large dessert during lunch but I still felt like I had to finish all that was on my plate, "How could you go to an art show and not see the whole exhibit?" I reasoned.
It was a delicious treat with a good mix of textures. The concoction evoked feelings of Christmas for me, with flavors I associated with gingerbread, fruitcake, and steaming holiday drinks. If childhood is meaningful for the memories it evokes, good or bad, than Özkaya & Adamson's work (I think it is a mistake to attribute it to Özkaya alone) successfully mines that rich period of our lives in a place one doesn't usually associate with memory: a restaurant. If the act of eating destroys the work, then the act of reordering restores the piece, slightly altered, since no dish could ever be the same. It is all an apt metaphor for memories, which can fixate and obsess on moments that deeply impact our lives and change each time they are ordered up, constantly assuming a new importance in our lives.
In Oscar Wilde's one act play Salome, the tragic Salome is consumed by passion that drives her to order the death of the man she loves, insisting his head be delivered to her on a platter. Wilde uses repetition extensively in his work to give the piece a dreamy poetic quality. Özkaya & Adamson's performance has much of the same quiet poetry that Wilde mined in his short play. The unorthodox sculpture evokes the same tendency of repetition but this time in the repetitive act of eating.
Bring Me the Head Of... made me wonder why more artists don't join forces with chefs to produce menu items that explore food and its metaphors. If Richard Serra and Thomas Keller joined forces, imagine how the experience of eating at Per Se could be transformed into something even greater. Özkaya and Adamson have shown a new path that I hope others will heed.
As a finishing flourish to a performance with no clear beginning or end, I leveled the remaining cream on my plate and wrote out the only words that I thought captured the same playful child-like flavor as the performance itself, "YUM."