Recently in Research Travel Category

MangosteenSmall.jpgFor my time in Southeast Asia I flew in and out of Thailand (thank you, Star Alliance frequent flier miles). Because of that I started my trip with a few vacation days as a first attempt at unwinding and shifting from normal work habits. Bangkok has a reputation as huge and dirty, traffic-clogged, brimming with intense contrasts of wealth and poverty, and packed in some sections with hippy tourist masses. All true, but I loved my few days in the old central city. The slightly chaotic, informal way the city is put together plus the tropical energy felt easy and comfortable. Some parts of my past life as student and curator in Houston prepped me, perhaps. But unlike Houston, Bangkok hosts abundant streetlife, with fluid boundaries between inside and outside space: shops open to the street, food stalls in alleys with two or three little plastic tables clustered around, people setting out huge plants to line the sidewalk with green or using their porches along the canal as closets. I got interested in this informal architecture, especially in relation to eating and drinking. There's a real economy of means here as people colonize bits of sidewalk or sidestreets to make efficient cooking zones and hospitable spaces to eat. Each vendor has its special dish: pad thai, perhaps, or sticky rice in a banana leaves. (More on this kind of informal food architecture and its potential relation to art when I write about Indonesia...)

And oh, there was unbelievable fruit. On my first day in Thailand I got obsessed with mangosteen. I'd never seen it before, but it's beautiful, slightly smaller then a tennis ball with a smooth thick purplish shell, capped with a bright green stem. Once you crack the shell open, there's a beautiful contrast between that purple and the white sections of fruit inside. It looks like the moon and tastes sweet and tender. Moonlike, it is known in the region as the queen of fruits, as a cooling fruit to be eaten along with durian --  a.k.a the king of fruits -- to counteract the durian's heat. (Later, I tried and hated durian. It wasn't the infamous smell, it was the custard texture.) I'm going to miss mangosteen back in North America but it's reassuring to be reminded that not all fruit has yet been bred and/or packaged into standardized, monoculture products that are universally available during all seasons and across all distances.

All of us at the Smart Museum are hugely grateful -- dancing-around-the-office-grateful -- to have received an Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation Exhibition Award for Feast. It's a wonderful grant: the foundation's exhibition awards are highly competitive, substantial, flexible, and designed to provided early support for experimental, thematic contemporary art exhibitions. By covering a significant portion of the exhibition cost, the grant allows us to move forward confidently with the project even given the current economic crisis and the fundraising challenges facing all museums.

I mention this not only because a shout out is due to the Tremaine Foundation, but also because I'm in the midst of the first of two brief research leaves for the project, and my travel during this time has been partially supported by Tremaine funds. This time away from administrative work at the Smart has been a rich experience for me personally and one that has helped expand the context of the project. Most of the artists on my initial working checklist -- the list that won the award -- were either a) European, b) American, or c) Asian artists working in Europe and America. I've been expanding that initial list quickly: usually as soon as I mention the project to an artist or another curator they say, oh, do you know about so-and-so who is doing such-and-such with the meal? But because most of my network of colleagues are European and American, up until February I learned mostly about other artists working in those same territories.

That's great, of course, and I hope to keep learning about Euro-American work on this topic (about which I'll write later). But the show needs a broader viewpoint, so I cashed in some frequent flier miles and spent much of the last five weeks on research leave in Southeast Asia. This allowed me to meet a number of artists who work with the meal or who had related things to teach. We talked about their work and its connections both to their individual practices and to their specific working contexts. They took me to artist-run cafes, to archives, to other artists, to local spots for favorite dishes. (No surprise that many productive conversations took place over coffee, over drinks, over meals.) They arranged invitations for me to help prepare food in humble village kitchens and took me to see the ritual pomp of the sultan of Yogyakarta's gift of food to the people. This experience of "other" places/art communities/foods/modes of hospitality has helped me to shift some patterns of thought and to widen the circle. (And yes, for most of the time I was in the tropics, it was gray winter in Chicago, and yes, I added some vacation time in the mix, and yes, I know that I am a lucky person).

Over the next few weeks I'll be posting about the artists I met, the scenes I encountered, and food, politics, and hospitality in Southeast Asia.


This is an informal curatorial research blog for Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art, an exhibition about the meal as a medium for contemporary artists. The exhibition opens at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art in February 2011. Many thanks to the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation for supporting this exhibition, to my colleagues at the Smart for their critiques and collaboration, and to all of my friends and accomplices who have shared ideas.

Stephanie Smith
smart-feast [at]


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