A Feast for the Sensesby Natalie Jacobs January 2, 2014
By Natalie Jacobs
When you think of a museum, food, live chickens and monkey bars aren’t the first, second or third things that come to mind, but the New Children’s Museum (NCM) in downtown San Diego isn’t interested in being conventional. Since re-opening at their current location on Island Street, NCM has housed one museum-wide exhibition approximately every two years. Recently, NCM unveiled its fourth exhibit “Feast: The Art of Playing with Your Food” with installations by 14 artists and collectives from San Diego and beyond. It’s about art, but it’s also about developing creativity, critical thinking, imaginative play and collaborative problem solving in children ages 2-12.
“I heard a professor of video game design speak a couple of years ago,” Julianne Markow, NCM executive director, explains, “and he said ‘successful video games are pleasantly frustrating and compellingly engaging.’ So those were four watch-words that we used when we were thinking about any of the pieces [in the Feast exhibit].”
Formerly of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the San Diego Museum of Art, Markow, a member of Congregation Beth Israel, came to NCM in December 2011 right before the museum committed to the Feast exhibit.
“I thought it made total sense because [food] is something that everyone understands, on some level. It is something that all children; little children, middle-aged children, older children; all have food references, food experiences, food memories. And it’s just a fun topic, and a very broad topic, which, for us, was important because we wanted to be able to cover the subject not just in a one-dimensional way.”
Of the 14 individual and group artists with pieces commissioned for the exhibit, five have some connection to Judaism. Leah Rosenberg taught Hebrew school growing up in Canada. Her installation, “I Made This For You,” is an outdoor clay studio where children can create ceramic baked goods, based on her exploration of the differences and similarities between painting and baking.
“I feel like, what’s more food art than a hamantaschen? Or even a challah,” Rosenberg says of her Jewish influences. “The fact that bread is a natural thing and we braid it – a braid is not found in nature, so by braiding it we are showing that we are creative people as human beings … And hamantaschen, it’s supposed to look like this guy’s hat and you’re going to eat it,” she says with a laugh. “The nature of storytelling in Judaism has always affected me, and of course the urge to feed people, to please them, I think comes from a bit of that upbringing.”
Now based in San Francisco, Rosenberg continues her studio painting practice in addition to working in the day as a baker with the Bay Area’s famed Blue Bottle Coffee Co. The clay studio at NCM brings together her two loves in a way that invites children to create stories connected to their art.
“I like the idea of kids using their imaginations,” she says. “You guide them in an open way to suggest that this piece of clay is a piece of cake. A lot of kids tend to make things to occupy them, but I think it’s interesting when you guide them in a way that [makes them think not only] are they making a piece of cake but who is it for, why are they making this thing?”
While he’s “less religious than [he] used to be,” Jason Torchinsky is “happy to identify as a Jew” and his “Food Truckin’” installation also encourages a similar kind of visual storytelling. Made out of highly durable plastic, the push-cars let kids “drive” around a course, picking up items and stopping at imaginary destinations to sell their boxes of food. All the food trucks can be customized with laser-cut plastic parts shaped like lights or license plates and food can be picked up at a warehouse station near the car-port.
“I want to see what the kids are doing,” Torchinksy says. “Are they going around trying to sell their food? There are chalkboard areas on the trucks that I wanted them to do their own branding or write the food and draw their pictures. So I want to see how they’re interacting.”
Like Rosenberg, Torchinsky combined two personal interests for this exhibit. An automotive journalist for Jalopnik, a car website owned by the internet media company Gawker, he spends a lot of time thinking about cars in addition to creating interactive exhibits in and around Los Angeles.
“The thinking was, kids love cars, they like to eat food out of them and I wanted to give them the opportunity to, on a scale that they could relate to, have their own little food truck.”
Orange You Glad?
The first exhibit that will catch visitors’ eyes at the Museum is Nina Waisman’s “Orange We…” – an orange grove made with mountain-climbing rope, urethane-cast oranges and a set of monkey bars shaped like DNA. When visitors walk through and climb on the grove, various sounds are triggered, encouraging movement that Waisman says inspires creativity on a neurological level.
“There’s a lot of writing and thinking about ‘physical thinking’ and how important movement is in expanding thought capacity, making us creative, keeping our minds active, helping us remember things. So I wanted to play with physical thinking and then with this idea of how our bodies are connected through objects and through technologies.”
Waisman studied dance with the New York City Ballet before making her way to painting and large interactive installations, so movement and sound have always been a deep curiosity of hers.
“I’m so interested in the sounds of bodies moving, so I recorded the sounds of pickers in orange groves picking oranges, moving ladders, hauling 80-pound sacks of oranges and dumping them, of the machines, them using the machines. I recorded people packing, women who’ve been grating oranges for literally 40 years … I also interviewed at least 30 people – people in the packing houses, people in the groves, people working, the people who own the groves, people who sell organic fertilizer.”
All interviews and on-site research took place in Palma Valley, Calif., the northeastern corner of San Diego County and one of the most important orange-growing centers in the world.
The piece also features songs adapted from a book about oranges by John McPhee and details about the wide-reaching historical connections of oranges to Conquistadors (who brought orange trees on their boats to prevent scurvy) and 15th Century Sri Lankan men (who rubbed their bodies with orange oil before diving for buried treasure, to ward off poisonous fish).
Taking a slightly more esoteric turn, Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, under their art collective label FriendsWithYou, created an inflatable jumping structure called “The Fruit of the Gods.”
This made-up fruit deity contains a head of fruit characters on the outside. The inside is an abstract layer of colors made to look like the inside of a fruit or seed.
“Part of our work is really to take hold of the idea of archetypes and repurpose those concepts for more modern consumption,” Borkson says. “In this specific example, we’ve taken an offering and made it a thing that you can play inside of. It’s really about repurposing those symbols and archetypes that are beyond ideology and re-serving them up with new purpose. We were trying to make this whole interaction an exuberant, magical experience inside of these new symbols.”
Though they identify their work as broadly “spiritual,” they note that Judaism always “pushes for the idea of questioning everything and really relating things and trying to find a good medium between all people,” an idea which plays out in this work and others of theirs.
Above and Beyond
The exhibit also includes real chickens that are brought out for live workshops throughout the day, as well as a scented foot bridge, a garden, and a kitchen-sink-inspired “Wobbleland” specifically for toddlers. While “Feast” is endlessly entertaining, each installation has an intention beyond the fun.
“To help our adult visitors, we have put some prompts throughout the museum which are just statements about the value of being here,” says NCM’s Markow, “so that they know, when they are in the room [for example] with the mushroom blocks [Philip Ross’s Mol_d] and their children are building, that yes, it’s fun to build, but that they also know that there is research that has been done around the theory of loose parts, that giving children just stuff to play with and having them construct with that is really important, developmentally.”
“Feast” will be on display through 2014 with portions staying at the museum beyond that date. The New Children’s Museum is open every day except Tuesdays. For more information, visit thinkplaycreate.org.