Dinner parties are as intrinsically human as opposable thumbs and art.
We had a dinner party the other night. There was a lot of leftover cheese, so I’ve spent the day eating leftover party cheese. Good for hangovers, bad for voiceovers.
My mom and dad used to throw amazing parties. One time, they threw a party that featured a whole roast suckling pig. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my Swedish grandmother, wondering whether pig’s brains were tasty or not. Our discussion was interrupted by my dad, suddenly appearing kitchen to get something, who proclaimed, “never eat brains. They’re disgusting.” Moral questions aside, at least we knew for sure my dad isn’t a zombie.
My dad was the manager of private country clubs; it was part of his job to throw huge events for wedding receptions, holiday parties, golf tournaments. He brought the elegance to our family parties. My mom was very down to earth — her favorite food was peanut M&Ms — and easy to connect to — she brought the warmth.
They made a powerful party pair, my dad with his funny accent, my mom with hers (although, she grew up in Wisconsin, so her accent was only funny to people from Illinois. Maybe Indiana too). Roast pigs, raw oysters, champagne — pretty exotic stuff for our whitebread suburban community in the middle of Midwestern farmland.
This was back when the most exotic things at most parties was Ambrosia, a salad made of canned fruit cocktail, mayonnaise and shredded coconut. The coconut made it other worldly. Halved grapes made it divine. Because in the Midwest, Elysian Fields is a well-stocked supermarket.
In the ’70s, when I was small, all I remember is long dresses, a lot of legs, ice cubes in cocktails and dancing in the living room.
Dinner parties are weird. They seem so grown up, so sophisticated — a rare evening in someone’s home, away from the rest of the world and suspended in the glow of conversation and wine. At least, that was the impression I got when I was a kid. When I grew up and started going to dinner parties myself, they were even more strange than I imagined — not so much glamorous as intrinsically human. There’s always something something behind the scenes you either never see or never reveal, hoping the flickering candlelight will hide what needs to be hid, and shows only what you want your guests to see.
I met Swedish artist Henrik Stromberg at a party last summer. Somehow, we wound up in a conversation about morality in art, talking about Damien Hirst’s decomposing animals and Dr Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds. I kept running into Henrik over the course of the year at other dinner parties, art openings, or brunches, and he would always pick up the conversation where it left off, greeting me with things like, “I just read about an artist who practiced cannibalism and it made me think of you”.
But our conversation was always dystopian, always on the dark side of that fine line between art and destruction. We hadn’t gotten around to talking about artists like Pierre Huyghe and his painted greyhound, free to roam around whatever installation it’s a part of. Or Greek artist Jannis Kounellis’ live animal installations, using caged birds or a dozen horses as talking points in a narrative about our human world, our modern day myths and mistakes and myopia, just like those of Ancient Greek legend, recounting tales of profound tragedy and incredible glory, victories repeated and reassembled like stairways to heaven.
Many years ago in Brooklyn, my roommate decided to throw herself a birthday dinner party, to which she somehow arrived late. Even though she lived there. The first of her guests to arrive — before she did — was a guy I’d seen around the Lower East Side for years but had never met, and he had seen me. When I opened the door, we both said “It’s you!” so surprised to see each other again we blurted out the same thing.
The artist Man Ray said that to create is divine, to reproduce is human. He was speaking, of course, of his own work in photographs and Rayograph negatives, his paintings and film, reducing images and material down to their form, attempting to capture the movement of creation itself.
Entering the gallery A Plus, the work that greets you is a photographic negative of two cobblestones from the Berlin streets. These are real cobblestones, picked up and gripped by union men, ready to chuck at the police on Labor Day — a traditionally rowdy and borderline violent holiday in Berlin. Out of these stones, Stromberg creates a type of obelisk, stacking them in a sort of monument to macho aggression, the one perched on the other in a teetering moment — about to fall and crash to the floor, about to be hurled forward in an explosion of rage. The photonegative is tinted yellow — a piss-yellow — that adds to the acidity and seething movement in the photograph itself.
Again in Brooklyn, some years later, I threw a Thanksgiving dinner party while my mom was visiting. My boyfriend at the time mixed up batches of martinis which fueled a mother-daughter territorial war in the kitchen. The stove caught on fire, the carrots tasted like my new shower curtain, and I passed out in the soup. My mother won that battle. She was a better hostess than me.
On the north wall of the gallery, another large format photo negative, this one tinted red. This photo is of two bowling cups, trophies for a local bowling team. Stromberg inverts one and places it atop the other, so the mouths are fused, the middle swelling out full of the glorious moments of someone’s life.
Maybe because of the faded red tint of the photo, this one strikes me as very feminine, and when I first saw it, I thought it was a bomb, an old WW2 relic Stromberg had dug up from somewhere. And now I can’t unsee my own interpretation, and this photo is the one I’m drawn to most: the feminine bomb, serene and deadly, facing off against that threatening obelisk on the other wall. I mean, I guess you’d only see it that way if you have “issues”. Gesundheit!
The two photographs, presented in the negative, go back to Man Ray’s photography, specifically his Rayographs — non-camera photography that produces the negative image of an object, much like the casings or molds created for sculpture — or sports trophies: golems devoid of the thing they are created to contain, possessing meaning only when we breathe a story into it.
When I turned 30 I was at the film festival in Cannes, where I wandered around lost with a producer who had invited me and a motley crew we collected along the way to a dinner party to which we never arrived… like the film negative of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, about a dinner party where the guests can never leave.
