10/28/2011 04:40 am ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011

A Feast for the Eyes: Food as Fine Art From MutualArt

MUTUAL ART -- London's swanky Pied à Terre restaurant is notable for many reasons - namely the food, which has been the toast-of-the-town for twenty years, with a variety of gourmet dishes that are works of art (and taste) themselves. But some of the most unique culinary creations aren't relegated only to the table: glance up at the walls, and you'll see a month's worth of fish dinners arranged into artful sculptures and installations adorning the dining room, and cleverly ensconced elsewhere throughout the venue. The staircase is lined with scallop corals, quail carcases embellish the walls of the upstairs bar, and those captivating white orbs arrayed on the skylight just happen to be sheep testicles.

Pied à Terre is giving a new take on recycled art of the gastronomical variety. But make no mistake - not just anyone is allowed to come and throw some catsup packets on the wall and call it art. Just ask Macedonian-born artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, who was handpicked by 12 curators and art-world aficionados as the first artist-in-residence to work at the restaurant in an unusual capacity: assembling the leftovers of haute cuisine into clever a-la-carte artworks that are quite literally a feast for the eyes. "My aim is to make work that challenges and inspires the viewer and resonates with the surroundings," the artist explained in a recent interview with Vasileva has been at the Pied à Terre for the past nine months, observing the kitchen staff, eating in the dining room, and working with the table scraps of hungry patrons. Her work will be on display at the venue until October 31st, illustrating to diners that the creativity found in their Michelin-starred entrées lasts long after the last bite.

A Feast for the Eyes: Food as Fine Art

It is not at all unusual for these fascinating food collaborations to be happening at this restaurant, famed for its artful kitchen creations. The Pied à Terre has a long-standing history with some of the most influential contemporary artists in the UK, and has enjoyed support from the art world since its establishment in 1991. As Hadzi-Vasileva tells it, the project came about from a conversation between restaurant director David Moore and committee member Marie-Lise Sheppard, who were hoping to find a way to connect the restaurant's relationship to contemporary art in a more concrete manner. Moore also wanted to "give something back [to the artistic community] by encouraging emerging artists, and offering the first ever artist's residency in a restaurant seemed like the perfect way to do it," Hadzi-Vasileva affirms.

The artist was then invited by freelance curator Verity Slater to submit a proposal for the residency, after which she was shortlisted and interviewed, and eventually selected as the debut artist in this unique program. Other perks of the plan include a grant of 10,000 British pounds and 2,500 British pounds worth of dining credits; but you won’t find Hadzi-Vasileva with a silver spoon in her mouth - apparently she takes the old axiom "there’s no such thing as a free lunch" to heart. She spends her days in Pied à Terre’s kitchen, tirelessly sorting through the unsavory scraps left over from the lunch and dinner service, and separating the various fowl, fish, and animal carcases. The artist then carts her finds back to her studio, where the real work begins: over a period of months she works at washing and preserving her scavenged scraps with bleach and detergents, and then starts experimenting with the preserved parts. Simply put, what's on the menu (or rather, what's left from it) inspires the artist to create the meal-to-masterpieces that now decorate the famed London eatery.

Certainly, the vetting committee picked the right woman for the job: Hadzi-Vasileva is no stranger to working with animal matter - you could even say she has a predilection for creating stunning works from this unusual media. "I have always been very interested in organic materials - materials that can evolve when they go though a process of manipulation," the artist says. In the past, she has used everything from trees, fish parts, animal heads, chicken skins, pig and cow stomachs, watercress, and one ton of butter. One of her most unique works (and among the artist's personal favorites) is a large-scale, walk-through installation entitled "Butterflies in the Stomach," that appeared as a lace-like maze - and indeed Elpida used some similar techniques that artists use in making lace, only the medium was caul fat (also known, funnily enough, as "lace fat," it surrounds the internal organs of many animals). Whoever thought pig stomach membrane could be so darn pretty?

