Feast Your Eyes: Subodh Gupta Cooks Up a Performa Commission

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Gupta and Goldberg. (The New York Observer)

For an artist who’s never performed before, eight days of cooking dinner for 50 to 60 people is a demanding way to start. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Subodh Gupta, whose paintings and sculptures often address the food and utensils of Indian kitchens. “It’s been very tough.” Last night’s meal, a commissioned piece for Performa 13 that runs through Nov. 16, was about to begin at 168 Bowery, an old subway station turned pop-up event space. Mr. Gupta, casually outfitted in a black puffy vest over a colorful T-shirt and violet glasses, had been preparing the five-course feast since 11 a.m.

“It’s into the deep end,” said Performa Producing Director Esa Nickle of Celebration, as dozens of small plates containing sautéed spinach with sesame seeds materialized on the wooden bar behind her. Soon a small team of volunteers were whisking them to the back room, where five long tables peppered with pink rose petals were arranged around a sculptural installation by Mr. Gupta. The dazzling piece, which Ms. Nickle said was a riff on the dining room chandelier, filled the center of the space with a tangle of shining stainless steel vessels, utensils and lightbulbs. The waiters did a pretty expert job of ducking under and weaving around the sculpture with their trays, but one confessed that serving wasn’t easy.

Performa’s director, RoseLee Goldberg, swooped in during the third course—a fragrant heirloom tomato sabzi served with poori bread. She lithely made the rounds, greeting guests, before visiting with Mr. Gupta in the kitchen. “I want a set,” she said admiring the stainless steel plates and cups the artist brought with him from India. He said that could be arranged and insisted she try his main course before she dashed off to the premiere of Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater performance. She grabbed a spoon and ladled a little bit of creamy yogurt curry into a dish, devouring it with gusto. 

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Goldberg, Nickle and the installation. (The New York Observer)

We asked Mr. Gupta why he chose to prepare a meal for his commission. “Why not?” he rejoined. “If day-to-day objects can be my art, day-to-day cooking can be my art too.”

Back in the dining room, the guests were getting to know one another. An Asian woman with black bobbed hair was telling her table about Bill de Blasio’s election. “It’s scary,” she said emphatically. “After 12 years of growth, after 12 years of direct support for the arts that has trickled down into every borough…It’s scary, that’s what it is.” Did she work in the arts, we asked? “Yes, in a way,” she said, explaining that she works for a real estate developer in Dumbo. Ms. Nickle, seated across the table, congratulated the woman on her recent engagement. A hefty square diamond was creating a strobe-light effect on her ring finger. “As the ink on my divorce papers dries!” she exclaimed with a throaty laugh.

Shortly after this exchange, Mr. Gupta appeared and spoke about Indian traditions of feeding friends, family and, appropriately, strangers, as well as his art practice. “This is the same journey as what I’m doing in my work,” he said of the meal. He then sat down with James Lavender, an associate director at Hauser & Wirth, his New York gallery, who offered him a Kingfisher lager. He seemed proud of the feast, but a little exhausted. Was he heading back to his hotel after this? “No,” he confessed. “I need a whiskey.”