Culture

Art

Can ‘Eat the Problem’ solve the problem?

By Lauren Carroll Harris
Mona’s new project explores our fraught ethics of consumption

The VIP Opening Feast, Eat the Problem. Photograph: Mona/Jesse Hunniford. Image Courtesy MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

“There’s an eyeball in my margarita.” Australian artist Fiona Hall is illuminating her drink with her phone’s flash for a better look (it’s a sheep’s eye). We’re five hours into a wildly theatrical nine-course meal based around edible invasive species: the fancy protein-y morsels are relentless (a single hare tortellini in a pool of spiced-starling broth; a roasted pigeon claw overhanging its little bowl), and we’re all going a bit mad.

Australia’s ecosystems are infected with usurpers, including most of what we eat every day. The wild deer runs at night, destroying the habitat it requires. The carp and the redfin slurp the resources of small-bodied native fish. Erosion and ringbarking are rife. In our protein-hungry society, American artist (and wife of Mona’s maker, David Walsh) Kirsha Kaechele has a solution: reimagine the invaders as food sources, by presenting a series of feral feasts in which the audience participates.

The obvious question is whether Kaechele’s show, five years in the making, and connected to her various other food-ish art projects, continues the same sexy, morbid, and scatological art that has reliably kept Mona in the headlines since it opened in 2011. And yet there is something else nagging at me as I descend the lift into the subterranean museum: Mona is known more for its commitment to hedonistic taboos than ethics – it is an art playground of gratuitous consumption and bold art presented beyond museological conventions, created by a man whose wealth derives from gambling. Along comes Kirsha Kaechele with a “zero-waste initiative” in which humans are the ultimate invading species to rampage the earth’s resources. Our culture currently holds so much anxiety about the ethics of consumption. When did Mona start caring about all this?


The local TV journos want to know where the cats in the consommé have come from (six felines were shot by a licensed pest controller; the resulting soup was tested by health authorities, and it won’t be sold to the public). Ten minutes earlier, Kirsha Kaechele appeared like a magnificent, glowing statue halfway up the enormous rainbow glockenspiel that escalates through the centre of the cavernous gallery space. It’s a musical instrument that emits a warm and melodious resonance when played, and it doubles as the exhibition’s feasting table. Kaechele is cloaked in a long, shiny golden robe, with tiny hotpants beneath. She steps down to deliver the press conference, and Vince Trim, Mona’s head chef and collaborator on this art project, stands beside her.

A new question rises up from the back of the journopack: “Isn’t there a danger if we commercialise pests – popularise them, farm them?”

“That’s a debate,” says Kaechele. “People have to be quite site-specific and agile in their thinking around Eat the Problem. The key is to incorporate the philosophy into your practice, so you’re not eating deer because it’s fashionable, you’re eating deer because it’s abundant.”

In her defence, it was a practical question about a purely hypothetical exhibition, in the sense that one purpose of art is to hypothesise in abstraction. Eat the Problem has two major manifestations. One is a series of lavish feasts, inside a big black space of colourful sculptures – a form of all-out theatre, in which participants wear one single colour of the spectrum. The other is a huge and beautiful art book (pricepoint: $277.77) with a brawl of curly typography spelling out fantastical top-chef recipes, some of which you could (maybe) feasibly make (seaweed salt-baked vegetables, boar ragu). But pragmatics aren’t the point. The book is sold from the small but decadent store that also stocks candles rendered from tallow, cane-toad leather wallets, non-disposable glass straws and stubbie holders grafted from the fur of some unnamed beasts. In these ways, Eat the Problem harks back to 1932, when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published The Futurist Cookbook, a manifesto of the Futurist movement that conceptualised dining as a mad, performative act of avant-garde art.

Like every VIP soiree at Mona, with its mix of press and friends, the feast I attended is nothing like what the average art consumer will experience. Beyond the museum’s ticketed, public programming, we are deep in the glittering Walsh–Kaechele black hole, sipping on our unsaleable cat consommé (I declined).

The meal is more interesting than delicious, beginning with the moment we are handed a test tube of smoky mezcal sprinkled with tiny, crunchy ants. The menu precludes the country’s most adored introduced species – cow, chicken – and goes for a kind of high-end gross-out factor. Each course is monochromatic, and we move through the colour spectrum with Alice-in-Wonderland awe and trepidation. Many of the plates, skilful in their preparation and sophisticated in their presentation, are structured around roasted, gamey bones turned into thin, pungent stocks, crowned with fried starfish, rabbit, deer, boar hangi, crickets, scampi caviar atop fresh sugar cane, dung-smoked tofu and fecal transplant. There are a few wondrous moments – camel milk is a rich, silky delight in both nitrogen-churned ice cream and cinnamon-dusted horchata; a mole negro served alongside charcoal vegetables and puffed wild rice could conceivably be upsized into a real dinner; and Vince Trim really knows how to kimchi weeds, such as thistle and nettle. “A NASA scientist tuned this glockenspiel,” Kaechele says to me, wide eyed and holding a sheep’s whey vodka martini garnished with a vile, spongy sea urchin. “It’s verrrrrry complex.” It was quite a summit; one of the least satisfying meals, and most memorable food experiences, I have ever had.