Yet despite the beauty of the finished product, the process of creating these innovative installations is often painstaking, and yes, disgusting. "The smell can sometimes become difficult to manage. Repetitive processes such as the cutting and cleaning of different parts of animal can also be problematic. You have to have a strong stomach!" the artist declares. Perhaps that's also one of the reasons she no longer eats fish - aside from the stench, Hadzi-Vasileva has spent an inordinate amount of time knee-deep in fish skins. This isn't the artist's first foray into fishy business, either. "My first larger project that introduced me to fish-based materials was a project I developed in 2000 in Berwick upon Tweed, called Epidermis." The small town of Berwick, located in the northernmost part of England, is famous for the Tweed River - and the salmon it supplies. "I wanted to use a material that came from this area and that would be familiar to everyone in the community, so I connected with a local factory that farms salmon and they sponsored the project. I spent the following six months of my Fellowship in a small kitchen in the museum cleaning 2,500 salmon skins," she said. Clearly, being an artist is not all glamorous work, especially if you're as adventurous as Hadzi-Vasileva. "I've got really horrible memories of making that piece," the artist said in an earlier interview. "I got halfway through and there was no going back!" Still, she persevered (and continues to) in her work with fish, including a salmon-skin installation piece called Reoccuring Undulation, displayed recently at Eastbourne's Towner art gallery as part of their Compulsive, Obsessive, Repetitive exhibition.

Another challenge when working with organic material is the rate of decomposition, which varies depending on the medium and surrounding environment. "The control you have over organic material is never the same," the artist explains. "You think you have done your job and you are finished with the material but you can never fully anticipate what can happen next - the material can change once exposed to different environments."

Though she may be using similar media in some of her works, all of Hadzi-Vasileva's creations are unique, not only in appearance but also with regards to the environment in which they are installed. "Each project is different, the material is selected through a process of research, through discovering what is special about the place where the work is to be created," says Hadzi-Vasileva. For her work at Pied à Terre, the artist spent much of her time in the kitchen, working side-by-side with the chefs who are culinary artists themselves, and this relationship had an impact on her work. "I was pleasantly surprised how similar the creative processes are," the artist says. "[The Chefs and I] both aim to produce a beautiful final piece that will surprise the recipient or viewer. I have certainly learnt from the distinct interests, skills and knowledge of the kitchen staff with whom I worked, which ultimately influenced the direction and content of the artworks I produced." A good part of the appeal of gourmet food is the presentation, so it's no wonder this innovative artist, with an unconventional relationship with food, would find common ground amongst her kitchen collaborators.

Still, the thought of working with animal parts - however lovely the result - leaves some baffled, especially with all of the unique challenges that accompany such a, shall we say, volatile (and at times revolting!) medium. Perhaps as her residency at Pied a Terre suggests, the artist has, as she says, "an abiding interest in food as a creative material, and in recycling and the environment." Her other avant-garde creations are a testament to her beliefs. "Many of my works are made from found/recycled materials and often at first people don’t recognize them as 'artworks'." But then why not work with a more aesthetically pleasing food media, like chocolate? "It would be nice for a change though to work with materials that entail more fragrant processes," she admits; "for example, I really enjoyed my time spent with one of the chefs at Pied à Terre, experimenting with petit fours, which involved chocolate, sugars, dried flowers and fruits." Then there are the advantages to going the tougher (and smellier) route to artistic expression, as Hadzi-Vasileva explains, "One of the reasons I enjoy working with the materials I choose is that they challenge presumptions or limited perspectives of what art can be and how it can engage other issues. They also question notions of what can be beautiful." Her work also examines the complex relationship between the artistic process and the final product, which is often completely different than what was expected. It is quite an achievement that something often thought of as grotesque can be transformed into something utterly beautiful, and this challenges how the audience relates to these materials, including their relationship with the food she uses to create the works.

While some may raise their eyebrows at the thought of table scraps as the next great medium, look again: These installations are exquisite, so carefully constructed that it is often difficult to tell that the materials used are, in fact, the so-called 'unusable' parts of last night's monkfish. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva sums it up best: "When you talk about it, it sounds disgusting," she says. "But when you see it, it's beautiful." We couldn’t agree more. Bon Apetit!

The Wish of the Witness, at Pied à Terre, will be running until October 31st. Upcoming projects for Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva include site-specific permanent works for SouthGate Shopping Centre in Bath, England, which is due to be complete at the end of February. She has also been commissioned to create site-specific permanent work for Parkside View, a residential development in the center of Cambridge. Check out more of her amazing creations here.

Written by writer Lauren Meir

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