Wearing metallic purple tights and magenta nail polish, Danish filmmaker Lasse Lau proffered a fortune cookie during the opening of an art exhibit he co-created with German artist Flo Maak. “Open it,” Lau said, holding a basket of customized goodies. Inside the cracked cookie, a strip of paper read: Liberate Your Ass—Unleash the Queen.
Minutes later, Maak, in metallic gold tights and full evening make-up, used a megaphone hanging on top of a stove to welcome guests to their art collaboration, “Technologies of the Kitchen.” The exhibit, hosted by Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, is a collection of curious things: kitchen implements, embroidered leather, and hospital dividers. In one corner stands a table with pans, condiments, food, cups, instant coffee powder, bottle, glasses, and knives, reminiscent of Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, an enigmatic 1970s black-and-white video that has feminist underpinnings. In another corner, glazed ceramic plates are glued to the wall. In three corners are representations of burning: a matchbox inside a glass case, boiling water on the gas stove, and a film clip of burning cars projected on an oven door.
At the center of the gallery, towering above everything on display, is a white rooster-shaped rug plastered on a black wall. The rug depicts a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes sign, in reference to their inventor, John Kellogg, who made it his life goal to fight masturbation and the consummation of earthly passions. While Kellogg is famous for inventing the breakfast cereal, he also founded a sanatorium. In the artists’ research, they found that Kellogg recommended a strict diet devoid of “stimulating foods” such as coffee and chocolate, which excite the senses. He also implemented a no-sex policy at his hospital.
“Technologies of the Kitchen” is about challenging this anti-sexuality and other “healing institutions”—the artists wanted to express the ideas of gender and resistance, instead of making those things invisible. They chose to center the art show around the kitchen, because it is “where desires are triggered and regulated [and] where ideas of health, beauty, and convenience materialize through routines, technologies and the choice of ingredients,” according to the exhibit guide.
Lau and Maak are artists in residence at Pro Arts Gallery. Both have been travelling around the world for the past decade, individually pursuing their art careers. This is their first time working together on an exhibit. They have been in the city for only a month, researching and putting together what they consider as their best art experience to date. During the weeks leading to the February 3 opening, they built a routine of making phone calls, digging into San Francisco archives, assembling art objects at the gallery, and visiting places relevant to the exhibit. Once or twice they also went to a gay bar in the Bay Area to unwind.
The most challenging part of the art process, Lau said, was “producing the ceramic plates.” “Dinner Time” is a series of plates mounted on the wall, each covered with iconic and faded image of drag queens in New York City after a police raid in the 1960s. The plates were supposed to be glazed with metallic colors, but the coating turned black. “But a lot of art comes out of mistakes,” Lau said. “If you look at [the set of plates] now, it’s a perfect match to the [black and white] walls. … You have to embrace that you’re not always in control of aesthetics.”
Although the results were different from what they expected, they found the ceramic plates fascinating nevertheless. “It’s our first time to use these traditionally female materials,” said Maak, who then paused and expressed reluctance over the use of phrases like “traditionally female” and other labels such as “feminist” and “queer art.”
Lau and Maak are funded by a grant from the Danish Arts Foundation. “The Danes have more money for arts than most countries these days, so I applied for a working grant,” Lau said. He said they are amazed by all the support they are getting from the Danish foundation, as well as from Pro Arts and fellow artists willing to extend a helping hand to Oakland’s new adopted artists. “We would’ve scaled down, compromised more” had they not received the grant, said Lau.
“It’s a beautiful experience,” Maak said of the entire process of creating “Technologies of the Kitchen,” which will run throughout February.
Maak and Lau found beauty in the timing of the exhibit, too. Pro Arts Gallery is just a few meters away from Frank Ogawa Plaza, where the Women’s March and other protests were held a couple of weeks ago. “Technologies of the Kitchen” itself is informed by several historic protests that challenged the notion that the private sphere such as the kitchen is a safe, apolitical environment. One particular protest from which the exhibit draws its influence is the Compton Cafe riots in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco half a century ago. One summer night in 1966, a police officer harassed the cafeteria’s transgender customers. Tired of the harassment, a trans woman threw coffee into an officer’s face, and a riot erupted.
“There’s a lot of history and memory here, that’s why it’s interesting [to see] the archive. It’s been a privilege to tap into this history. Very uplifting to see images of social history,” Lau said.
Maak agreed: “Roughly 50 years ago, the Compton Cafeteria Riot happened. Things have changed. Just days ago, the city of San Francisco announced the legislation of Compton’s district as the first transgender district in the world!” Indeed, part of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is slated to become the country’s first transgender district, to be called Compton’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) district, in reference to the Compton Cafeteria Riot.
“What’s happening right now concerns us very much and is reflected in our collection,” said Maak, referring to the recent protests that denounce the policies of the president of the United States. “I don’t believe that art has a big impact on politics, but we’re interested in change, in expressing disagreements.”
Lau added that change only happens “if you do something about it.”