Time to Eat

September 19, 2010

I spent yesterday afternoon wandering around the Guggenheim Bilbao. The museum is dedicated to large-scale modern art. The building by architect Frank Gehry is itself a fantastic piece of modern art, both inside and out. Although I was blown away by the whole experience, I’ll concentrate on a permanent installation in the museum by sculptor Richard Serra that’s entitled “The Matter of Time.” It consists of eight to twelve giant 2” thick sheets of carbon steel about twenty feet across that stand on edge. They range from about 60’ to perhaps a couple of hundred feet in length, but most of them are coiled and twisted so that they create tunnels, rooms and spirals that you can walk through and around. The steel itself has a simple but amazing surface texture created by the natural rolling process and occasional rivulets of rust and oxidation. It’s big enough that it would have to be outdoors anywhere else, but the pieces sit in a giant and oddly shaped room with giant skylights that create shadows and rainbows as one wanders among these giant metal sculptures.

(Did I get across the point that these things are really, really big, as in “giant”?)

There’s a video with Serra explaining his work to Charlie Rose. He’s trying to get across a point that John Dewey made in his book Art as Experience. The point is this: the work of art is actually the experience that someone has in viewing or otherwise encountering it. This means that art is never completely in the control of the artist; the person experiencing the work is part of the work; different people will have different experiences and artists best think of themselves as stimulating and collaborating with all the various “experiencers” who will encounter the work.

In the case of this particular sculpture, Serra points out that part of the idea was to create a work that had to be experienced over a period of time. There’s no vantage point to grasp the work as a snapshot. A visitor to the exhibit wanders through or around the sculptures, experiencing the shifting planes of surfaces that curve and bend, leaning first this way and that, sometimes open at the top and sometimes coming so close together that only a narrow shaft of light can penetrate. The experience one has of this work is a temporal experience, and that’s the point. Some viewers will get all Freudian about it, thinking about the way that experience itself emerges and develops over time. Others will just play with the shifting shapes as they move through the maze. Still others may be bored, but boredom is also a deeply temporal experience in which one is made keenly aware of the slow and un-engaging passage of time.

Eating is also a temporal thing. Eating a meal or snack unfolds in time. It is experiential. It happens. Even for the hungriest and most food insecure person, taking sustenance occurs as a temporal experience, and as such the act becomes part of the time that constitutes a given individual’s life. Even a bare meal can be an enriching experience, and even a lavish, calorie laden spread can be demeaning and disrespectful of the person whose time is given to eating it. This is a crucial meaning of food, and anyone engaged in the food system who loses sight of this denies one of the existential facts most crucial to food ethics. People who produce, prepare or otherwise manage food or food policy must understand that they, like artists, are in the business of creating experiences for the people who eat. These experiences deserve our respect.

Unfortunately, I heard a bunch of talks at the European Society for Agriculture and Food Ethics this week from people obsessing about facts and figures and the imperatives of increasing population and the need to produce more food. The talks were unfortunate precisely because the speakers—sadly typical of our agri-science community—had completely lost sight of the fact that food has an experiential meaning, that eating constitutes a temporal period of a given person’s life. Food security is indeed a key theme for food ethics, but we should never adopt a notion of security that reduces only to calories and nutrients.  Food is experience, experience is being and any ethical response to hunger must find some way to acknowledge that.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


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