Currying Favor: Subodh Gupta’s Performa Dinner Party


Cooking and food have long been a part of art, from the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking to the come-one, come-all meals Rirkrit Tiravanija has prepared in galleries and museums since the early ’90s to chef/artist/party planner Jennifer Rubell’s elaborate food-centric soirees in Miami and New York. (She served a one-ton pile of ribs at Performa’s opening party in 2009.)

This year, Performa commissioned Subodh Gupta—a New Delhi-based artist known for his sculptures and installations incorporating metal food vessels (spirelike stacks of brass pots, enormous bundles of traditional steel lunchboxes)—to plan a five-course Indian feast to be served to some 60 people a night over eight nights (through Nov. 16). Celebration takes place at the downtown Old Bowery Station, a former subway stop that has recently been repurposed into a space for pop-up restaurants. (The space is currently home to Manousheh, serving Lebanese flatbread.)

Upon entering the space before the start of the meal, each guest has an inner wrist rubbed by a greeter with a smudge of sandalwood paste and sprinkled with rosewater. In a high-ceilinged back room, the tables are set with metal serving utensils and decorated with rose petals. One of Gupta’s trademark sculptures is suspended in the middle of the room around a cluster of lights, like a ceiling-to-floor chandelier.

The potential awkwardness of showing up at a dinner party where you don’t know anyone is quickly alleviated. Everyone, it seems, picks up on Gupta’s desire to bring people together via communal eating under the auspices of performance art. Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, who somehow manages to make an appearance at seemingly every Performa event, works the room to ensure everyone is mingling; at my table, she chided us for unintentionally splitting into boy-girl groups and encouraged us to move our chairs closer together. Despite the unassigned seating, my table turned out to be a cross-section of the art world: an art student, a PhD art history student, a contemporary art curator, a museum development officer and a gallery employee.

After three courses-a little bowl of lentil soup, mustardy sea bass wrapped in a banana leaf and a dish of potato curry with daal-Gupta, still wearing his apron, emerged from the kitchen, where he’d been cooking with the help of three professional chefs and a team of Performa volunteers. In most cultures, he remarked, any kind of celebration involves inviting people to come together and eat. The idea behind Celebration, he went on, is to open up the experience to people you don’t already know. As Goldberg said earlier when introducing the menu (final two courses: chicken curry and fried eggplant over rice, followed by a sweet banana yogurt with saffron), “Your only obligation here is to make friends.”