Menus in stone | Apollo Review

Excerpt from the January 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

There is a memorable passage in Samuel Beckett Molloy (1951), in which the wandering narrator of the first section of the novel ruminates on his method of sucking up stones. The process of transferring 16 pebbles between his two pockets and his mouth and vice versa, so as to suck up each stone in a cohesive order, is a puzzle that proves unsolvable, inevitably defeating him. “They all tasted exactly the same,” he finally admits. He decides to keep only one stone, “which of course I quickly lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed”.

Holding pebbles in your mouth isn’t as weird as it sounds. People in many cultures have done this, especially in hot, dry climates, as they have sought to activate their salivary glands in order to stave off thirst. Swallowing rocks is a bad idea, of course. Like many bad ideas, Western medicine has a name for it: lithophagy, a type of pica, which is a predilection for chowing down on things you’re not supposed to eat.

The craziness of eating stone hasn’t stopped people from seeing food in it. The suggestion has long existed in cipollino marble, its name evoking by turns the color of onions, the stratified composition of the stone or its particular fragility (John Ruskin wrote of “the intended meaning of a stone dividing into concentric rings , like an onion’). There’s no doubt the potential was there too, in the cube of jasper that a Qing dynasty artist carved, drilled and dyed to create the famous ‘meat-shaped stone’, now in the collection of the National Museum. from the palace in Taipei: a little pig belly altar lithic, hard stone turned into soft fat.

Transforming substance into familiar forms is part of the craft of the sculptor; discerning these shapes in geological matter could imply that the Earth, whether by accident or design, is a vast sculpture in its own right. (In fact, as described by Fabio Barry in paint with stone, until the advent of modern geology it was often conceived of in terms of divine painting.) And when stone patterns or formations resemble food, we are easily locked into the realms of comedy and curiosity. At a recent exhibition in Cromwell Place, London, dealer Oliver Hoare displayed a wedge of white chalcedony, encased in dark green pyrolusite, as ‘A Slab of Stilton’. Its verisimilitude prompted this viewer, at least, to sniff the stone in an attempt to disqualify its appearance.

The late Jimmie Durham reveled in fake IDs like this. In a series of installations called The dangers of petrification, begun in the mid-1990s, the American artist placed pebbles and rock samples in glass cases, with handwritten labels spelling out the fossilized foodstuffs the objects resembled: “petrified pecorino”, “petrified melon”, ” petrified poppy seed bun”. The effect was somewhere between a geological presentation and a buffet, with some rocks presented on plates or cutting boards. A few were accompanied by knives, their blades taunted by food they could never hope to cut.

For Durham, I feel like it was mischief with serious intent. Many of his works satirize current classification systems – in this case those of natural history museums – in an openness to alternative ways of organizing the world. The title, The dangers of petrification, suggests that risk is inherent as things harden, not so much as the slow time of geology turns them to stone, but in a metaphorical sense, as their definitions lock into place. Durham drew further attention to this through the inconclusiveness of some of its labels: a slice of red marble described as “petrified pizza or Portuguese sausage”, a small flint as “petrified bon bon of indeterminate flavour”.

In one of the two windows of The Dangers of Petrification II (1998–2007), a note reads: ‘[Al]most anything, given the right conditions and enough time, can turn to stone. For all their irony, these works also offer the wonder, the magic of enduring natural processes that can be apprehensible but difficult to comprehend. They let us dream that even what is eminently perishable can be preserved. From this point of view, the windows of Durham have close relatives in the rock food table, a display owned by the East Texas Gem and Mineral Society (ETGMS). Beginning in 1983, Texas “rockhounds” Bill and Lois Pattillo collected samples of rocks and minerals that looked like food, presenting them to fellow enthusiasts on a set table for dinner. Turning the tables on specialty exhibits across the United States, through donations, acquisitions, and their own finds, they amassed hundreds of items: honey calcite cheese, slug-pearl hominy, bacon d alabaster, agate chewing gum. There are now more than 30 potatoes, club secretary Julia Toombs tells me, and nearly two dozen eggs.

In practice, this collection is organized into three tables, set respectively for dinner, dessert and breakfast. Each table represents meals in which different dishes are served to individual diners – as if it were a large difficult family of stone eaters, in which one brother insists on the hamburger, another on the chicken, a third on the pork chop. The whole is deliciously exuberant, a monument both to the spirit of its creators and to the geological fullness that fascinated them. It will then be displayed at the company’s annual expo at the Tyler Rose Garden Center, Texas, January 21-23. Visitors are not allowed to touch the rock foods, let alone taste them.

Excerpt from the January 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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