FLORENT POUSSINEAU: THREE PERFORMANCES IN GRONINGEN, NL
When I saw Florent Poussineau’s performance Pâte Morte I couldn’t really decide if it was a failure or a succesfull flaw. It was a performance in which Poussineau spread out a bed of flower. He lay in the flower for maybe only ten or fifteen seconds and left an imprint of his body which resulted already in a beautiful image in the flower. In the meanwhile on an open fire he melted sugar with water to a substance that was supposed to become caramel. Making caramel is a tricky enterprise because you can easily burn the sugar or just heat it up too much so the caramel becomes hard as a brick and is difficult to eat. Good controllable fire is key and that seemed to be the problem.
Anyway. When the sugar was melted looking ready for use, Poussineau poured it out in the imprint now in function as a mould. The intention was clear. Make a 3d print out of caramel from his body. After pouring, he took some water and made a large layer of dough with the flower. He did this several times and laid the dough out on the more or less caramelised sugar. When he was trying to lift both the caramelised sugar and the dough, it became clear that the sugar wasn’t quite what it should have been because it crumbled on the edges. Nevertheless he could press the caramel-like print of his body with the dough as a layer against his real body and finally walked to the side of the canal and jumped in the water. In doing so it was clear that both caramel and dough dissolved in the water but Poussineau’s actual body survived.
Writing this it suddenly crossed my mind that there’s an interesting paradox in the performance. The caramel print and the dough are probably for less than 40 percent water and the human body is for over 60 percent water. Funny that the human body doesn’t dissolve in water and the reproduction of the human body does. You can have all kinds of philosophical thoughts on that for instance that humans can only create vanishing matter but that’s out of this context and might be subject of another essay sometime.
Nevertheless this hands out an interesting perspective on the performance described. As I stated you could regard this as a failure because the caramel wasn’t what it should or could have been: a perfect caramel representation of the body of the artist. In order to reach this you have to create perfect conditions. The context in which Poussineau was executing the performance is to make out of limited conditions the best. It’s the P(ortable)A(rtist)I(n)R(esidence) of Landscape Labs by artist/theatre maker Henry Alles which provides two sea containers to live and work in with only basic resources such as two small solar panels for limited electricity, a bottle of liquid gas for cooking and a little woodstove for heating in the winter. The PAIR was for this performance situated on the terrain of a former sugar factory in Groningen, Netherlands. The way the artist handles the situation is mostly apparent in the work presented.
In this case you could say that the work was effected in a negative way by the conditions. On the other hand you can argue that because of the flaw, it gave space for thoughts about the dissolvability of the works the artist creates. It’s there, it provides images, it evokes reflecting on whatever the audience (or the artist for that matter) wants and it disappears just like that in contrast with the images or thoughts that are left in the memory of the spectators and the artist.
So I am still not sure if it was a very good performance or not. It was the last of a series of three performances Poussineau set up during his residency organised by Sign (www.sign2.nl) and Landscape Labs. And like the opening performance you had to give it some thought to make more out of it than the simple event.
The opening performance was at first sight not more than a regular opening of anything that can be opened, whether it’s a shop or an exhibition although it was outside the PAIR. So there were (barbecued) snacks prepared by Poussineau and drinks presented in a way as it is presented at openings. The only thing was that to get as a visitor to these snacks and drinks you had to walk a restraint path, set up by cordon tape that lengthened the actual path of approximately 10 meters to at least 80 meters within a rectangle. The lanes were so narrow you couldn’t pass other visitors. At the end where the table was, the space was so tight that you could hardly move with all the people standing there. It caused discomfort and a desire to leave. On the other hand there are nice people to talk with, discuss the situation you’re in and how to get out after you’ve eaten some snacks and had some drinks. It renders all-in-all a situation in which you are somehow trapped in an ambiguous state of mind: is it fun or are you trapped. And is the fun, supposedly represented by the snacks and drinks, worth more than the awareness you are trapped to some extent.
“Pistache, restaurant for fast food” was the most surprising of the three. A group of about 20 people were invited to the restaurant which was based at the main building Wolkenfabriek of the same terrain as PAIR. The Wolkenfabriek has a fully equipped kitchen and a restaurant space. The people invited were all one way or another dealing with food. Some as culinary artists, some from an ecological point of view like a farmers couple who grow bio-dynamic crops. Most of these people didn’t know each other really.
The reception was discomforting because people stood around in the restaurant space not really knowing what to do. When they finally chose to sit down together at a long table one of the assistants in the performance told us that we were not supposed to sit down but to order food at the counter which was at the side of the open kitchen. She wore a cap and apron with the name Pistache and a logo of a pistache nut. Poussineau with his back turned to the invitees never looked up and was apparently busy preparing food in the kitchen.
