One evening after closing time, I entered the dark lobby of Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art. I had come to participate in The Dining Project, a conceptual installation piece by Lee Mingwei. Lee, a Taiwan native who spent summers at a Buddhist monastery and learned to cook from his family's chefs, first conceived of The Dining Project while studying art at Yale. Almost every night at the Whitney for three months, a museum goer picked by lottery would join him for dinner and conversation.
That evening, he escorted me into a gallery and invited me onto a raised tatami dining platform bordered by what appeared to be black stones but which were actually beans. When I lowered my bare feet into the recessed area under the table, they sunk into a layer of uncooked white rice--a cool, delicious feeling. Lee had already prepared dinner in the museum's kitchen (soba noodles in peanut sauce was the centerpiece) and laid it out in beautiful lacquerware. We ate, sipped barley tea and talked late into the night while he recorded our conversation.
When I questioned whether a meal could become art simply by placing it in a museum, Lee explained his philosophy: "I think art is a process and an experience, rather than an object." For me, the experience was revelatory. I felt as if I were part of a performance without an audience, with every element of the meal metaphorically stage lit.
The next day, I returned to the museum. Gallery goers circled the unoccupied dining platform as our voices, altered to maintain anonymity, played through hidden speakers, ghostly traces of our nocturnal meal.
The Dining Project will be at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art from May 21 to August 8; 216-421-8671.