What is Art? What is Food? Will You Pass Me a Napkin?
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What is Art? What is Food? Will You Pass Me a Napkin?

Left to right: Saeed Mohamed and Steve Rockwell carry out a deconstructed version of their new dArt Burger into the gallery. This is how it is supposed to look; nothing has gone wrong. As long as the photographer moves pretty soon.

Throughout history, all art has been dependent on the four Cs: collaboration, collage, creation, and crunchy onion rings on a brisket burger with jalapeno aioli. The dArt Burger, a new art/food creation unveiled by Cubist artist and magazine publisher Steve Rockwell at a unique exhibition Thursday night, held particularly true to these principles.

Some context: Two decades ago, Rockwell served a sandwich—nattily titled the “Steve Rockwell Sandwich”—as a piece of art alongside a display of his collage-work at the Arnold Gottlieb Gallery in Toronto. At an exhibition last year to celebrate the 20 years that had passed since the sandwich’s creation (presumably because it could now be served alongside alcohol without being carded?), Rockwell met Saeed Mohamed, owner of BQM (Burgershoppe Quality Meats) on Ossington Avenue. The two decided to collaborate on a new creation for a new era: a hamburger, a BBQ-after-Braques.
The resultant burger was displayed at the De Luca Art Gallery on Thursday during an exhibit entitled Making Mince Meat Out of dArt Magazine. It was trotted out via a large, seemingly pointillist-influenced collage of its various ingredients—bun, patty, pickle, tomato, onion, grilled pineapple, maple-smoked cheddar, grilled jalapeno pepper, aioli, and one big crunchy onion ring—while two art- and burger-inspired short films played in the background. James Cooper, a filmmaker creating a documentary about Rockwell and this whole process, walked around shooting the event as Rockwell unveiled his canvas for carnivores. On the walls were remnants of an issue of his magazine, which had been “run through a meat grinder,” as he put it. Pages had been chopped up and displayed in snippets of words and images along the walls. If this was a Woody Allen film, it would have been called Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Comparing Burgers to Art and Vice-Versa (And Plenty of People to Tell You).

The dArt Burger, in its brief but meaningful existence between creation and consumption.

The next day, because we had been both good and righteous in a previous life, your writer and photographer went to BQM for a tasting of the full-sized burger. There, we spoke to Mohamed about art, the burger, and the collaborative process that led to its creation.
“It was more like, ‘Saeed, go back in the kitchen and bring me out something!'” he recalls, chuckling. “So I would just go in the kitchen, make something, bring it out to him, yay, nay, go back in the kitchen, make something, come back again. That’s kinda how it worked… it’s a commissioned piece. That’s why I was telling everybody, this is not my creation. This is Steve Rockwell’s creation.”
After several presentations by Mohamed, Rockwell chose the iteration that would become the dArt Burger, successor to the Steve Rockwell Sandwich, and would be featured in the next issue of his magazine. Yet the burger was essentially conceived and cooked up by Mohamed. So what’s art here? Who’s the artist? Is calling a burger “art” only when an “artist” comes up with it a slight against the Thomas Kellers, Eric Riperts, and Ferran Adriàs of the world? If it’s only with a knowledge of the process and the people behind a creation that one can recognize it as art, are we at risk of over-selling that creation and clouding what’s really good about it?
These are not questions that spring to mind while you munch happily on a burger that is sweet, hot, and crunchy in alternating bites, with Bob Marley coming over the speakers. But the questions do come afterward, when you remember that during the previous evening this burger was displayed in a stark white, brightly lit art gallery while everyone spoke of cubism and abstract wall art, and you did your best to hide that you were combing through the snack mix to avoid the pretzels. Which of these environments best serves the burger, or serves anything, in terms of tasting and feeling good? Which makes the burger seem the greater artistic achievement? Which of these two types of achievement is most important to you?
The dArt Burger, while entirely delectable (and, as of now, waiting to be sold to anyone who walks into BQM and knows of its “secret” existence), is not unrecognizable as a burger. In fact, it looks just as much like a burger as any burger we have ever seen. We try taking it in from a different perspective; if we squint, we’ll admit it sort of looks like a Picasso rendering of Dana Carvey. But in the main, it is a hamburger, and that seems more than good enough. Mohamed reminds us that the art of coming up with new dishes is the comfortable but fresh reuse of old ingredients in new ways.
“The art form that cooking is most like is probably collage. Because, you know, you’re taking bits of this thing and that, and putting it together. It’s like a tapestry of things you’re putting together,” he says. Even the bar in BQM, he points out, was formerly the information counter at Sam the Record Man. So we constantly reuse. We recycle. We re-shape and re-combine.
Whether it’s music, food, film, or art, call it what you want. Call it new. Call it old. Even call it art, if that is important to you. Just make it taste good.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.