Martynka Wawrzyniak at Envoy Enterprises: The Consumptive Gaze
Well before literature popularized the approach of doing something radical for a year (living Biblically, cooking Julia Child’s recipes, etc.), there was Taiwanese, New York-based performance artist, Tehching Hsieh. In the 1970s and 1980s, he made five one-year performances, such as being tied to another artist with an 8-foot rope but never touching. An excerpt from the statement for his inaugural performance, in which he went into solitary confinement in a small room for twelve months, reads, “I shall have food every day.”
Fast forward to 2013, when Martynka Wawrzyniak began recording what she ate every day for a year. Wawrzyniak, who was born the year Hsieh’s first year-long performance wrapped up, is a New York-based Polish artist represented by Envoy Enterprises. In Feed (September 7–October 12), her fourth solo exhibition at the Lower East Side gallery in New York, she exhibited the documentation of her diet.
The burden of conceptual art is that it begs the question, “Is this art?” For instance, if I weren’t an artist, I might protest that I once recorded what I ate for a year to pin down food allergies, while an artist friend keeps similar records to ensure she allows three days between consuming the same ingredient, to keep old food intolerances at bay. The difference is that for Wawrzyniak, food is fodder for art: installation, sculpture, two-dimensional work, and a bookwork comprised the show. The latter, displayed at the entrance of the gallery, contained photographs of the white cloth napkins she used to wipe her mouth after each dinner, paired with a list of ingredients. I actually wretched when I read in the press release that it was billed as an unconventional cookbook. However, displayed as it was—open to a random page—it read more as neutral, innocuous photographic documentation of the napkins that were stitched into an installation nearby. The cloth gloves beside the book acted as a link to archives and in turn, the documentary impulse. The dinner napkins, save for their stains, are identical, meaning that the artist used them rather than restaurant linens when she ate out. Granted, archiving in the traditional sense (where materials accumulate organically from actual use, as opposed to a collection being created purposefully) would have involved stealing napkins and contending with mismatched linens. Ultimately, it means that form was privileged over authenticity, throwing a wrench in the project of documentation. At the same time, Wawrzyniak tapped into the au courant tendency to post culinary images on social media, which is all about contrivance…and oversharing.
There was a definite push/pull experience in the show. The aforementioned napkins, which were stitched together and hung floor to ceiling in a spiral formation, are white—as are the framed paper napkins used to wipe her mouth after ingesting a daily green energy drink. Both arguably symbolize cleanliness or purity in Western culture. Yet the paper napkins hung in calendar formation—doubling as a modernist grid—resemble toilet paper, with their mossy green smears marking a point in the digestive process. The hanging napkins, meanwhile, are somewhat free-flowing and the breeze of passersby could probably make what amounts to dirty laundry come uncomfortably close to the viewer.
I’m unsure whether I was supposed to walk through the spiral, but there was no sign of gallery staff to advise. It made for a surreal experience, as if I were intruding in someone’s personal experience. Evidently, the experience was intended to be social, as the artist describes her sharing of this body of work as functioning like a daily dinner party. The smears repelled more than enticed, though, compromising the reciprocation of enthusiasm. There was also no hint of the social experience at the time any of these meals were eaten. There was no indication of whether these meals were consumed alone, on dates, with friends, or at a rapid clip after feeding offspring. I did not perceive the frenzy of, say, artist Mary Kelly trying to make sense of parenting as she documented the development of her son, complete with stained nappies as art-artifacts. Food can be a deeply personal experience (or the expression ‘you are what you eat’ wouldn’t exist, nor would Margaret Atwood’s 1969 novel about food aversion, The Edible Woman) but the motivation for Wawrzyniak’s year-long endeavour remains elusive.
Where the personal did seem to creep in was in the two sculptures. Casts of the inside of her mouth and the outside of her abdomen in edible materials relate conceptually to her previous exhibition, Smell Me (2012), which culminated in the recent marketing of perfume of her own scent with nude advertising in Harper’s Bazaar. However, the sculptures don’t actually look good enough to eat, which, for me personally, shut down the consumptive gaze. I find myself wondering where they take the viewer that artists like Janine Antoni and Hannah Wilke haven’t already taken them with their chocolate busts of women. And where does Feed take the viewer overall that Tehching Hsieh didn’t already take them conceptually with a single line of text?
For images, please see http://www.envoyenterprises.com/#wawrzyniak