Among that motley crew was a woman I would meet again 12 years later, in Paris, at a dinner party with a bunch of Danes on the banks of the Seine.
On the south wall are a very different series of collaged photographs and imagery, simple and geometric and profound. They are part of Stromberg’s group of work called Parts from Places — old, often disintegrating geographical maps that Stromberg uses as orienteering tools: he visits the points on the maps, photographs them as they are today, and then uses the negatives of these, along with pieces of the falling-apart maps, to find a meeting place where precision — in the maps — is deconstructed — in the photographic negatives — creating a collage that is more like moving shadows of geometric forms, returning the function back to pure form, the precision back to mystery. To me, they are like photographs of the flickering shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, that story of the prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads, mistaking shadows cast by unseen puppeteers for reality, the point where real life and fiction join in a suspension of disbelief. A dancing dinner party of forms hidden and revealed.
Back in Los Angeles, I was friends with a couple who would host beautiful dinner parties at their penthouse apartment, learning later they had no money, and would divide all the food they had into tiny portions, serve it on beautiful platters and call it nouvelle cuisine. We went hungry but we felt very glamorous, overlooking the lights of the city, clinking our crystal glasses filled with cheap champagne.
In between all these two dimensional images in the gallery space are the sculptures, these burnt, blackened, primitive looking forms that look almost as though they’ve been excavated from Viking burial mounds, or stolen out of the secret lairs of trolls. Stromberg’s practice of finding these old trophies, taking them apart and putting them back together again in new forms that completely detach themselves from their original meanings is almost like a giant, simple-minded puppetmaster himself, reassembling someone else’s glorious moments and returning them to pure form. He treats the trophies with blackening and pigment, erasing whatever shine they once held, but sometimes treating an interior with a shockingly beautiful pigment: a deep fuschia, or a rich gold, as though they still pulse, deep in their hearts, with long-ago victory.
In Sweden I sat with cousins I hadn’t seen since childhood, at an early dinner party that felt like a Dogma film, filled with awkward silences and inappropriate laughter to break the news of distant deaths.
In the gallery, there are no bad angles. The connection between the sculptures on the pedestals and the works on the walls creates a Delauney triangulation, a type of web that networks all the pieces together. The pedastals with their polished surfaces are positioned just close enough to the walls to reflect the works hanging their, a ghostly presence floating just beneath the surface, echoes of another life, another story infusing the sculptural now.
In Berlin, I’ve been to dinner parties where all the food is color coded, making for some surprisingly tasty combinations, and some curious, sloppy messes, and dinner parties where all the courses are numbered, marched out in an orderly fashion for the sake of digestion and grace.
Talking about these trophies he’s become so familiar with, Stromberg points out that the better you are, the more parts you get in the middle. That has always been true of humans, hasn’t it? During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, having more parts to your middle — if you were fat, that is — was a sign of success. Slowly we transferred our success away from the body and into material objects like trophies.
We anchor ourselves in the middle of our lives, with marriage and children and homes, give ourselves something solid to hold on to as we creep at our petty pace from day to day. And the better we are, the more parts we have in the middle: two cars instead of one, four kids instead of two, three houses, six bathrooms, TVs and furniture and collections of stuff and memories and places to store them all.
Stacked up against our puny-ness, the great abyss of existence, guarding our loved ones from being confronted and terrified by those who live with no fixed address, either out of necessity or curiosity. But that is the divine, the people who can take canned fruit and condiments and create nourishment for the gods.
But Stromberg’s work is concerned with the human: blackened, decayed, reassembled, repurposed, knocked down, dragged out, get back up and start-all-over-again humanity.
It takes a long time to learn how to throw a good dinner party, be a gracious host, find that tricky combination of elegance and warmth. My mother died in 2009, her life marked with a Swedish smorgasbord and a burning ship on the lake. My father retired in 2010 and sits at the head of the table at his children’s dinner parties, sharing tales of his life and adventure, an honored guest instead of host.
If I were to string all these dinner parties together, I would have a table that stretched to the North Sea, years and years of dinner parties and guests, swollen in the middle with moments of drunken glory and victorious mistakes, elegant and warm and full of stories repeated, re-purposed, reassembled like a function back to form, like a form to dust.
Over the next three weeks, the exhibit Echoes in Dust itself becomes an extension of the Stromberg’s practice of dismantling, reassembling, repurposing, repeating. The works will rotate in and out of the space, always with the two anchor points of limited editions by Man Ray and Jannis Kounnellis, courtesy of Fontaine b., acting as references to the form and the story in Stromberg’s work.
Henrik Stromberg’s Echoes in Dust is on view until 8 October, with a new configuration and special appearances of original works and limited editions by Man Ray and Jannis Kounnellis on the 13th, 15th and 23rd of September, and the 1st of October. At A Plus, located at Stromstrasse 38 in Berlin.
*And by “we” hosted a dinner party, I mean Hagan Schumann of Galerie A Plus, and Chiara Valci Mazzara and Gabriella Covblic of rare art dealers Fontaine b. We decided to team up and kick off Berlin Art week with a little art party here at Artipoeus Headquarters. It was delicious.
On behalf of Fontaine b and Gallery A Plus, a very special thanks to all our dinner guests, the ones who joined us, the ones who couldn’t make it, and the ones who followed along on Instagram.