Art vs Hunger at the Ariana

By William Dowell, December 2012
(This article originally appeared in
The Essential Edge)

The Ariana on an evening devoted to global hunger

Adelina von Furstenberg, who helped organize the exhibition focusing on food and art that recently showed at Geneva's Ariana Museum, likes to point out that somewhere in the world a child starves to death every five seconds. It took some imagination to keep that in mind as an obviously wealthy crowd flooded into the show's elegant vernissage Tuesday night. A brief speech reminded everyone that a billion people are undernourished. The crowd then converged on the wine and hors d'oeuvres, which the Ariana staff had jealously guarded until the last moment.

The show is slated to move on to Milan , Sao Paolo, Brazil, Marseille and back to Milan. The theme, explored by 27 well-known artists, is that food is more complex than most of us realize. We will have to take the organizers' word for that. Most of the pieces seemed fairly mundane, which is a euphemistic way of saying flat, or in other words, pointless. The emperor's new clothes kind of thing. We've seen

a heap of white gravel to remember a world stricken with hunger

most of this before. A glass case was filled with different varieties of beans shaped into representations of human skulls. The artist had suggested that they would probably sprout if you watered them. Another installation consisted of a neat pile of pebbles at the end of an empty hall. Still another consisted of a table and some wooden cabinets with a dozen or so empty cups dangling from strings. Two scarecrows were decked out with shiny dark gray blazers and derby hats. In short, this is the kind of thing that artists do when they can't really think of anything better, or to put it more diplomatically, their soul was clearly not in it. Some video screens on an upper level showed a selection of specially commissioned videos. One showed some unidentified Asians eating buns and staring off into the distance. Another showed some Africans that might have been malnourished. A third showed a chef conjuring up a gourmet meal from scraps of food extracted from a dumpster filled with garbage.

Watching these presentations in the company of a crowd that clearly had no idea of what real starvation is about gave me a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. I consoled myself by noting that the hors d'oeuvres had consisted mostly of bread twists bought in a local supermarket and the wine wasn't anything special.

The setting in the Ariana was spectacular, and the crowd looked swell in their Gucci and Armani rags. Sure, the so-called art was mediocre, but a few glimpses of some of the genuine masterpieces in the Ariana's permanent porcelain collection made up for the otherwise ersatz stuff. I've seen enough genuine poverty and hunger in the world not to need to

feel cheated by being denied the opportunity to immerse myself in more of it. What I couldn't figure out was what the exhibition was really trying to accomplish. Geneva's well-heeled elite seemed more interested in seeing and being seen by each other than the art, and I guess it was hard to hold that against them. A billion people might be starving, but at least they were doing it somewhere else. It was a pleasant evening in a pleasant setting, and in those terms it was a mild success. The rest of the world might be going to hell in a hand basket, but Geneva is still Geneva.