DUBAI: “I only like to eat what has a clear and intelligible form,” Dali once wrote. “If I hate that despicable degrading vegetable called spinach, it is because it is shapeless, like liberty.”
The face of the surrealist movement in the middle and latter years of the 20th century, Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is best-known for his paintings – reproductions of which have hung on college dorm rooms the world over – and his extravagant pronouncements on the modern condition.
With his wife and muse Gala (1894-1982), the artist was also renowned for hosting opulent dinners. In fact, the couple published a cookbook in 1973, called “Les Diners de Gala.”
This work of culinary surrealism has inspired a new performance work, “Cooking Liberty,” nowadays being held at Art Dubai. Its venue is The Room – a space in the Mina a’Salam, one of the posh hotels in the Jumeirah hotel complex that hosts the fair – which for the past few editions has staged a parallel program of performance works that Art Dubai Projects commissions from artists from around the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region.
This year it’s the turn of the Beirut-based collective Atfal Ahdath (“Children of the Events” or “Juvenile Delinquents”). Founded by Vartan Avakian, Hatem Imam and Raed Yassin, the group is known for its witty visual art interventions – aestheticized photo-based works that camouflage sly commentaries on the culture of artistic production and consumption.
“The [11th] Sharjah Biennial gave us our first commission as Atfal Ahdath,” Avakian told The Daily Star the afternoon before Tuesday evening’s show. “For a work about studio photography and how with digital technology we can create images, make memories, [of experiences] that never existed. It’s about people’s aspirations to do things they can’t – mostly aspirations of the working class.”
While Yassin is well-known in experimental music circles, “Cooking Liberty” marks the trio’s first venture into performance. “Since [that first commission] we’ve been flirting with the idea of making a happening, an event,” Avakian continued. “Especially since Hatem has worked on this type of thing for Atfal Ahdath, it came, as the food-related Lebanese proverb says, ‘Like Butter on Pie.’”
Based on Tuesday evening’s show, “Cooking Liberty” is an utterly theatrical experience.
The Room’s antechamber serves as the predinner lounge. Here guests – serenaded by Ditmar the ghost pianist and his (pre-programmed) baby grand piano – find a series of vitrines displaying Atfal Ahdath sculptures and a display case loaded with what appear to be ornate perfume bottles, actually the evening aperitif.
Ordinarily an anodyne hotel lounge, the dining room has been transformed into a Dali tableau. Ringed in bordello-red draperies, the high ceiling has been lowered by a mobile installation of several hundred peacock feathers.
The room seats 50-odd dinner guests at a pair of long dining tables adorned with Dali-inspired sculptures and candelabras. They’re electric, a discreet symptom of the “cheese factor” with which this work is infused.
Yassin, Avakian and Imam are absent from the performance itself. Projected on screens at either end of the dining room, apparitions of “the host” (activist Larry Bou Safi) emerge from gaps in the curtains to commence the proceedings and introduce each course of the meal with a few lines of poetry, while issuing operating instructions for the unfamiliar dishes.
Supper consists of a 12-course meal subdivided into three acts, a prologue – “Milk of the Humming Bird” (an aperitif of arak, water and almond syrup) – and an epilogue entitled “Crocodile Tears,” a surprisingly packaged melange of cognac, Grand Marnier, absinthe and peychaud bitters.
“Cooking Liberty” has food too, a good deal of it, much of it as delicious as it is perplexing. Each of the three acts – “Glass,” “Shell,” “Egg” – takes its thematic departure from the preoccupations of Dali’s practice. In their juxtaposition of ingredients and titles, these dishes are replete with a winking sense of humor.
The final course of “Glass” (Act I) arrives as a rococo water glass inverted upon a plate to enclose a single piece of giant conchiglie pasta, uncooked. After the guests have had a couple of minutes to puzzle over the thing, The Host informs them to raise the conch shell to their noses and inhale the eau de parfum with which it’s infused. It’s called “Dali’s Scent.”
The first course of Act III (“Egg”) consists of a wee pot of shimeji mushroom-based Thai soup, accompanied by a (chicken) eggshell filled with a cream cheese confection topped with sturia caviar. The dish is called “Amniotic Dreams.”
“We wrote the menu and worked with architect Antoine Maalouf on the space,” Imam said Tuesday afternoon. “We worked on [the table] sculptures and the display cabinets outside.”
Imam confirmed that, though its dishes are alien to the Lebanese kitchen, the project was inspired by the culinary consciousness Atfal Ahdath acquired growing up in Lebanon. “One of our dishes is called “Sun-Dried Mermaid,” he smiled, pulling up a photo of the dish on his mobile, “It’s an inverted mermaid – [a sea bass fillet atop avocado purée, [flanked by] the head of a fish and the legs of a quail.
“‘The Deep Sleep,’” he says, thumbing his screen, “is a steak hidden in Langoustine foam, with the claws coming out.”
The entire project took about three months to devise and mount, he said. Though based on Dali’s recipes, the menu went through several stages of tasting – assisted by Mina a’Salam chef “Richi” – before being finalized.
“Some visuals we have during the day but not at night,” Avakian said. “Our Host recites two recipes that teach you how to make a jelly tabbouleh and risotto in Poseidon ink. It’s inspired by sonic poems that were done at the turn of last century.”
During daylight hours the labors of Ditmar, the ghost performer, are augmented by programmed performances by Yassin and pianist Tarek Yemeni.
While a departure from the collective’s recognized photo-based work and its road movie (a film project awaiting a producer), Avakian said “Cooking Liberty” is consistent with Atfal Ahdath’s practice.
“As Atfal Ahdath, we’re interested in pop, pulp and the mundane, the fucked up, and we have an affinity with the kind of experimentation and friction with the bourgeoisie [found in] Dada and surrealism.”
He said Art Dubai is as good a place as any to give voice to these affinities. “It’s appropriate as any art fair is,” he replied. “An art fair is a playground for these kinds of situations. They’re as good as any place, and Art Dubai is as good as any art fair.”