TV & Movies

Meet Performance Artist Jennifer Rubell

In her interactive food performances, Jennifer Rubell finds beauty in the breakdown

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Jennifer Rubell (Photo: François Dischinger)

You’ve just walked into a charity dinner. But instead of the standard white linen set-up, you’re greeted by a pedestal covered with rows of devilled eggs, a flock of rubber chickens dangling above it. Then you notice the sticks affixed to the pedestal’s base. How to proceed?

“Eventually someone is going to pick up a stick,” says New York City–born Jennifer Rubell, 45, who created the daffy spread as part of Fecunditas (2014), an epic Renaissance-themed installation for an NYC arts fundraiser last November. “And it’s deeply interesting to me to see what happens from there.”

In this case, guests—including actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, designer Maria Cornejo, and art-world A-listers Marina Abramovic and Cindy Sherman—discovered that smashing the fowl with said sticks yielded a perfect smattering of paprika. “It’s very satisfying,” says Rubell, “to see people who usually keep the margins pretty tight beating rubber chickens.”

Engagement is at the messy heart of Rubell’s art, which makes its Canadian debut at Power Ball: Appetite for Excess (Toronto, June 4)—the fundraising rager of contemporary gallery The Power Plant—in a food performance produced with chef Grant van Gameren (bars Isabel and Raval) and coffee nerd Sam James.

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Fecunditas (2014) “It might be hard to touch a perfect art object, but it’s not that hard to beat a rubber chicken” (Photo: Wei He)

Rubell knows a few things about hosting a killer party. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons were regular dinner guests during her childhood: her parents, Don and Mera, own one of the largest private contemporary art collections in the United States, on display at their eponymous gallery in Miami; and her late uncle, Steve Rubell, was a co-owner of Studio 54.

But while Rubell grew up surrounded by art, she never grew entirely comfortable with it: “I think almost everybody is intimidated by art—feeling that it’s completely above you and untouchable.” So she set out to obliterate its hands-off reserve in works both edible and otherwise. Aside from her food installations (which include a doughnut wall and chocolate replicas of Jeff Koons’ Rabbit), a wax statue of Prince William, called Engagement (2011), allows viewers to hook their arms through Will’s and slip Kate’s sapphire onto their own fingers. Portrait of the Artist (2013), a massive fibreglass sculpture of Rubell’s pregnant body, entices you to climb into her womb.

“When you invite self-expression, destruction and transgression of normal behaviour, then the doors open,” says Rubell. “There’s a joyousness that delights me.” It’s a sentiment her uncle Steve would appreciate. What would he make of her raucous installations? “Oh,” she says with a laugh, “he would have only cared about who was there.”

Buy tickets for Power Ball: Appetite for Excess now

Jennifer’s Oeuvre

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50 Cakes (2014) was a celebration of Rubell’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary (Photo: Wei He)

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Engagememt (2011) allowed viewers to replicate photos from William and Kate’s engagement announcement (as Rubell does here) (Photo: Stephen White)

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Old-Fashioned (2010) consisted of 1,521 doughnuts, replenished daily (Photo: Kevin Tachman)

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Lysa (2011) is a series of MacGyvered mannequins- turned-nutcrackers (Photo: Andrew Ryan Shephard)

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