On Sunday I made my way to MoMA PS1 for a banquet. We’re talking music, laughter, food, the whole shebang.
It was terrifying.
The event was Leigha Mason’s Banquet For Pantagruel, a 3-hour performance and film piece that unravels the joys and horrors of family, social media and the human body.
Entering Pantagruel was a visual treat. Multi-level ottomans surround a sprawling table toppling over with assorted fruits and vegetables. Colored lights illuminate the smoking cauldrons buried underneath piles of bananas and radishes. Varying film clips are projected on the ceiling of PS1’s futuristic Volkswagen Dome. The environment is all very Instagram-worthy, with many patrons leaning over the elaborate table to take full advantage of this. Emil Bognar-Nasdor’s accompanying soundtrack is droney and soft, with a repeating sample of a child crying fading in. Patrons start to feel a little uneasy.
The drone gets louder: Mason begins handing out fruit to the audience. She hands me a bundle of strawberries. They stain my hand red as I watch footage of Hasidic Jewish men argue with construction workers projected on the ceiling. I’m struck by the amount of noise around me, not so much from the music but my fellow art-goers. The typical “shut up, there’s art happening” attitude around the concept of performance has been thrown out. This is Mason’s family table and we’re all welcome here.
Camera flash after camera flash after camera flash erupts from all sides of the room, the hyper-documentation of the event further adding to the strange sense of familiality in the space. Mason herself takes to weaving her way through the red ottomans to greet each person as if they had just arrived to Thanksgiving Dinner. She plucks audience members up one-by-one to take a photo of them with the smorgasbord. The construction scene on the ceiling turns to seeping black liquid.
Nasdor’s crying child sample is replaced with very adult moans. The couple beside me appears to be affected; their hands now tracing patterns on each other’s lower back. Mason makes use of a crock pot that had gone previously unnoticed in the middle of the table, turning on the heat to cook a pound of sugar and some maple syrup. The smell of the sweet burning sludge quickly becomes overpowering. A few people close to me shield their noses with their coat collars.
The visuals on the ceiling change again. This time it’s a greyish shot of a hand holding several molars mixed with a zoomed-in shot of moldy fruit. The soundtrack wanes. Mason begins wheezing and retrieves an inhaler from a gray-haired woman in the audience. She takes a few puffs, a few deep breaths, and collects a breathing machine from the corner of the room. Holding a video camera that is live-fed to project onto the haphazard piñata hanging in the center of the table, Mason does her best selfie face while puffing on the breathing apparatus, the vapor rising into the air in a steady stream. The shot feels smug, like a 14-year-old sending a picture smoking a cigarette to her “less cultured” friends to seem mature. The gut reaction to some audience members is giggling at the absurdity of the scene, distorted by the uneven surface of the piñata. Most just look on in silent confusion.
Mason hands out pineapple chunks. The smell is enough to trigger the Epi Pen-level allergy I have to the fruit. I leave with a tight throat and a heavy heart that I would miss the conclusion. I only assume good things