This year the Performance in Historical Paradigms Working Group brings together five artists whose creative work engages with issues related to food, hunger, and insatiability. Taking up the provocation of the PSi #27 conference theme, we explore the matrices of the material practices, embodied experiences, socio-economic conditions, as well as the psychosomatic and affective modalities of hunger.
The formally diverse works included here approach these issues from a distinctly feminist perspective: they problematize the fetishization of the deprived female body, the oppressive powers that generate inequities of food distribution, and the heteronormative gender norms that perpetuate women’s responsibilities as nurturers, providers, and caretakers. Further, they examine the ways in which these processes are socially structured and transmitted intergenerationally. The pieces demonstrate how these moments of contemporary crises are rooted in enduring historical legacies and entrenched in systemic inequities.
While growing up in Sarifa, food and its preparation were at the center of the daily life of the family of Lebanese artist Rima Najdi. Though now based in Berlin, Najdi still regularly consults her mother about cooking and family recipes. In the work presented here, she invites her mother, Rabiha Tawil, and sister, Racha Najdi, to cook together. On a video call, three women in three cities (Berlin, Sarifa, and Istanbul) cook one of the family’s favorite meals: a southern Lebanese dish called mjadara hamra. Despite their co-presence in the virtual space of the call, the film initially emphasizes the women’s separateness. This is astutely expressed by the sharply divided frames of the shared video screen, as well as the discussion of the varying resources and gastro-economic conditions of their dissimilar locations. Nevertheless, the shared–at once mundane and deeply ritualistic—acts of cooking, the sight of the similar ingredients and the relaxed conversation, gradually (re)create the space of intimacy for the family. Najdi’s work beautifully captures the intergenerational transmission that practices of shared cooking enact—both the knowledge of ingredients, techniques, and traditions, as well as the cultural and familial joys of cooking. And yet, the performance leaves some desires unsatiated—not only for the Najdi family, but also the many families affected by migration—especially in the global South—who cannot sit down around the same table to enjoy a meal they prepared together.
Ariel Smith’s short film Hunger (2020) similarly undertakes the theme of intergenerational transmission with food marking the point of contact and transitional object that links the three figures of a nuclear family: father, mother, and daughter. While for Lucy—a young, stay-at-home mother—food is a means of nurturing her young daughter, Lily, she denies herself that same care by adhering to an excessive exercise and restrictive food regiment. The eating disorder from which she suffers is not only a psychosomatic symptom of the repressive relationship with her partner, but an index of larger socio-political, colonial, and systemic violence internalized. What on the surface appears as merely a restrictive eating pattern is—in effect—a decolonial refusal to digest the white bread of the colonizer. This act of abjection becomes a subversive refutation of oppressive colonial regimes that structure daily embodied practices—down to the very food we eat.
Xena Ni + Mollie Ruskin
Transaction Denied (2019), an installation created by artists and designers Xena Ni and Mollie Ruskin, exposes the violent constrictions that external hegemonic power systems impose on individuals living with food insecurity. The work, which displays a multitude of grocery receipts marked “transaction denied,” indexes moments in time when individuals were unable to redeem the food in their shopping carts because their benefits were denied due to a technical glitch associated with their SNAP cards. The installation evokes the affective dimension of these instances—the pain, shame, and sense of destitution—through audio recordings of individual narratives that can be heard by picking up a phone receiver. The institutionally generated inequities of food distribution and the cumulative, daily trauma of hunger is invoked in this powerful work.
In the video installation My Skin is My Business, Ukrainian artist Maria Kulikovska surrounds herself with sculpture-casts of tortured, nude female bodies made of ballistic soap in a gothic cave of the Odessa Fine Arts Museum in Ukraine. From time to time, we see her passionately and sensually, and—at times—indifferently consuming a chocolate statue of herself. When Kulikovska staged this installation in 2019, her Crimean hometown of Kerch, had already been a site of violent war for five years. The nudes surrounding the artist were surrogates for sculptures that had been shoot at and destroyed by a group of pro-Russian terrorists during a 2014 exhibition at the Izolyatsia Art Centre in Donetsk, Ukraine. Eating the chocolate cast is an act of abjection in this piece as well, as the heavy chocolate pieces are prostheses of both the artist’s body and the objectified and violated statue-surrogates. By being licked, chewed, and swallowed, the chunks of chocolate are literally incorporated into the artist’s body, not merely–or primarily–as sensual sweetness, but as the violent destruction for which they stand.
The abject intensifies in Kulikovska’s performance And We Will Return to the Wonderful New World, which the artist performed on 18 June 2022 at the performance festival “The Non-Fungible Body,” while living in exile in Linz, Austria. Here, again, she consumes chocolate casts of parts of her body, though this time in the clean and sterile setting of a museum. She first politely chops the chocolate proxies of her hands and feet, and then—with increasing urgency—bites larger and larger pieces, filling her mouth and thereby disfiguring the body parts more and more. The sensuality of My Skin is My Business is gone, what takes its place is the sheer horror of the present-day war: Kulikovska stuffing the chocolate into her mouth, glutting it, and choking on it is a visceral and desperate expression of how the war has transformed her body into a site of trauma, horror, and violence.