Germany, June 2011 – Art is arguably our purest luxury. It has no inherent function, although it can enhance all other aspects of life. In contrast, food can simultaneously be a luxury and fuel all life’s functions, as Jay Batlle’s witty and thoughtful art demonstrates.
Here, we discuss Batlle’s contribution to “Local Host,” a group exhibition at the Ausstellungshalle zeitgenössische Kunst Münster from 4 June – 18 September 2011. At Rita McBride’s invitation, Batlle created a festive performance involving Mettenden, a local north-west Rhineland wurst, beer and onion mustard, HP bbq mustard, dill honey mustard and five local beers, served by students from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf on trays marked with phrases Batlle noticed during his travels in Ghana. Alongside this artist-catered meal is a slide show of images Batlle took from Ghana, titled Ha, I Smell Life.
Ana Finel Honigman: In reflection, how has the meaning and significance of your pre-recessionary works changed in recent years?
Jay Batlle: Yes, it is extremely weird to feel like you predicted the future economic situation with your art practice. Unfortunately the recession didn’t make the “Debt Sculptures” more significant, it just made things more difficult, and now I’ve stopped; well actually, I have changed. With sculpture I was trying to find a way out of Minimalism. I used credit culture as a subjective ingredient to determine the form and the content in my work. It was a way to make reductive pieces that didn’t just echo the post-minimal sculpture happening at the time. I was searching for a voice that seemed to mean something more than just formalism. I think that this is a symptom of youth, trying to make things mean something. So I don’t think the meaning has changed. I have. But maybe only time will tell.
AFH: I clocked your credit. How do you feel the New York art world has changed since the crash? You were comfortable talking about that taboo before anyone I knew there. Do you think people have a healthier, more open relationship to their financial realities now?
JB: I think the art world is even more clandestine, because it has to be to function. So when the money disappears everyone pulls in to manage the damage, but outwardly a lot of galleries are expanding, and at the rate Gagosian is opening spaces, galleries could become franchises like McDonalds. It is a basic business model — always be selling.
AFH: What don’t you eat?
JB: I try not to eat crow.
AFH: Are there works that you feel, in retrospect, were not sufficiently sincere or worthy of your attention? Do you think that, overall, your work works well together?
JB: I have always had a serial way of working and I like the idea of “ends” and “beginnings” in art or cycles. I think some artists refer to this as bodies of work or moments, or possible “-isms”. I think it’s my contradictive nature that led me to be this way, so maybe in the beginning my audience was confused by my polymorphic practice, but the farther I go with this strategy, the more I see that eventually an artist ends up repeating themselves and these contradictions become strengths. I’m also editing a lot more than I used to.
AFH: How does Ha, I Smell Life relate to this particular meal? Is it a reference to all food and the inherent life-sustaining properties of eating something yummy and nutritious?
JB: Yes, I think I’m interested in different social structures and situations in my work, and eating in a different place affects the experience, just like art. Going on this walk in Ghana was a way for me to escape from my constructed reality in NYC. The title of this slide show is a Shelley quote, which came to mind while I ate peanut butter soup, containing giant land snail, local goat, and grass cutter. Grass cutter is basically rat. The temperature was 100 degrees. In a place called a “Chop Shop.” It’s a meal I will never forget.
AFH: “Never forget” in a positive sense? Is it comparable to anything I’d recognize…say, chicken?
JB: I mean that it was an extreme experience. Not like when I had Alain Passard’s ten-course garden menu in Paris at L’Arpège last summer dubbed “French vegetarian.” I had the best chicken in my life, which was smoked in fresh hay and tasted like spring. The grass cutter tasted extremely gamey, and reminded me of goat. But in both experiences the context was as important as the food. Somehow my expectations had been fucked with.
AFH: What do you think German cuisine says about the Germans?
JB: I had a lot of wurst and beer, and some of the best bread, but it’s definitely practical in general, efficient.
AFH: Many of the signs in your Ghana sign-series seem eerily philosophical – almost like Jenny Holzer works. Were locals aware of the weirdness in “Look what God has done” written over another painted sign reading “fast food”?
JB: No, but the people of Ghana are amazingly sophisticated and these signs are the literal interpretation of Fanti (one of the ten local languages) to English, the main language spoken there. It’s a practical thing for them, God and Commerce; these signs I photographed are really deadpan and serious to the Ghanaians. I guess it’s like someone coming to NYC and seeing a Subway sandwich sign and looking for the train.
AFH: Why translate them? Is it just part of the global trend for English signs? I love traveling, especially in Asia, and seeing signs that make no sense but seem fashionable because a few random English words are used.
JB: English is the common language used there, like French in the Ivory Coast; it comes out of the colonial history, just like America. English is specific to Ghana.
AFH: Is there any connection, besides the autobiographical fact that you have worked in both places, connecting Ghana and Germany in these works?
JB: My work is about extremes and contradictions. These two destinations seem extreme in relation to each other, but also I was invited to both places by very generous hosts, so I made the connection through the generosity of others.
AFH: How do you know Rita McBride? How did that hook-up happen?
JB: Rita McBride is a huge supporter of my work past and present. We met at de Ateliers in Amsterdam, but hung out in New York. I love her work, and she has inspired me in many ways.
AFH: Do you need to like an artist’s work to be his or her friend?
JB: It helps, and I think artists need to stick together. We can help each other a lot. More than we think.
AFH: Do you perceive eating well as a luxury or a priority?
Dirty Martini, collection Felix Salmon and Michelle Vaughan, New York; Courtesy of the Artist
AFH: Explain. I am really obsessed with the nutrient content of my food. I spend almost all my microscopic income on yummy, good food. What do you look for in a meal?
JB: This might sound pathetic, but I need to have goals to motivate me through the day. So eating and making a meal is this carrot on a stick for me; it’s a priority. As said before I’m into contradictions, and so it is also a luxury. Because my carrot on the stick is usually dipped in foie gras and Burgundy.
AFH: What does “eating well” mean to you?
JB: I think eating what you want, but most people have been brought up eating shit, so they think they want it. Not feeling compromised after the experience or angry about price.
AFH: What do you generally think of German cuisine?
JB: Well I ate about fifteen different types of wurst to decide what wurst to use in my performance, and so I would say meat-centric.
AFH: What’s the quintessential American food?
JB: Hamburger, French fries, milkshake.
AFH: What are your thoughts on Germans’ Spragel fetish?
JB: I love epicurean things like this; it has history and pride, and it makes your pee smell funny….
ArtSlant would like to thank Jay Batlle for his assistance in making this interview possible. Jay Batlle would also like to extend his thanks to Rita McBride and her students from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf for their participation.