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Conceptual Cuisine

I call it performance art, but my friend Ariel calls it wasting time. History will decide. — Steve Martin as Harris in L.A. Story

To me, the word “chocolate” is the penultimate attention-grabber, second only to “There’s a spider on your head.” So it was that while viewing an email message from a friend inviting me to a party in Barrio Logan, my bon-bon-brown peepers seized upon the words, “Chocolate Performance Art.” After I RSVP’d my acceptance (as if I was going to turn down an invitation to a party that promised to feature my favorite confection), I spent some time wondering what kind of choco-activities might qualify as “art.”

I feel remiss in my inability to completely comprehend art, as it is so prominent in my life. David makes his living as a fine-art photographer. Our home is replete with original paintings, sculptures, and other works not so easily categorized. Many of our friends are artists of one kind or another. And yet, for me, the concept of “art” is as elusive and impossible to describe as that of “love.”

When it comes to “performance art,” however, I shouldn’t feel too bad — even artists have difficulty defining that one. When I hear the term, my mind immediately conjures up an image of a man wearing a diaper and writhing on the floor around a spotlit Twinkie in an attempt to symbolize the Birth of the Industrial Revolution. But my perception has been tainted. A few years ago, some artist friends invited David and me to a performance-art show at a small theater in Chilmark, a tiny town located on Martha’s Vineyard. In a crowded, dark room, I watched three gauze-adorned dancers squirm around on the floor while the air grew heavy with Nag Champa. As soon as the lights were turned on, I rushed outside for a breath of fresh air and smacked my mouth in a futile effort to banish the sickly sweet taste of incense smoke on my tongue. When the rest of the crew caught up, the inevitable question was asked: “Well? What did you think?” There’s no way I could have been honest — that would have been cruel. After a moment of silence, during which I did my best to appear thoughtful, I said, “Wow,” and left it at that.

I’ve got nothing against performance art, or interpretive dance, for that matter. I have a dance of my own that communicates to David my excitement for a tasty meal. He calls it my “happy dance.” I also enjoy watching YouTube videos documenting the antics of the group Improv Everywhere, which conducts public “performances” that they characterize as pranks or “missions.” The goal of these events is to amaze, confuse, or amuse — like the time their “agents” rode the subway with no pants on (just their underwear), or the mission in which dozens of people wandered around a Best Buy in blue polo shirts and khaki pants, or another that had a handful of people show up at a Home Depot and shop in slow motion, or my favorite, the coordinated “freezes” (like when a hundred “agents” arrived at Grand Central Station and, at the very same moment, froze mid-action and held their poses for five minutes to the bafflement of passers-by). If it’s entertaining or enlightening, I’m in. But I become annoyed when performances have no reasonably discernable message. The esoteric, obtuse commentaries and pointless gyrating I can live without. A perfect example of the latter is one piece called “Ice Man” by performance artist Jack Bowen, during which he handed out chunks of frozen paint, instructed people to thaw it with their body heat, and then use it to paint the wall. I just don’t get it.

Despite my preconceptions, I was looking forward to partying with my friends and to finding out firsthand how chocolate factored into the affair. I’m not sure exactly what I’d been expecting (a woman bathing in a porcelain tub filled with hot cocoa or inviting challengers to wrestle her in a fudge-filled kiddie pool, perhaps), but the reality did not disappoint. Shortly after I arrived at the capacious warehouse venue, I noticed a corner stage bathed in red light, on which a woman with long dark hair in a 1950s-housewife-inspired frock, apron, and fishnet stockings made a show of dipping strawberries into a pot of simmering chocolate, her movements slow and deliberate.

Despite the strawberry-dipping woman’s beauty and the sensual nature of what she was doing and how she was doing it, after a few minutes of watching I grew bored and turned my attention to another stage, where two women were preparing an appetizer. I’m down for performance art with a purpose, but I am way too neurotic about bacteria to fully appreciate the vision of a girl in a golden bikini and shoulder-length opera gloves kneeling over a bowl of guacamole, floridly spooning its contents into avocado peels handed to her by a silver-painted gypsy in a sea-green satin silk dress, who is simultaneously communing with a soccer-ball-sized chromed sphere. Sure, it looked cool, but all I could think about was the proximity of a nearly naked person chafing silver paint into my food. When our salads were delivered, I politely offered mine to my friend Rosa, who was more than happy to ingest it on my behalf.

At one end of the room, a chanteuse with a haunting, sonorous voice chanted over a world-beat rhythm laid down by a DJ and the airy melodies provided by a flutist. Adjacent to the music makers, a woman in a diaphanous dress stepped, swayed, and shimmied to the sounds. All the while, the one beneath the red light (whom I later learned is an organic chocolatier named Juju) continued to seductively plunge fruit and cookies into the pot of chocolate, setting the treats on a platter to be passed around.

A few hours into the party, the performance pièce de résistance entered the room recumbent on a stretcher carried by two shirtless, tribal-painted men, one of whom wore only a loincloth. Accompanying the trio was the gypsy, waving her sphere over the figure being carried and gifting chopsticks to each guest she passed. By this time, Juju had removed her dress and was reclining on a couch on the stage in only a black bra, panties, and fishnets, while a man used a brush to paint chocolate designs on her chest and belly. Soon, chopsticks were in my hand, and the stretcher was beside me. From my seated vantage point, I had an up-close, eye-level view of the naked Japanese woman, shells on her breasts, and green leaves and flowers running the length of her body, from the center of her chest, over her stomach, atop her pubis, and covering her thighs, knees, and shins. She was colorful, festive, and beautiful.

A traveling, temporary piece of art, I thought, how fun! But then I noticed the food — slices of sashimi among the vegetation, and the soy sauce that had been poured over her, dripping around her sides and down to her buttocks. I searched the crowd in apprehension, only to have my fears confirmed — all around me, people with chopsticks were digging in. My food dream fast became a food nightmare. I watched as friends, not a note of concern on their faces, collected raw fish from a warm naked body, and put it in their mouths.

I gulped my wine to ward off a gag. I smiled at my friend on the stretcher and explained that I wasn’t partaking in her generous offering because I didn’t eat fish. She smiled back, clearly enjoying her performance; the topless men carried her off, and I watched as the silver orb floated into the crowd.

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