Since 2000, Lucy and Jorge Orta’s 70 x 7 The Meal has taken place in towns and cities in Europe and the USA. The 31st happened to be in Plymouth on Halloween – running alongside the Ortas’ exhibitions at Plymouth Arts Centre (PAC) and Plymouth College of Art (PCA).
These staged communal meals are often themed, the food served on limited edition porcelain plates, and placed on silkscreened tablecloths, all designed by the Ortas. The 70 x 7 The Meal was set up as a “model of communal communication and potential regeneration to commemorate the commitment and life long work of Padre Rafael Garcia Herreros”. Herreros initiated a series of benefit banquets to raise money for a major social development project in Bogotá. The project was designed to radically transform the most abandoned zones of the city into thriving communities.
The title comes from the invitation process, whereby if you are invited, you can then invite two more people, albeit from a different age range (10-29, 30-49, 50+). There is also a request to bring something small and seasonal to exchange with another guest. So a chance to discuss the sustainability, economic and ecological impact of food, its production and journey to the shop shelves then? Well, possibly. Communal meals, banquets, feasts can be great events, but how does it work as art? The event was commissioned by Groundwork South West, cost £12K, with support from PAC, PCA and Arts Council England.
Arriving at 6pm there was some initial confusion as we had to queue to get back out to get back in to register, and also inform how far we had traveled so the event could get its own carbon footprint. This was illustrated through PCA student designed blackboards.
The theme for the meal was billed as ‘a celebration of wild and local food and sustainability’. Fat Hen, an organization based in Cornwall specializing in foraged seasonal produce, supplied the ingredients. A team of four cooked the food in the church kitchen and it was very good. A starter of spiced beetroot soup gave a good kick, similarly the wild sorrel pomme puree and wilted wild and seasonal greens was tastier than it sounds. The carragheen (seaweed) pudding, with shortbread and blackberry and apple compote was interesting, washed down with fresh apple juice pressed in Efford the day before. But the food had to be good, didn’t it.
Noticeably there were around 10 ‘no shows’, the general chatter seemed to be concerned with Strictly Come Dancing and I didn’t notice many independent local artists in attendance, although a few were in the team helping to make the event happen.
So what did the event achieve?
Not sure. Yes it raises awareness to the cost and impact of food, but to this audience it was preaching to the converted. Yes Lucy and Jorge Orta are internationally renowned artists, but I feel the concept of The Meal needs to change. There are lots of interesting and challenging ideas, but these need to be looked at. Art at this level tends to get quite elitist, an ‘old boys club’ slapping each other on the back. Eating communally can be great experiences, they can be shared by family, friends and strangers, where conversation and wine flow endlessly…
There is a great deal of work and facilitation to make an event such as this happen, it seems to me as though that is the actual art rather than the event. The invitations, the menus, the porcelain plates, the tablecloths: it has to look good as well as taste good.
70 x 7 The Meal Act XXXI
Sherwell Church Hall, North Hill, Plymouth, Saturday, October 31
• Did you go? What did you think? Comments below, please.
(image from the Lucy Orta exhibition at Plymouth Arts Centre)