Register Sunday | December 15 | 2019

Kitchen Party

Boxes of TV dinners are stacked up like games of Jenga, and perched on top of each tower is a microwave. Ghostly projections of an elderly woman emanate from inside the steel appliances, her features just out of reach.

Nearby, visitors sit around a formica table, telling complete strangers about their memories of childhood.

Cuisinage, a multidisciplinary art installation that ran for ten days this month at Montreal’s Écomusée du fier monde, examined the kitchen—not as a collection of appliances and utensils, but as an emotional landscape, a backdrop against which our lives play out.

In a broader sense, the installation could be a lesson for bigger museums coming full circle to a philosophy they’re rediscovering. The Écomusée, a hyperlocal museum based in a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal, was founded nearly forty years ago, and it has always stuck to its mission: pushing the boundaries between artist and spectator, drawing on a tradition of community-engaged art that grew popular in the 1960s. Artists exhibiting at the Ecomusée are meant to listen to the neighbourhood's residents and transpose their impressions into unique works. The museum has consistently stuck to this idea, even as community-based art fell out of favour at many more formal institutions.

Now, larger museums are increasingly re-emphasizing interaction, with many inspired by social media to experiment with involving the public beyond their walls. For example, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights collaborated with First Nations elders on its current Indian Act exhibit. They contributed ceremonial objects and took part in deciding what content and images would accompany them in order to convey the act's impact on their communities. Cuisinage was a striking example of how to make a similarly collaborative approach memorable, even on a small scale.

Artists Benoît Brousseau, Linda Côté and Jean-François Lachance spent months interviewing residents of Centre-Sud, the neighbourhood where the museum is located. It’s a deindustrialized, largely French-speaking area east of downtown with a rich working-class history. Some interviews were done in local kitchens, during neighbourhood events like corn roasts, and some on the street. Those conversations were reimagined into sculpture, painting, audio and video art. The TV-dinner piece, for one, was inspired by a man who has been living on frozen meals ever since his wife—the cook in the family—passed away.

Alcoves line the walls of the Écomusée, a glorious art deco building that was once a public pool, and each alcove housed a small work of art, a street number to represent individual homes. Together, the nooks showed the social dimensions of the kitchen: scenes of family or loneliness, moments of celebration and drama.

“The kitchen is the first place where you learn certain social skills,” says Côté, a multidisciplinary artist. “It’s your little cocoon, where you learn how to live with others… you pick up habits, ways of doing things, and you develop.”

Poverty and isolation, in particular, are built into many of Centre-Sud’s kitchens because of the neighbourhood’s economic difficulties, Lachance says. Three paintings depicted heroic local mothers who have managed to feed their families on meagre earnings. In a quote chalked onto a floor tile, an older interviewee recalled how his father was often still working at his factory when the family sat down to dinner.

In Cuisinage, nostalgia for the mundane brushed up against bigger themes. One alcove brimmed with a projection of shuffling feet, reminding us of lively festivities. Another showed a corded telephone receiver that had fallen off its holster onto a square of AstroTurf, harkening back to the days when bad news would come through a family’s sole wall-mounted telephone, frequently found in the kitchen.

At times, the artists’ aesthetic references and attempts at significant social analysis fell short. Fake cans of tomato sauce printed with the word Cuisinage were a nod to Andy Warhol that was a little too obvious. One piece consisted of three black walls and an empty kitchen cupboard, which viewers stared at while donning headphones to hear a posh French waitress describing a four-course gourmet meal; the representation of poverty was lacklustre, the message unsubtle. And while the installation had family photographs and a smattering of outdated appliances, like toasters and a stove, more historical objects and documentary materials would have been welcome.

But unlike other Canadian artists interested in culinary realms, such as Mary Pratt and Claudie Gagnon, the trio behind Cuisinage decided against making food its centrepiece, focusing instead on the psychological. This vision is what carried the installation, creating unique features like a simple but powerful interactive element. Keeping with the installation’s collaborative nature, visitors were invited to share coffee and cookies around a classic chrome-and-Formica kitchen table, while also sharing, in guided discussions with the artists, their own kitchen memories.

On one day in mid-February, participants reminisced about the smells of recipes from certain times and places, about parties where everyone always ended up in the kitchen, and about dishware and utensils passed down through the generations. As people got lost in their own memories, they were powerfully reminded that regardless of any bigger analysis, the kitchen is an intensely personal space.