at the Arts Club, November 16

The offerings were divine at the Lewd Food Fluxus Banquet, the service impeccable, the timing perfect, and the company charming. And that, in essence, was what was wrong with it. Lewd Food, part of the Fluxus extravaganza taking place in town, seemed a weird, almost sad parody of the original. Where artists associated with Fluxus–a campy, practically cheery low-art version of Dada–often made the rituals of eating part of their artistic palettes, they did so with an eye to inversion rather than reverence.

Most Fluxus eat-ins, if you will, had simple themes, such as a color or a specific dish. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a seminal Fluxus artist, once had a banquet in which every dish included grapefruit. On another occasion the artists might have produced a banquet of only green foods, or the now-famous “Ten Flavors of Mashed Potatoes” (reprised, after the more traditional dessert, at the Arts Club) featuring mashed potatoes flavored with cinnamon or mint as well as the more common varieties with gravy or melted butter. The idea was that the everyday has value–not, as a Dadaist might suggest, a wonderful absurdity–but inherent value for its own sake. The Fluxists wanted to rethink mashed potatoes: Hey, mashed potatoes and hot fudge! Why not? There’s a playful, childlike awe to this approach. What happens happens. And if nothing happens, that’s OK too.

But the Arts Club banqueters, well-intentioned as they were, seemed to miss the point. Unlike the Fluxus originals, they were dying for something to happen. But other than an impromptu, halfhearted oral copulation out in the hall between a banana and Geoff Hendricks, one of the original Fluxus artists brought in for the event, nothing much did. Moreover, the event seemed intended not to offend the Arts Club patrons–just titillate them a bit rather than create an authentic experience.

The tables were set with a bar of soap, labeled “Fluxus,” a finger bowl, the usual utensils, and instructions to wash a part of one’s body and, when asked to do so, make noise with an object from the table. I looked everywhere but never saw anyone do more than dip their fingers in those bowls–and most did that hesitantly. A group came out and played “Prelude for Trio,” a Three Stooges-like event in which the musicians washed themselves onstage rather than play instruments. A portrait of Georges Maciunas, the father of Fluxus, hung on the wall, reigning over the scene. When noise was requested, most of the diners gently banged their silverware against a glass or knocked on the tables. Though the gestures themselves were simple, everyone seemed surprisingly suspicious and uncomfortable.

In the middle of it all Larry Miller, another Fluxus original, set up a vitrine over one table, covering the food and place settings. To get at their food the four people seated at the table had to use holes cut for their arms and mouths in the glass box, which forced them to consider every movement. “It makes you very conscious,” said a young woman seated there. “You can’t smell the food unless you bring it right up to your mouth. You can’t hear the person sitting across from you unless you put your ear to the hole. It isolates every sense.”

Where Fluxus eat-ins were prepared by the artists themselves–these events were inherently collaborative–this food was prepared by the Arts Club chef, Alexander Dering, a charming man and skilled cook who didn’t have a clue. Asked by a patron if he had fun doing the food, Dering shrugged and muttered. He went so far as to confess having doubted whether he should even participate in the banquet but, given the Arts Club sponsorship, realized that it was OK to have his name associated with it.

The “Phallic Gar-Lick Shrimp” was shrimp with garlic and herbs, served with a steamed carrot standing up like an erection in the midst of carrot puree. The “Essence of Pubescence Salad” featured a fantastic morelle mushroom, shredded lettuce, and roquefort cheese–which, I noted, in the context seemed strangely like a yeast infection. The “Come Hither Hens a la Rubens” spotlighted cornish hens spread-eagled, accompanied by wild rice, a parslied floron, stuffed squash, and sugar snap beans. The “Banana Envy” was, not surprisingly, half a banana dipped in chocolate, accompanied by a split slice of citrus with a red raspberry sauce spilling from the middle. It looked like the beginnings of a menstrual period. All of it was delicious.

Part of the meal was “a course of bricks,” a play on words and a reprise of a Hendricks stunt from the 1960s. The bricks came midway through and were delicately laid in front of each diner by one of the ubiquitous tuxedoed waiters. This may have provided the most Fluxus-like moment of the evening: somehow those bricks, which were genuine masonry, took on an edible look in that context. Suddenly they seemed gelatinous, or maybe like meat loaf. Most people couldn’t believe it was a real brick. Once they got used to the idea, though, they resorted to little jokes: “You can’t have the next course until you clean your plate!” “This was a bit heavy, don’t you think?”

The evening ended with a hokey seance in which Miller and Hendricks brought Maciunas back from the dead, passing a few huge beef tongues through the mouth of his portrait. Miller and Hendricks then cubed the steak and passed it around to the few hearty souls who were left.

“This was considerably different than a real Fluxus event,” Miller admitted afterward. “But the people coming to the Arts Club expect a good meal. If we’d served them Fluxus food, they would have been more disappointed.”

Maybe, but it would have been more authentic, a more genuine celebration of the freewheeling Fluxus movement.