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A Performance Picnic: Unexpected Gastro-art Delights at the Museum of Modern Art

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Everything is beautiful at the performance picnic. While spending a Sunday afternoon browsing the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, I stumbled upon the most interesting and satisfying exhibit of the day: a performance picnic. It was part of the Common Senses exhibition, collaboration between MOMA Studio and artists from Mildred's Lane.

What is a performance picnic and where is Mildred's Lane, you ask? Well, I would describe the picnic as part gastro-art, part performance art and part community luncheon. And Mildred's Lane is an artist's colony, farm, living museum and think tank in northeastern Pennsylvania. The picnic, was served, or rather performed, atop a piece of contemporary art: an enormous circular woven rag rug, aptly named the Domestic Integrity Rug, and created by the artist Fritz Haeg.

The picnic itself was the art, an aesthetically pleasing preparation, presentation, and then consumption of lunch. A digestion choreographer from Mildred's Lane orchestrated the piece, entitled a Town & Country Tea. You've heard of creative job titles before, like "sanitation technician," "tonsorial artist," or "best boy grip"? Now we have a digestion choreographer. Enter stage left, a lovely young woman named Jen Gillette, an artist and Museum educator from Columbus, Ohio. She practiced digestion choreography at Mildred's Lane, where her role was to shop, cook, head the farm share, and present exquisitely prepared meals of beauty for the artist residents at Mildred's Lane.

Supporting roles at the picnic were filled by museum guests (Ms. Gillette's mom also assisted), who gathered to picnic on the rug Indian-style. Ms. Gillette presented at the domestic integrity rug impeccably dressed, in a costume befitting a young artist: a bohemian thrift store-chic dotted blouse, tights and long plaid skirt, partially covered by a beautiful vintage apron. But the highlight of her ensemble was her ankle bootie wedges, adorned from toe to lower calf with pastel covered jewels. Ms. Gillette exuded a natural, affable Zen-like calmness, while patiently constructing the meal and answering the audience's questions about the menu, the ingredients, the shopping for ingredients (Manhattan's 79th St. farmers market), the artists colony, and the history of the domestic integrity rug.

The guests watched her prepare a beautiful farmer's market to museum table lunch, and we would subsequently participate in the performance by consuming the presentation and washing our own dishes. The group meal was served on beautiful mismatched china plates and vintage teacups. The rug was decorated with down-home country-chic kitchen accessory displays: large mason jars of pickled vegetables and cucumbers displayed on reclaimed wood cutting boards and stands, wooden crates filled with a vintage seltzer bottles, sprigs of wildflowers, and fresh vegetable arrangements. None of it looked staged or contrived. On the rug, it felt indeed like a garden picnic on the lawn at a lovely, artsy farmhouse, with only the stark-whitewashed walls of the Museum of Modern Art reminding us where we really were.

The point of the performance was the aesthetic. It looked effortless, but every detail had been choreographed to maximize beauty, from the display of the ingredients like the purple red cabbages and the flour dusted loaves of bread, to the antique cups and saucers.

The Town & Country tea-style picnic appeared in four acts. The preparation of the lunch, the consumption of the lunch, the preparation of the desert, and the consumption of the desert.

The opening act was the preparation of the autumn shooter sandwich, with the following ingredients:

Ciabatta bread
Sliced empress plumbs
Tartufo cheese (black truffle infused goat's milk)
Red cabbage, apple, and shallot slaw (vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper)

The closing act consisted of constructing the desert:

Farmer's market pound cake topped with whole milk European yogurt and garnished with raw sweet corn, fresh raspberries, and mint leaves

The "tea" was actually water poured from vintage seltzer bottles into antique teacups, garnished with fresh mint leaves.

On the whole, the exhibit was an afternoon delight of food, sharing, community and beauty. The philosophy at Mildred's Lane is that each meal should contain elements of art. To that, the performance picnic at the MOMA did not disappoint the museum crowd, who not only saw great art, but ate it too.