The 35-year-old performance artist Bryan Zanisnik plans to commemorate Independence Day with a lot of food, but probably not in the same way you do. In the past, his audiences have covered his body with mashed potatoes and Viennese pastries. But for his upcoming performance in Los Angeles, titled The Problem with Appetite, Zanisnik will suspend himself from the ceiling while wearing a parachute of balloons and a military jumpsuit. He will then cook pancakes out of hanging skillets shaped like US states and flip them onto the floor—conveniently forming a cushion should he fall. We spoke with Zanisnik about his absurdist performances and the “alchemic” relationship between art and food.
As someone who often considers the American psyche through the lens of our national pastimes—baseball cards, roadside attractions, family dinners—what significance do Independence Day celebrations hold for you?
In 2008, I attended an amazing Fourth of July parade in central Maine. Floats were haphazardly built on top of pickup trucks, parade marchers soaked the audience with huge water guns, and a mix of hippies, punks, libertarians and local residents were wrapped in American flags running up and down the parade route. It felt out of control, even dangerous, and I thought, This is a holiday for America.
You’ve incorporated food into many of your performances over the years. Why does it resonate with you so much?
I’ve always been interested in medieval alchemy, especially its attempts to turn one natural material into another. For me, there is something alchemic about using food in my performances. An object normally thought of for sustenance or for sensory pleasure turns into a sculptural one that we are looking at more formally, and thinking about its relationship to the nonedible objects in the work.
Since a lot of my performances incorporate my actual mother and father, I’ve been interested in making works about family dinners and what it was like to eat as a child. For Ten-Thousand Meals than Ever Yet, my parents sat at opposite ends of a long table, frozenly leaning over plates of pasta for two hours. I was inside the table, dressed in pajamas, quietly tugging on a rope that was causing my father’s plate to wobble. It’s a family dinner tableau, but it’s a little perverse, and the food has become static, a bit stale and something to be played with rather than eaten.
Ten-Thousand Meals Than Ever Yet, Performance, P.P.O.W., New York, NY 2009
The new show’s title suggests a darker side to consumption. What do you see as the problem with appetite?
A lot of restaurants in the United States have ridiculously large portion sizes, especially fast-food restaurants. There’s a diner in Clinton, New Jersey, about 40 minutes from where I grew up, that has a 50-pound burger. It’s appropriately called the Mount Olympus burger. The title of my performance references this overconsumption, but I don’t intend the work to be merely read as critical of these cuisines. I don’t eat meat, but if I did, I would sit down at the diner in Clinton and try to eat one of those giant burgers. I guess I have a perverse fascination with overconsumption and its broader relationship to American culture. More than wanting to criticize American diets, I would rather create an artwork that suggests we are sitting down, eating together and simply becoming aware of what is around us. Who knows, maybe for my next performance I will eat a 50-pound veggie burger.
Barbeque might have been a more obvious cuisine to employ on this particular holiday. Why did you choose pancakes?
I’ve been fascinated with pancakes for about 10 years. When I first read that IHOP was having a weekend special of all-you-can-eat pancakes I thought it was absurd, as pancakes seemed to be the one food that you cannot eat a lot of. I couldn’t imagine feeling good after eating nine or 10 pancakes. I always wanted organize a pancake-eating contest with all of my friends at one of these IHOPs, but it never happened. I don’t think many would have showed up if I had organized it, so, in a way, this performance takes its place.
The Problem with Appetite, curated by Summer Guthery, takes place July 7, from 6 to 8 p.m., at LAXART.