A conversation with Jessamyn Fiore
This week, justArts&Culture spoke with Jessamyn Fiore, who was the co-director of the Matta Clark Estate. She co-hosted the “Anarchitect: A Conversation on Gordon Matta-Clark” on Saturday. Gordon Matta-Clark is a New York artist who famously produced a series of architecture projects that remove parts of the buildings and explore the idea of space in an urban context. The exhibition displays collections of prints, photos and films created by him at the Rose Art Museum.
JustArts&Culture: Why don’t we start with something nice, the artist-run resturant FOOD. I recently read an article about restaurants in San Francisco having a hard time because of the rising rent. What’s the idea behind this restaurant, where artists make food for themselves?
Jessamyn Fiore: Just to give a little bit of background on it, FOOD restaurant opened in the fall of 1971, but a year before in the fall of 1970, this alternative art space called 112 Green Street opened. This was the first independent art space in SOHO. It wasn’t a prestigeous white cute gallery. It was still rough. It had been a former rag picking business. Gordon Matta-Clark and his friends Jeffree Lew started this and invited all these artists to make site-specific sculptures, to do dance performances, music performances, all kinds of things. And that was a reflection of this kind of interdisciplinary community that was hanging out then.
But like I mentioned, [in SOHO] there weren’t a lot of restaurants. There weren’t a lot of places to go out to. And with FOOD, basically the artists themselves decided to open this restaurant. So the idea behind it was yes, it was a restaurant, but it was a place that if you needed a good meal that was cheap, you could eat there. Or if you needed a job, you can work there. And there’s a lot of artists that when they first arrived in New York City, were told “Go to FOOD Restaurant. They’ll give you a job and you can meet people.” So it really became this kind of extension of this art world. They also did something that was very different than your traditional restaurants, where on Sundays they would have special meals and a lot of times they would be food performances. So it’s saying like this is a restaurant but we’re also going to make it another creative venue and do experiments with food. So Gordon, for example, did a meal called Matta Bones, for everything that he made in the meal was on the bone he would have everybody eat and then he would take the leftover bones, clean them, drill a hole through it and put it on a string so you could wear them home like a necklace.
JAC: I also read that this is one of the first places in New York that served sushi.
JF: That’s exactly it as well. Because for these special meals, they would also invite in chefs to serve sushi. [It] also had Vietnamese cooking, as well as part of a film event they were doing about the Vietnam War and so on. So it was this place of exotic and experimental cuisine, and it was a meeting place. But for Gordon it wasn’t just a business. It became a kind of artwork too. He took photographs of it. He made a film that’s a sort of a day in the life of the restaurant, beginning at the fish market, buying the fish for the day. And then going and opening it up and see the cooking, and then you see the patrons. And then it ends with all the friends hanging out around the table, talking and joking. And it really gives you the flavor of this restaurant.
Also when they were renovating it, he did one of his very first cuttings, where he removed part of the wall to expose the counter. And then he showed that cutting with a photograph of it in his first exhibition at 112 Green Street alongside the Bronx floors. So he really treated FOOD restaurant as it was a business; it was a place to eat, but it was another extension of his art practice.
And in general, even before FOOD restaurant, he used food in his art. So he did a piece underneath the Brooklyn Bridge called Garbage Wall that we have a film here [at the exhibition]. The film is called “Fire Child.” He was invited by Alana Heiss, who went on to set up P.S.1, to do this site-specific project under the Brooklyn Bridge. At that time there was a very large homeless encampment there. So for the opening, he roasted a pig underneath the bridge to invite everyone, and to invite the people who live there and to invite the homeless people to come and eat, because he saw food as the great equalizer. So if you invite someone to come share food with you, you can bring people into an art experience, who might otherwise feel like they’re on the outside of that. It’s a way to invite them in and to begin a conversation, and to make them feel included. Gordon really wanted everyone to be able to participate in the art and have conversations about it and feel welcome to it. So food is a great way of doing that.
JAC: Something we see in a lot of Gordon’s art projects, from graffiti on the Berlin Wall to cutting off a part of a building in the middle of the city, is the openness towards the public. What is Gordon’s view on putting one’s self out in the public when creating art?
JF: He was definitely a proponent of it. He was in fact very interested in student movements at the time. In particular, there was a group when he was in Italy, a group of students that occupied I think a big factory building in Milan. … He loved what they were doing and you know, seeing them as young people trying to take control of their society and their state, and he offered to cut an Arc de Triomphe in the wall of the factory that they were occupying to show his support. But they were like, “Who are you? We are not interested in that at all, thank you.”
He wasn’t just saying, “I will go out and do these things and get this attention.” He was very interested in what other people were doing. So like with the graffiti — he wasn’t going out and making graffiti. He was taking photographs of the graffiti that was there, and then trying to show it to everyone else. He loves the idea of particular young people being involved, being empowered, making their mark, expressing their wants and expressing also what made them angry, like if they’re pissed off by the state. Again, like I said in the story, you also have to remember that the Vietnam War was going on then. There was a huge amount of protests that were happening. … I think if he was around today, and I hate playing that game, but I do think he would always have been supportive of young people making their work and having their voices heard, standing up for what they believe in, and making their mark and not to be afraid.
A lot of the gestures he made and projects he did are like he presents a question, or like he points out a problem, or an issue. He says, “Alright here’s my solution, possible solution, but what’s yours. Here’s my try but can you do better.” So in that way I think it’s very generous, and I think that’s why he’s had such a profound influence on younger artists, generation after generation. Because he’s not somebody who said, “You know I did this and this is the way it has to be done.” He’s someone who said, “Okay, I see this is a problem, this is a failure and the way of thinking about our space and how we relate to one another isn’t working. So I’m going to propose a different way we can look at this.” But maybe you could do that, and you can make it better, and you can take that same idea and do something else with it. … It’s more of a conversation rather than just saying, “Well here’s what I think and that’s that.”
JAC: In America, there are cities that are two hundred years old. In other places like Asia or Africa, some cities are only a few decades old. If Gordon Matta-Clark was alive today and were given a city to design, what would be the thing that he would incorporate into his blueprint?
JF: I think a lot of his projects and what he was trying to highlight or bring in was the people living in an urban environment; sometimes they just end up being put into boxes. They are given very limited space to call their own, and they are also given very limited interaction with the elements around them, like light, water, nature and neighbors. You know, he was very interested in the spaces in the city that weren’t being used or occupied, like the air or the underground. He was very interested in green spaces and how to create gardens, kind of before community gardens. He had all these proposals for what he would call Gorilla Gardens, where in the middle of the night, just show up to an empty lot and put a garden in there. Then people would wake up with this beautiful green space. Him and Robert Smithson did a proposal together for a project called “Floating Islands” on the Hudson, which they would take barges and plant gardens in them and have them sail around the island for people to be able to experience these parts floating on the water.
I think that’s the general thrust about architecture, in particular the kind of high modernist architecture, is like, “How do we create these places to live that is stripped back to the essentials?” And I think Gordon was more concerned with “No. Architecture is every element of where you are in relation to the water and the air and the light and the greenery. How do you move throughout your day? What are the different spaces that you occupied or could occupy? And also how do you transform your own space? The importance of people having the ability and the power to be able to do that. So I think if he was placed in a city, and a city that is being newly built, I think that these would be the kind of questions he would be asking: ... How does one in daily life move through an urban space and what are the potentialities? How can we transform that space so that you can interact with and access these essential qualities of living?
— Luke Liu