What does it mean when an artist duo breaks up? Does it make a difference if the partnership was also romantic? What happens to the resulting output? Can the players be substituted? Are the works a result of the action, the history of two bodies, two minds, or two hearts?
Marina and Ulay have everyone atwitter again with their pending lawsuit. The now collapsed collaborative has been carved into the canon thanks to a practice where they pushed the other beyond acceptable thresholds. Their time together climaxed with an epic final performance on the greatest wall, face to face with their absolute limit, each other. We all recognize that there is no such thing as a clean break when passions are involved. What leaves uglier scars than the psychic tears in one’s artistic identity after it’s wrenched from being bound up with another’s? Rebuilding takes a whole new set of tools; slapping a prosthesis over the phantom limb of your missing familiar. You have to find another language for concocting your spells, a completely different set of ingredients.
How do you fill the void left by the other’s absence? Is that even possible? There are many ways to cram a vacuum, almost all have to do with basic instincts, basic drives. For David Bell and Ashley Jean Harris, the pair behind the pop-up cooking project Fat Jasmine the hole to plug was the stomach, the drive was hunger. The filler for their performative material was pizza and it was through this medium that they worked their creative voodoo. This dish it turns out, is more divisive than its usual qualifier as a comfort food. One wonders, what does it means to cook without love? They say that it’s what adds that extra something in the kitchen. Does this suggest that the sauce in pizzas made bereft of it would sour?
The Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena is hosting the Women’s Center for Creative Work in the form of a 3-month residency. WCCW in turn is offering 9 weeklong residencies to artists and collaboratives, one of which is to Studio Cooking made up of the duo Meghan Gordon and Arden Ellis Surdam, who then invited 5 sets of guest hosts to conduct meal-based performances.
This brings us to the event, “In Loving Memory of Fat Jasmine.” In a plot twist that adds yet another credit line to an already complicated list, the Fat Jasmine creators had a falling out just before what was to be their last jointly made meal. With their creative union irreparably broken, they tapped their friend Anthony Bodlović, Performance Artist-Tarot Reader-Licensed Art Therapist-Culture and Performance Studies PhD extraordinaire, to step in and guide us participants through the still-scheduled swan song. A flow chart would have more efficiently described the successive layers of institutional, psychic, and relational invitations that were involved in order to bake these pizzas.
Before heading into the cooking ceremony, I anticipated an experience that would feel akin to a séance, where we would collectively beckon a performative ghost and bear witness to a last resurrection, the flutter of two spirits rent apart, called forth in space and time by Bodlović, our pizza mystic. Knowing something of this substitute host’s bio made me believe that I had a good idea of what to expect: he reads the room… channels that energy as we share primal screams into sticky dough… we have a communal purge of a dead vision… laugh, cry, glut on gluten… simple.
Instead, what we were actually treated to was a chthonic culinary catharsis that was more about those seated around the table and less so about the two presences whose absence shadowed us, who functioned as foils for whatever emptiness we were carrying within ourselves. Bodlović held our attentions rapt with charm much like that of a tent revival preacher, managing to offer complete sincerity along with a knowing smirk. This could be because his rangy frame was outfitted in a classy yet peculiar getup that consisted of a flour-dusted black blazer worn over a black unitard, bewigged and bespectacled he sported a most proper pageboy hairdo with bangs that perfectly framed his tortoiseshell glasses, all drawing more attention to his highlighted and twinkling eyes. We were guided through thinking about the foods that we put in our bodies not as things to satiate a lack within, but rather to ask what can we instead offer to them and how do we have more consciously aware roles in the life-food-death cycle. Ultimately it’s about honoring the acts of creation and destruction with the sweet exception being honey, our bemusing guru noted, for it is immortal.
