To eat is to respond to need in the form of hunger and desire in the form of appetite. In Food for Thought Raúl Ortega Ayala serves up a visceral response to scenes of the gastronomically grotesque that occurs when alimentary consumption is decoupled from the need much less desire for food. The result of a three year long anthropological-like process of embedding himself in the food business, Ortega Ayala revels in the ecstatic psychology of action disassociated from reason, and offers the body as sensory receptor of the pleasures derived from the “gustatory abject”.
Cultural identity consolidates as much around notions of taste as it does around dis-taste, since in consecrating the sacred we simultaneously define the profane. The concept of taste therefore is an ever-evolving reflection of social values. It becomes then a moving and wholly abstracted target around which collective agreement is sought to achieve social cohesion with the purpose of distinguishing the erudite from uncouth.
The preposterousness therefore of the aspiration to consolidate “good taste”—literally or metaphorically—into a single sazón is reflected in Ortega Ayala’s Bable Fat Tower. In fat and bones he has constructed a replica of the mythic tower painted in 1563 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which he has left under hot stage lamps to slouch into an acrid puddle. Certainly there is a macabre delight in witnessing the biblical symbol of humanity’s arrogance collapse in slow motion under the weight of it’s own hubris. In emphasizing the process of pathetic demise of the archetypal tower, the piece suggests the boom but also emphasizes the bust cycles of human civilization. Though the specific reasons for individual rises and falls of social orders may be morally or politically charged, the cycles that they together comprise are morally indifferent.
A natural reaction of frustration at the incapacity of such cycles to account for morality galvanizes Ortega Ayala’s Melting Pots. After the viewer moves through a labyrinthine presentation of September 11 ephemera, the artist presents a replica of a buffet for the public to eat modeled after one served at the Windows on the World restaurant that crowned Twin Tower Building One in New York. The food is presented on servingware sold by companies whose goods are produced from salvaged metal, including scrap that was sourced from Ground Zero debris. The uncertainty of the material’s origins leaves the question open ended, focusing on the cycle of debris, rather than fetishizing a specific horror. We are left to wonder, how many meals have been cooked, what nourishment or nibble has been served up in pots and pans smelted from other unknown atrocities? Yet, why should we expect the cycle of scrap metal to be more morally aware than any other systemic cycles? Has the water we drink witnessed less abomination than these plates?
Whereas the frustration that Melting Pots may invoke questions the appropriate response to horror and abjection, Ortega Ayala’s video works Tomatina-Tim and Untitled (Cheese Rolling), find ecstatic catharsis in their grotesque revelation.
Tomatina-Tim juxtaposes a solitary competitive gurgitator inhaling Nathan’s restaurant (of Coney Island hotdog eating contest fame) franks and soggy buns two by two with scenes of the heaving mob of shirtless tourists tearing at one another in the annual Tomatina tomato fight in Buñol, Spain. In Untitled (Cheese Rolling), men in Gloucester, England careen “ass over teakettle” racing one another to catch a cheese wheel rolling down Cooper’s Hill in an annual tradition that villagers say dates back to Roman or perhaps even Phoenician times.
There is a temptation to excuse these grotesque performances as contemporary manifestations of ancient pagan celebrations of perhaps fertility cum bounty—as though a traceable link to mythic paganism would sufficiently sugar-coat abjection to be comfortably palatable. The twist, however, in Tomatina-Tim and Untitled (Cheese Rolling) is that there is no spiritual raison d’etre. The excess of food is a celebratory red herring. These events persist as traditions perhaps simply because they tap into human hunger to delight in taboo, because to achieve jouissance in the muck is to feel alive.
Headless exuberance after all serves a function, filth and all. Like a ritual in reverse, the madness drives out the demons precisely by giving in to them. In the small town of Buñol, once the tourists are gone, the acid of the tomatoes leaves the plaza clean.
We would like to thank chef Norma Listman for her investigatory and culinary collaboration in realizing the buffet in the work Melting Pots (a Fiction Based on Facts).