NEW YORK CITY: KroaTisch-Amerikanische Freundschaft is a well-nigh unpronounceable audio – video – edible installation. It was presented for one late night only at the Abron Arts Center as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival. Ironically the artist Željko Zorica is not a gay man. And yet, the festival’s curators argue, that his work is queer. The artist himself tells me that he locates the show’s queerness in its political stance.
Since his appearance in the Croatian cultural scene in 1976, Željko Zorica has worked as a set designer, puppeteer, dramatist, graphic designer, festival manager and writer of theatrical performances. He also founded several theatre companies. Having curated a Theatre & Food Festival in Hamburg in 2004, he has presented these sumptuous food installations throughout the Balkans and Europe.
KroaTisch-Amerikanische Freundschaft comes with a controlled happening and videos. After the happening, there is a ritual of welcome speeches and explanations of a game that precedes the eating.
Here is how the curators describe their reasons for including this food installation in a queer festival:
Playing with the concepts of signification and symbolization, in its semiotic contexts, Zorica lays down a table with a varied assortment of custom designed foods to signify or symbolize different aspects of his socially aware reflections.
Inviting itself into the audience’s mental habitus, the artist proceeds to a series of speeches that emanate the gesture of contemporary performance in its relationship and antagonism to the audience. While the ancient dimension of protocol and ritual that involves the giving of speeches since times long past is there, the work re-connects itself to the present moment by digitalizing its presence and format to videos, projected and / or shown live on television screens.
The table and the speeches involve elements and people from both the local community and from the artist’s native culture. By working with(in) the local cultures into which he is invited, he refuses the horizontal multiculturalist’s colonial approach to art making—using one or two foreign elements to convince itself and the audience of its engagement with the world—while also defying the very possibility of a vertical approach—in which meanings are built from within and at intersections.
By doing so, the artist then challenges our very conceptions of “world” and “good” and puts in question the ways in which we have chosen to live together, or apart.
In other words, what makes this work queer is that in Croatia, queerness exists within a multicultural space. Inside that space, alternative politics makes itself manifest.
For example, Zorica’s ongoing project, Digitalization of Monumental Heritage and Its Commercial Exploitation, features a fictitious scholar named H. C. Zabludovsky who has intensely studied why people do not stop and read memorial plaques. In response to Zabludovsky’s findings, Zorica concocts fake environments with light monitors that screen text and visual material referring to a person or event that a typical memorial plaque might commemorate. Zorica also invents new plaques which he then places in several locations to reference important historic events that took place there.
Zorica’s performance events are staged as rituals or ceremonies ceremonies, with speeches, music, and other kinds of public actions that typically accompany such events.
KroaTisch–Amerikanische Freundschaft directly alludes to important events in the history of Croatian-American political relations. As the details show above, the show toys with traditional Croatian cuisine. KroaTisch is a “Croatian table used for eating as well as for signing many relevant agreements, capitulations, secret documents, antifascist alliances, love letters, work papers, contracts…,” the brochure explains helpfully. Two videos, showing war documentaries and political events, are projected on two opposite sides of the cross-shaped tables. A third video sits the head of the cross. These news documentaries combined with labels strewn all over the table document the political phrases and cultural ideas that are traditionally used to emphasize friendship between Croatia and the U.S.
I like the radical politics embedded in this installation. How queer was it? I don’t know. But I very much enjoyed the Croatian rakija that was served. (In the Balkans, there is a joke: rakija brings people together.) I did not eat any of the meat served; the war videos, which reminded me of how explosives “cook” the bodies of ordinary human lives, prevented from seeing the bulky pieces of meat as edible. It was fascinating that dirt and celery were placed at the foot of the cross; this was a reminder of death. That shoes and clothes items were at the head of the table; this was a reminder of the aristocracy and elites at the top of the social food-chain. I am not convinced this food installation is queer. Maybe I am viewing it as an American whose queer ideas are even queer-er than the Croatian mindset when it comes to what should (or should not) be named as such.
Dobar tek! (Bon appetite!) –in the theater of One World
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