Please Touch the Art
Jennifer Rubell makes art to touch, crawl into, or even drink and eat.
In the fall of 2011, the public first encountered the interactive sculpture Engagement by Jennifer Rubell ’93 at her gallery, the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London. Inspired by the engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton a year before, it’s a realistic life-size wax sculpture (by Daniel Druet) of the beaming William, in a pose he struck at the engagement announcement, standing on one side of a plinth. Mounted on his sleeve is a replica of the royal engagement ring that Kate received. Viewers are encouraged to stand next to William, slide an arm through his, and slip a finger through the ring—positioning themselves nicely for a photo op. “I thought a lot of girls might feel envious of Kate,” Rubell explains, “so I did this piece.”
“The viewer completes the work, even for a painting on the wall,” she notes. “That’s true of all art—it’s just more explicit in my work.” Typically, Rubell’s sculptures, installations, and happenings violate the “Do Not Touch” norm of museum culture and openly invite viewers to handle, engage with, or even eat the art in question: with Old-Fashioned (2009), a freestanding wall hung with 1,521 “old-fashioned” doughnuts, a viewer could pluck one and eat it, or just have a bite and rehang it on its nail. (The doughnuts were replenished daily.)
She conceived Portrait of the Artist, an enormous (25 feet long by 8.5 feet high) steel-reinforced fiberglass rendering of her nude and very pregnant body—based on a laser scan—as an exercise in intimacy between artist and viewer: the distended abdomen is hollowed out, allowing an adult to crawl inside and perhaps even assume the fetal position for a vicarious moment of intrauterine life. (A work in progress, Portrait will be completed in 2013.) “Allowing viewers to transgress that boundary [by touching and interacting with the art] also changes their relationship with other viewers,” Rubell explains. “If someone crawls in, somebody else will likely take a photograph and post it; when you have a photo of someone who’s crawled up inside my belly on the Internet, in a way, that’s a part of the work as well.”
Food figures centrally in many of Rubell’s works (www.jenniferrubell.com); she was a food columnist for the Miami Herald magazine while living in Miami from 1993 until 2003, and wrote the 2006 cookbook and hospitality guide Real Life Entertaining. Right after the book came out, the Food Network auditioned her for a possible show of her own, the pinnacle of a foodie’s fantasy life. “I made a point of keeping it as folksy and dumbed-down as possible,” she recalls. “But after the audition, they told me, ‘You’re too sophisticated for our audience.’ That was the moment when I realized that what I had been working for all my adult life was not a place I wanted to be. I am fundamentally interested in the visual world and the world of ideas. In the mainstream food world, you cannot fully explore those interests.”
But because food is, as she notes, “one of the main excuses for human interaction,” it’s promising material for “relational aesthetics,” a school of art (defined by French critic Nicolas Bourriaud in his eponymous 1998 book) in which the artwork intentionally acts as a catalyst for human interaction. Rubell finds the concept compelling.
For example, her work Creation, a happening she staged in 2009, included food and drink presented in a manner and on a scale that necessarily affected the participants’ relations with both the comestibles and each other. The mise en scène included 2,000 pounds of barbecued ribs with honey dripping on them from a ceiling-mounted trap. (“Scale is one tool that artists use,” she explains. “Five ribs are not in conversation with art history, but a ton of ribs are.”) There were also several long tables, each seating 100; three felled apple trees with apples on the branches; and three enormous industrial bags of powdered sugar with cookies buried inside—and shoulder-length yellow industrial gloves for fishing them out. Creation “melded installation art, happenings and performance art with various Old Testament overtones, while laying waste to the prolonged ordeal that is the benefit-dining experience,” wrote New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. “Moreover, it infused this exhausted sit-down-and-wait-(and-wait) convention with new and frequently unpredictable life. The question, could 500 dinner guests, unaided by waiters or instructions, figure out how to fend for themselves? Furthermore, would they do so in a civilized manner?”
As with Creation, many pieces express Rubell’s humor. Her Drinking Paintings are a series of blank canvases stretched onto frames that contain stainless-steel tanks filled with red wine, white wine, martinis, or other beverages, with working brass spigots to dispense the potables sticking out of the canvases; they certainly facilitate openings. She altered a commercial garden gnome of a fat, bearded, leather-vest-clad motorcyclist to create Pissing Gnome (Biker), a 2011 work that urinates beer when you pump his headgear. Lisa II, a nude, life-size, fiberglass modified Barbie doll, lies on her side; her upper leg moves on a metal hinge, allowing viewers to put a nut in her crotch and use her as a nutcracker. (The artist thoughtfully provides an adjacent pedestal filled with walnuts.)
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum have exhibited Rubell, who grew up “as deep inside the art world as you can possibly get,” she says. Her parents are longtime contemporary-art collectors whose acquisitions populate the enormous Rubell Family Collection exhibition space in Miami. Her uncle, Steve Rubell, co-owned the disco-era cynosure Studio 54. “He was a huge influence on me, almost a second father,” she says. “The biggest thing I got from him is that you can create a powerful, ephemeral moment that means something forever.” At Harvard, she was president of the arts-oriented Signet Society—“the only place where what I imagined Harvard to be came true,” she says. “Signet is the only organization I’ve ever really enjoyed.”
Yet the time came when “I was really bored by, and uncomfortable with, the role I had in relation to art,” she says. “Art was something that you had to revere, and it had a kind of force field around it that you could not penetrate. You almost couldn’t even have an opinion about it—can you look at the Mona Lisa and think about whether you like that painting? To break through that force field is personally and conceptually very important to me—it’s a necessary contemporary act. The time when we had the pantheon delivered to us and we worshipped it is just over, and will never exist again. I think it’s important for contemporary art to reflect that change.”