At the counter another assistant, also with cap and apron, took the orders. Because there was no menu to choose from, he told us the possibilities and you could order anything a mediocre fast food counter would sell. You were sent away with the message that you could pick a table with mustard and mayonnaise bottles on it and that your order would be served by the first assistant. The available tables were all much smaller so it was obvious that the group would split up in smaller parts.
While people were still ordering, the assistant walked around calling in a monotonous and somewhat bored manner for instance “Order number 5” walking and looking around as if she didn’t see any person. When you signalled you were the one, she came to the table and put the ordered food in front of you.
But then: nobody received the ordered food. And as more and more of the invitees found out, they started talking and discussing. One of the invitees returned to the counter to tell that the plate he was served wasn’t what he ordered and so they took a new order. In the meantime there were all kinds of food going around to be looked at. For instance a roll with burger that appeared to be a roll with wipped cream and a slice of annanas. I was served, instead of a cheeseburger, fishfingers and fries, a burger of almost the size of a tray and weighing on estimate certainly 1500 grams. Somebody got a cup full of fries instead of whine and only fries to eat although he ordered a regular menu. He looked pissed. Somebody got a kids bag with a bottle of whisky in it. It was going around. In short, everybody got something completely different as ordered and some of the fast food looked gross and some was delicious.
The effect of this was that people started talking to each other comparing what they’ve got, exchanging what they’ve ordered but also sharing food (my burger was going round for anyone who thought he or she could have some more meat especially the one guy who only got fries). And everything presented in cups and boxes with the Pistache logo printed on it.
There’s a lot of culinary art and performances in recent years. Lots of them are dealing with serious food problems on a global level. Are we aware of the ecological footprints of eating meat? Do we acknowledge that growing crops should be done without fertilizers and pesticides. On a domestic level a lot of this art refers to the importance of having dinner with friends and family and the joy of being together and enjoy well prepared dishes. Mostly this leads to rather boring performances or art-pieces that don’t exceed the qualification nicely done or tastes good.
Florent Poussineau has a different approach which makes his performances more interesting. He knows the horror of a kitchen table. As well as the kitchen table and more specific having breakfast, lunch or dinner can be a moment of peace and tranquility during the day, it can also be the theatre of lasting fights and family problems. Think of the famous Thomas Vinterberg movie Festen. In his artist statement Poussineau refers to shy people at the table who are always in the underdog role and the machos who are present all over.
In the Pistache-restaurant set-up you noticed that the handing out of the unexpected food and somewhat hostile presentation had a huge impact on the way people behaved. They sought for communication, exchanging thoughts of what happened and there was this joint experience that made the whole thing a level playing field. The talks were more than being polite as it probably would have been in case a regular dinner was served.
Particular interesting is as far as I am concerned the role of the host or the cook. In his artist statement Florent Poussineau talks about the expected behaviour of the host but also the dark side of it. It’s not only a friendly hospitality but also the act of losing or giving away a part of one self because that’s what people expect. It is part of the implicit social standards we deal with on a daily basis. As soon as the host or the cook decides to act differently something like Pistache might happen. An apparently grumpy chef who never shows his face, turns his back to his guests and hands out food that wasn’t ordered. You can almost characterise that as an act of aggression and maybe that’s one of the minor elements of this performance. In a safe cultural space with invitees you can do an experiment like that. People are probably more receptive and willing to accept strange behaviour. I doubt if you would do something like this in a normal restaurant, this would work out as peaceful as in the Pistache-restaurant. Some tables and chairs might start flying around and people definitely are not willing to pay or ask their money back probably cursing and threatening personnel and chef.
All in all I think Poussineau has developed an interesting way to lure the audience into his performances and make several implicit statements about food and eating that go beyond a simple moral or political point of view. More importantly the performances deal with the immediate behaviour of people in the contexts he creates and the way social behaviour is changed by unexpected interventions regarding food and eating and drinking. Sometimes with gentleness like Pâté Morte that is merely to watch only and sometimes with acts that could easily provoke anger as in the Pistache fast food restaurant. A still, almost introspective personal performance adds up to the possibilities Poussineau explores in art with food as a tool and eating (and drinking) as an act both by the artist and the audience. And most important. He doesn’t illustrate his thoughts but he creates circumstances where anything can happen.
Klaas Koetje, June 2018
Reflecting on Florent Poussineau, artist in residence in PAIR, Groningen May 2018. Organisation: SIGN and Landscape Labs
A videoclip of the performance Pâte Morte can be seen at www.sign2.nl