Bodlović led us through mindful meditations on what each specific ingredient of a Fat Jasmine pizza manifests in us and for us, what it represents, and how on its behalf we should consider it. We in return, were asked to offer our emotional resonances to the individual rounds of dough we kneaded side by side. It all felt very much like taking part in the yearly paschal ritual with offerings, symbolism, explanations of what each ingredient at the table’s story was, and we were even replete with hosts in spirit, new Elijahs! Though both creators of the Fat Jasmine project were physically missing, all of the people present had either a connection to Studio Cooking or to David Bell, making the aura of Ashley Jean Harris seem even more distant from this setting. However, a portrait of Harris painted by Bell loomed over us. Rendered as a Hindu-esque multi-limbed goddess with a grimace for a smile, this visage of Harris had the power to make one squirm a little on their stool if catching themselves spending a moment too long admiring her underwear-clad form. Bell’s presence was signified on the opposite side of the room through an urn of his own making. The vessel was repurposed for the performance as a spittoon that received offerings to him in the form of our masticated pizzas.
As we sat handling our lumps of beige, working our respective thoughts into each, Bodlović took us through the history of Fat Jasmine and some of the positive and negative characteristics of its founders thereby offering us a mild analysis of why things ended the way they did. All the while, Meghan Gordon audibly wept as she cut mandolin worthy slices of red onions. Was it because her sympathy was so great for the dissolution of this creative pair? Or possibly it was just for Harris and she decided to take on the role of an emotional surrogate for her missing contingent at this gathering? Or could it have just been an unusually high sensitivity to the onions? Bodlović explained to the group that onions are particularly open conduits for absorbing our energies, however her reaction did not receive the same breakdown and in time our leaky hostess composed herself enough to return to her other duties. We discussed emotional gaps and the ways we stuff them. That afternoon we were asked to reconsider for ourselves the real purpose of these particular pizzas we had each made. Were they really for us? Over and over we were pushed to think about what we could offer our sustenance in return for its sacrifice to us. Pizzas were named, thrown in the flames (a toaster oven from the original Fat Jasmine days), and communally consumed.
The heartfelt pizzas ran the gamut in appearance and taste from aged beauties, open wounds, crispy crunchers, smiling emoticons, to foodie worthy creations that reexamined what exactly defines the idea of pizza. Attendees, who could, described what it was like trying a pizza made by only Bell, a Fractional Fat Jasmine pizza if you will. The words used to describe those essentially half-baked pizzas were: intuitive, variable, and good but not entirely amazing. The group’s conclusion was, that it takes two to really exceed expectations. Bodlović had warned us early on that our creations would be carrying whatever tensions, emotional outpourings, and reverberations we had pressed into them and to use caution when sharing. By the end of the event it’s quite possible that the compounded slurry of feelings and impossibly thick layers of this event’s institutional and relational psychic load created a more powerful hex on the bites eaten from those pies than anyone could have foreseen. For this writer, it manifested in an otherwise inexplicable collision with a parked car just after leaving; the performance certainly had an impact.
I have been in more than one artistic union. I have had to process what it meant when they dissolved; frankly it happens more often than not. Typically by the end, you can admit you saw it on the horizon from the beginning. So why do we continue to engage in these risky couplings? For myself, I can say that there is a deep desire to have magic take place in the making. Creating something that would have been impossible without the other’s influence, a meeting of minds, a striking of curiosities, the strength of leaning on each other, the willingness to claw it out together, to see a wider vista for standing at one another’s back and still share a vision, and trust that when they call you on your bullshit, it is done with the best intentions. A good partnership must have room for that last element to happen, it’s the only way to avoid being derivative, but it also opens up the risk for calling it quits; artist’s egos are notoriously fragile. It is gut wrenching when a collaboration dissolves, even if it’s clear that the time has come. What then? Is all we are left with indigestion?
The angel’s share that is the emotional and physical remains of these evanesced mergings, leaves a heavy burden on the creative spirit, a weight that was once held aloft by two, now carried without the aid of a joint fulcrum. Perhaps it’s best to follow the advice that Bodlović gave us for what to do with leftovers: bury it with a potato. The potato being a spiritual doula for food, can perhaps also serve as one for disbanded pairs, guiding unresolved collaborative energies into their next stage of enlightened karmic purpose.
Images courtesy of the participants: Arden Surdam, Jennifer Moon, Jenny Yurshansky, Meital Yaniv and Meghan Gordon