Food, Time Consumption and Transformation: an Interview with Raul Ortega Ayala

by Mara Sartore
May 4, 2017
Mara Sartore

During our visit to Zona Maco 2016 in Mexico City, we interviewed artist Raul Ortega Ayala who is presenting the results of his anthropological studies with a solo show at Proyectos Monclova, titled “Food for Thought” running at the gallery from May 4 to June 10, 2017.

Mara Sartore: Can you tell me about the origin of Babel Fat Tower?

Raul Ortega Ayala: A few years ago I conducted research focused on what food is beyond bodily sustenance. The focus was on its political content, on the effects it has on individual and collective identity, its religious connotations, on the added values that are given to it by the food industry and on its cycles and patterns of consumption. At some point during this investigation I found a strange pamphlet by Otto F. Fleiss titled “Art Made of Fat”, in which he narrates how butchers made sculptures with fat to decorate their shop display windows. He even talks about competitions they had for this ‘art’ during that period. I decided to try then this technique to make a work for this series and that’s how “Babel Fat Tower” came to be. One aspect of this piece that I am very interested in is that it has no definitive moment, much less a conclusion. It’s as valid when it’s built, as when it collapses. It oscillates between optimism and pessimism, with neither of the two moments being more important than the other, its reason for being is in constant flux.

MS: When did you begin to work on this project?

ROA: The food project began in 2009. Normally I do research for long periods of time within a particular world and theme and based on my experience in this immersion I develop each project. The period of investigation for the series about food is already over, and almost all of the works have been produced although a few remain unrealized for lack of funds or time to produce them. Right now I am working on another project focusing on the concept of Social Amnesia and the detritus of history.

MS: I know that you were taking cooking classes…can you tell me a bit more about that experience?

ROA: Part of the strategy that I use to involve myself further into the context that I’m researching is to look for ways to physically involve myself within that world. In this case I used the anthropological methods of “participant observation” and what is called “embodiment of knowledge”. In this instance that translated to working within the restaurant industry, and to taking cooking and butchering classes.

MS: Have you been left with anything from this experience? Have you become an incredible chef? Do you still have this passion?

ROA: Yes, for me an effective immersion is the one in which I leave different than how I entered. In the case of the food [project] I obtained different abilities that I still use and developed interests and passions that I continue to cultivate even though the development of the series is now concluded.

MS: Do you have any other pieces that have anything to do with food?

ROA: Yes, in total there are about 30 to 40 elements in the series that include work and field notes that I accumulate during the research process. For example, I made a piece that is a two-screen video installation. On one side there is a projection of a video that documents La Tomatina in Spain, in which thousands of people throw 5 tons of tomatoes at one another for one hour, and on the other side of the screen there is a video that shows a competitive eater ingesting 40 hotdogs in 10 minutes. This piece tries to literally put on the table a food that for many has a strong symbolism that goes beyond its mere function.

MS: Your interest in cooking was not so much gastronomic as political, a way of exploring society.

ROA:  Yes, I think that there are sufficient extraordinary chefs in the world that explore this part of food and I’m not interested in competing with or exploring that side of food. I was more interested in what happens around food, its aura, if you want to call it that, and there are a few pieces in the series that work with this aggregated value. For example, I made a piece that every time I make it the title changes because it is titled after a woman who gives me some of her breast milk to make cheese which I then serve during the opening of the exhibition. This piece tries to literally put on the table a food that for many has a strongly symbolism that goes beyond its mere function. Another example is a piece that is titled “Melting Pots“ that examines the cycle that some of the residue of the structure of the Twin Towers was subject to after the September 11 attack. This material was discretely sold to companies in various parts of the world; some of them used this material to make utensils for cooking. I serve a buffet on trays and with utensils made in the area where the companies that purchased the material [from Ground Zero] were. This meal is based on a found image of a buffet served in the iconic restaurant Windows on the World, which was on the top floor of the Twin Towers.

MS:  Do you cook any specific dishes?

ROA: Every time that this work is realized I work with a local chef to make the menu for the buffet based on the image that I found. Every chef has the liberty to interpret the dishes based on what they see in the image and/or investigate what was served at the restaurant and from that they propose what to serve on each tray.

MS:  Where has this happening/installation been enacted?

ROA: This piece has been presented in three places: in Holland twice and in London once, but this is the fist time that this work has been presented in Mexico and in this continent.

MS: This is my first time in Mexico and I am fascinated by Mexican food and also the relationship between the people and the food in this country. I would like to know how you have been involved in the cooking process as well as your relationship with Mexican cooking – if you do have a specific relationship with Mexican cooking – and if this was part of your reflection or not?

ROA: You can learn a lot about a culture through its stomach and food in my personal life and in Mexican culture is very important, but this in a way is tangential to the project. What I was interested in was in looking at food from another point of view, and to not focus on taste or sustenance, but rather to examine what could be called its “transubstantiation” which is a term used by the Catholic church to explain how bread can be transformed into the body of Christ and the wine into his blood. In a similar way, food suffers every day some sort of transubstantiation into something sacred, into culture, into some sort of identity, or into a utopia even.

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