04 June 2010

Excavating postmodern art: Daniel Spoerri's "Lunch Under the Grass"

The remains of the feast (AFP)

Claire Rosenberg (AFP) reports on the excavation of a postmodern art project from 1983:

Pigs' ears, smoked udders, veal lungs and other assorted offal tidbits left over from the luncheon are under the scrutiny of a team of French archaeologists working hand-in-hand with anthropologists, art historians and the organiser of the banquet himself.

On April 23, 1983, Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, a key figure of post-war European art and inventor of the Eat-Art concept, invited artists, gallery-owners and critics for a lunch-cum-performance where guests buried the remains of the banquet underground.

"My wife didn't eat a thing," said Peter Knapp, a Swiss photographer of 79 celebrated for his work at Elle magazine who was one of the 80 there. "He wanted it to be different and probably hoped people would feel sick just looking at the menu."

This week, with 80-year-old Spoerri looking on, a team of diggers led by prominent French archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule excavated part of the artsy site -- "to see what the remains tell us about artistic circles in the 1980s", said Demoule.

The lunch leftovers, or the work now known as "Lunch Under The Grass" -- a play on the famed Manet oil painting "Lunch On The Grass" ("Dejeuner sur l'Herbe) -- were buried in a 40-metre (-yard) long trench in sumptuous gardens south of Paris.

The project reminds me immediately of Chris Tilley's observation that excavation is an artform in itself, where the real drama and excitement are quite separated from the academic data that results. The project has a deep conceptual stratigraphy:
  • A bourgeois lunch
  • The Manet painting of it
  • Spoerri's recreation of the lunch a century later
  • The excavation of the recreation three decades later
  • The recording of the excavation
Spoerri's work, which deals a lot with mapping the spatial relationship between objects, has a quite archaeological flavor to it, mixed with a playful midcentury dadaism. I love the transformation the concept into radically different media. Excavation is literally treated as an art medium here, I love it.


That said, the project also affirms why archaeology is more than just an adventure sport or a pretentious art project:

In the case of the offal banquet, Demoule added, surviving witnesses of the luncheon had totally mistaken where the trench was dug and offered false and often contradictory information on the event.

"Archaeological techniques and scientific methods have set the wrongs right," Demoule said. "Historians will often rely solely on written testimony but archaeology can confirm or add to existing information."

There's an interesting philosophical question in there, something like 'does the way you remember an experience mean more than the precise facts?' A rhetorical question, of course - WHY memory differs from what happened is what's really interesting. Archaeology is our only way to ground-truth history: we need it to answer questions about how we remember as people and as societies.


The project will be ongoing: they only excavated part of the meal, and reburied it after excavation so that the site could be revisited in future decades with different technology.


  1. It's good to see Mark Dion hasn't cornered the market.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tim, I hadn't heard of Dion before. I have kind of a thing for Wunderkabinetts!