And yet I came to think that Eat the Problem is less a vision of sustainable food politics than a peek inside Kaechele’s dreamworld. The amazing–disgusting feast melds resourcefulness and outlandish spectacle in a snow globe of flagrant wealth, so that people can finally understand that eco-friendly eating presents no conflict to a crazy, classic life of luxury. Across from me, in a bow tie, Walsh spits contempt for the environmental ethos of sacrificially changing your lifestyle: “It’s such a Christian ethic – ‘I gotta suffer!’ Fuck that!”

Art for Kaechele is all about “transformation”, which is why audiences can book healing therapies such as reflexology and craniosacral treatments (pricepoints: $80 and $120), atop the giant glockenspiel if they can’t attend the full-on feasts (pricepoints: $111.11, $222.22 and $666.66). Beyond the degustation and the book, and for those who can’t incur the costs, the show’s public element is to gawk at the lovely glockenspiel and its surrounding soft, giant sculptures by US artist Elena Stonaker.

Kaechele expounds her ethos to me. “It’s just about reframing the problem, so that anything that is derided and seen as shit can be reimagined as an excellent resource,” she says. “On the one hand, invasive species are a problem; on the other hand, they’re an abundance. To make soap, could we use culled animal fat instead of palm oil, which is absolutely devastating to the environment?”

“Mona is building a new hotel,” she continues, “and I want everything in the hotel to be of environmental excellence, without sacrificing any glamour or beauty or branding. In fact, it should be more beautiful, more glamorous, and better branded, and way more environmental than the alternatives, so you’re not sacrificing like you normally are. You end up with a glamorous product that has appeal with the Mona branding, and the waste product in one place becomes the asset in another process.”

Kaechele’s vision, then, is of entrepreneurial change led by patrons and social enterprises, of environmentalism that does not disrupt consumerism – in fact, you could conceivably ramp up your consumption, if it is of the “right” kind. Within this vision, it is self-evident that you would want your environmentalism presented in gift-wrapped experiences and pampering goods.

It’s interesting to me that the Mona brand is more associated with excess than sustainability, I remark to Kaechele. “Yes!” she responds. Does she see ecological thinking as a shift in Mona’s activities? “No! I see it as a fantastic contradiction. I think of it as an accommodation of paradox. And I think that if you want to get environmental ideas across the line, you better glamorise them.” Does she see it as a problem for the environmental movement that it is too, shall we say, hemp-based? “Oh! I love that the environmental movement is hemp-based, I just don’t want it to look hemp-based in the traditional eco fashion. That’s just the reality of doing what you love. I love a gorgeous, rich aesthetic experience, and I want it to come from a very wholesome process, a process that could create ripples of beauty everywhere. Because what is beauty? Beauty is not just the surface, it’s also the feelings of every human involved and the environmental response, it should just ripple beauty in every dimension and be completely environmentally and socially transformative.”

I wonder if her art practice also entails reforming Mona’s practices. “Not reform, but bring what we do to where we want it to be.” And what of the exhibition’s outcomes – are they hypothetical, or aimed at changing policy, or changing business practices, or changing values? “Just shift the thinking, in a happy way and in a fun way, not in a heavy-handed environmental sledgehammer way. To open minds in a nice way.”


To be fair, Eat The Problem is not the only art project that hits this kind of wall. Politicised art holds itself in beautiful contradiction to real-life change. Artists are very often romantics, whose idealistic qualities are needed to imagine alternative ways of living – and, in this case, eating. But most art has no way of orienting itself to the practical dimensions of achieving social change; it’s all about far-sighted, far-out ideals, and so is Eat the Problem. That is to say, art doesn’t create change – we do – but it can induce captivating visions of the future, that in turn can offer a path, however fuzzy, to imagining change.

Long and odd cultural histories dictate which animals we see as socially acceptable caloric intake; White Australia has a particular mythology of farmers who cultivate lamb and beef and the like. It’s beyond logic and almost impossible for us to articulate why we love to cut into steak yet recoil from kangaroo, let alone brumby. If we are to shift these deeply internalised habits and turn pests into protein, we would need to move toward an off-grid culture where we hunt, skin and prepare our own food. Or we would commercialise the capture and sale of pests. Or we could incentivise chefs to design their menus and source their ingredients differently.

Mona is many things – a luxe art-tourism brand, a source of employment and economic expansion for Tasmania, a booming hospitality conglomerate, an exhibition of Walsh’s private collection, a dreamworld for him and his family and friends, a project of self-mythologisation. Eat the Problem only relates to food politics peripherally, then. Futurists saw food as art, because they saw everyday life as fodder for art, and as a form of art in and of itself. In Eat the Problem, food is exquisitely styled, expensive and really nice to think about; far away from how we eat and live and do things. I have my own political and intellectual reservations about its alchemic concept of cashed-up environmentalism and high-flown consumption, but its imaginative, spectacular dimensions are undeniable. On the Mona ferry, returning to Hobart at midnight, Kaechele reappears, and chats with us before we alight, as warm and engaging as ever. I wish her well.

 

Eat the Problem is on at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, until September 2, 2019, with feasts running periodically from April through July.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and the television critic for Radio National’s The Screen Show.

The VIP Opening Feast, Eat the Problem. Photograph: Mona/Jesse Hunniford. Image Courtesy MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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