Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Hospitality as Artistic Practice, exhibition essay

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Hospitality as Artistic Practice, August 22-25, 2013, Zurich

“An act of hospitality can only be poetic.”[1]
-Jacques Derrida

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Hospitality as Artistic Practice features interactive performances, installations, photography and videos that explore, question, and analyze the relationship and conflict between guest and host.

The name of the exhibition refers to the title of the movie made in 1967 with Sydney Poitier, in which the tension between races, but also between guest and host, is thematized and exposed. Another important aspect that is addressed in the movie and in this exhibition alike is that of the unexpected visitor who brings along an element of surprise and risk.

Hospitality is the art of entertaining and caring for guests, but the word derives from the Latin hospes, meaning ‘host’, ‘guest’, and also ‘stranger’. To the ancient Greeks, hospitality was a divine right that provided safe passage, shelter, food and drink to the traveler – the foreigner, the other. This interaction between guest and host was meant to bring the two on an equal footing, creating the possibility, regardless of the status of each in their respective societies, to engage as equals, to establish a bridge of sorts.

In antiquity, the host was expected to ensure that the needs of his guests were addressed no matter how extreme. We have many terrifying examples from the Bible and Greek writings of the host sacrificing his family and personal property to protect his guests. It is exactly within this concept of hospitality that lies an inherent conflict. Absolute hospitality[2], where the guest is treated as a god regardless of the sacrifice, is at odds with the laws of hospitality, which place ethical limits on actions taken on behalf of the guest. In the latter example, both parties, guest and host, are expected to compromise for the benefit of an agreeable interaction. Modern conceptions of hospitality see the relationship between guest and host as a contract where the laws of hospitality take precedence over absolute hospitality.

Within this modern approach, the host is expected to provide a comfortable and amiable atmosphere where the guest is not made to feel as though he is imposing, and his needs as guest are met. The guest, especially in the West, also has certain responsibilities and is expected to behave in the house of the host, the private sphere where the host is master. Imposing on the host is seen as breaking the laws of modern hospitality by which both the guest and the host are bound.

This tradition leads to a power struggle between the guest and the host which manifests itself in various domains, even in the current debates about immigration, for example in the context of the current legislation in Bremgarten and other towns in Switzerland that prohibit refugees from entering various public spaces.

In contemporary conceptions of hospitality, there is always a negotiation, a risk that both parties undertake, and a set of expectations on both sides. It is in this space that the tension and clash arise.

The concept of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Hospitality as Artistic Practice recognizes that hospitality is a strategy for bringing people together or creating relationships among strangers. However, it is also this conflict between guest and host, the native versus the foreigner, the self versus the other, in fact the two sides of the same coin, that becomes the subject of our inquiry.

Small Meals and Some Objects by Cat Tuong Nguyen and Tracy Lim is a performance that begins in the public sphere and ends in the private realm. As curator, I invited Cat Tuong to take part in the exhibition, and in keeping with the concept of the show, he in turn brought a guest, Tracy Lim. Placing themselves in the public space, which in some Swiss towns is off-limits to refugees, Cat Tuong and Tracy, both foreigners in Switzerand, invite strangers they encounter on the street to cook in these strangers’ homes, in their private sphere. This confuses the roles of guest and host and creates a situation where the host (the stranger that accepts the artists’ invitation to cook together in their home) becomes a hostage of circumstance. Much like the absolute hospitality of antiquity, the stranger who accepts the invitation is both in control and at the mercy of the artists who create the rules of engagement, as is also true for myself as curator. I become both host and hostage to the artists’ concept. After the cooking session, the artists then ask the stranger to give them an object representing friendship that will be exhibited in the gallery. The elements of risk and failure are omnipresent during the entire performance. Each empty shelf records an unaccepted invitation.

Mo Diener and RR Marki Kollectiv will present Tableaux Vivants as part of the Intervention Rroma Jam Session. If folkloric and ethnic background is celebrated and romanticized in our neoliberal European multicultural life, RR Marki Collective (founded June 2013 by Mo Diener and Mustafa Asan) aims to work with an antagonistic participatory methodology. With various performance strategies as well as media analysis, the collective aims to reveal Rroma lives as an unknown part of European societies. Photographs of the Tableaux Vivants with the participation of the audience will be taken and exhibited daily.

San Keller presents two interventions, Les Vacances de San Keller and Please Ring Before You Enter. Les Vacances de San Keller is an invitation in the form of an authenticated certificate sold to the lucky collector that accepts to bring San Keller along on an all-expenses paid vacation. Here again we are asked to question the role of the guest and host and the rules of engagement for each party. Who is in control in this encounter? What are the power relations involved?

Le Dejeuner Sous l’Herbe by Daniel Spoerri is one of his most important works of the past few decades. In 1983 the artist invited 100 of his dearest colleagues in the art world to have lunch with him in the garden of the Fondation Cartier. They were all asked to bring the silverware and tableware that best represented them. The elaborate meal was served and after everyone was finished, the tables with the remaining tableware, food, silverware, remnants, etc. were buried in the ground in the exact positions in which they were left by the guests. This action not only reflected the artist’s desire to put an end to – to bury – his tableaux pièges with which he had become synonymous, but was also a reference to the murder of his father, a Romanian Jew, in the pogrom of Jassy in 1941. I see this event as informing his entire practice. It is the starting point of his exploration of the relationship between guest and host, and of his attempt to connect people through shared experiences. His tableaux pièges were ultimately ephemeral moments that he tried to immortalize by exhibiting remnants of meals on gallery walls, which thus became symbols of the permanence of human interaction. Le Dejeuner Sous l’Herbe performance affected me on a personal level too. My great-grandfather, a Romanian Jew as well, was also murdered in that same pogrom. This shared fate leads me to question the permanence of human relationships and underscores the tension and conflict inherent in the encounter between self and other. And as if to echo this skepticism, in 2010, the first archaeological dig of contemporary art was undertaken by Bernard Müller to observe the decaying process of that buried luncheon. The former guests were invited back to discuss their experience at the famous event back in 1983 and the relationships that they formed. Documentation from the archive of Bernard Müller along with a film by Laurent Vedrine is exhibited.

Navid Tschopp will surprise with a performance called The Guest in the basement of the art space. The locale of this performance is important as the basement is the underground, the place of the invisible, the illicit, the unofficial, but also a place of sanctuary and shelter for the marginalized. The Guest explores the power struggle between curator and artist, as well as host and guest, roles which curator and artist play in the exhibition process. But as the performance unfolds, it soon becomes clear that both curator and artist are actually just hostages of the public. As the ultimate guests, the public becomes our master.

Supported by the Dr. Georg and Josi Guggenheim Foundation, The Proposal and Itinerant Projects

1. Of Hospitality, Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Standford University Press, 2000
2. Of Hospitality, Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Standford University Press, 2000

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