I knew I was in the right place. I could smell it before I even got in the building. The brazenly pungent aroma emanated out the glass doors, down the yellow walls of the entrance corridor, and out into the San Francisco Art Institute’s scenic courtyard.
It was a smell both foreign and familiar. The fragrant notes of beef stew, rich with clove, onion and rosemary, coupled with the sour musty smell of cognac, wine, and time.
Inside, behind a large black curtain, a dark gooey brew bubbled from within a deep silver pot atop a gas stove, while various vegetables and spices rested on a butcher’s block next to it.
However, the cook, Jean-Baptiste Ganne, is not a chef. And he won’t be feeding his creation to any group of hungry foodies. Instead the French photographer and artist hopes to speak to something different. For this exhibit, titled “The Cookist, a very informal seminar on the question of work,” Ganne prepares a traditional French dish called la daube, cooked over a three-day period solely to produce a smell. There is nothing to eat, and little to see, making the exhibit particularly unique, as the fragrance can be experienced only by those present at the moment.
Hannah Ruskin, gallery assistant, said this kind of art is currently gaining popularity, and that many new art genres are focusing more attention on the resultant emotional impact than on the means of conveyance.
The coined word “cookist” comes from the combination of the words “cook” and “artist,” Ganne said, however the rest of the title is a bit more tongue-in-cheek. "I pretended I was on strike and I was not showing up,” he said, “but I was cooking instead.”
Ganne said he designed and produced the exhibit four years ago in Amsterdam, but this is the first time he has presented it in America.
“I was doing work in open studios, and I locked my studio, and locked myself in,” he said. “I cooked for six days. The idea was to have the smell of French stew.”
Hou Hanru, the director of exhibitions and public programs at the Art Institute’s World Factory gallery, said the theme of the work exhibited during this show is the relationship between different parts of the world in terms of production in the framework of global economy.
“Typically the first world is becoming the command center and consumption market, and the third world is like the factory, producing for this world market,” Hanru said. “Jean-Baptiste’s exhibit is a very interesting approach to this issue. It’s a sort of immaterial intervention in that it creates a desire that is never fulfilled.”
In usual French wit, Ganne compared his performance to that of a penned beast. “It is like a cage in a zoo,” he said. “You can watch the animal, how he’s cooking.”
Ganne began cooking the dish, which is traditional to France’s southeastern region of Provence, on Wednesday morning and continued through Friday evening. “At the end of the three days it’s like a jelly,” he said. “It’s a jam of meat.”
“It’s a very interesting challenge for an art space,” Hanru said. “We usually don’t have such a real life event in the gallery.” (Adam Brody)