«Who ever desires what is not gone?»
Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (1986)
I recently discovered that American poet Emily Dickinson was a remarkable baker. It seems that Dickinson even won second prize at the 1886 Amherst Cattle Show (Massachusetts) for her round loaf of Indian and Rye, and that her baking was famous among the local community. Through cooking, but in particular through bread and baking, with her gingerbread baskets or her black cake, Emily Dickinson expressed her affection and love to the people she cared for because she understood the importance of bread in strengthening the bonds between people. The poet referred to this with the expression “the oven of love” in one of her letters to her friend Sarah Tuckerman.
With Sobremesa, artist Liliana Díaz takes this collective dimension to think in a similar way about the bonds that are created around food, through the gesture of sharing bread. This dimension, absolutely central in Mexican culture, nourishes the artist’s proposal, inviting the public to share a moment of encounter by eating the same food. Food –and the after-dinner conversation in particular– is associated with a form of celebration, of sharing, an expression of affection among the members of a community and a particular way of enunciating in that same context. The artist evokes the “neteo” and the fact of “netear” –a Mexican expression that means to speak with honesty– as something particular of these after-dinner moments: speaking from tenderness and sincerity to the people who love each other, sharing food and an affection that helps to express feelings that in another context could not be done in the same way.
Liliana Díaz’s project is inspired by this community moment of celebration and affection, but also by a tradition present in Mexican culture in which another kind of love is declared. It is here where pan de muerto and love for the dead appear. There is a kind of pan de muerto in Oaxaca that includes figurines that memorialize those who have passed away as a token of affection. The dead occupy a space they have left behind, a place is made for them in the food itself. This gesture resonates with Vinciane Despret’s idea that “the first question asked by the dead is not inscribed in time, but in space” (1). According to Despret, when a loved one dies, it is necessary to situate them, to give them a place to shelter themselves in order to continue the conversation. In this tradition of pan de muerto, therefore, the dead person is placed in the food itself, similar to the way Liliana Díaz’s sculptures are intertwined with the bread, in an embrace between the living and the dead, between the organic and the inert.
Liliana Díaz considers the place of sculpture through the public’s intervention into the sculptures themselves, being able to share and ingest the bread that constitutes them as we participate in a common meal. But at the same time that we share this festive moment, the sculpture itself begins to disappear, evidencing the emptiness, the holes and cavities, like bones that have been stripped of their flesh. Liliana Díaz’s sculptures without bread evoke those erosioned rocks that reveal transformation by natural phenomena or coral fossils, in which skeletons are permanently preserved. Suddenly, an almost mortuary aspect emerges in the sculptures because something that had filled the space is no longer there. The after-dinner conversation celebrates life, the awareness of being together in that specific moment, but it is always traversed by an awareness of finitude.
In a commentary on Sappho’s poems, Anne Carson quotes a very short fragment of the Greek poet: “you burn me” (2). According to Carson, the verb used for the translation could well have been another one suggesting a particular image of the kitchen of passion, such as baking, roasting, toasting, etc., instead of burning. At this point Carson refers to the epigram of Meleager of Gadara, a poet of the first century B.C., in which he speaks of Eros as the “cook of the soul.” As Carson remarks, in the whole tradition since Ancient Greece, “desire can only be for what is lacking, not at hand, not present, not in one’s possession nor in one’s being” (3). Desire, like this particular sobremesa shown in Chiquita Room, is between the paradox that is absence and presence, the dead and the living, that force field of the flesh and the being that lies between you and me.
(1) Vinciane Despret, A la salud de los muertos, Editorial Cactus, Buenos Aires, 2021, p. 23.
(2) Safo, Si no el invierno. Fragmentos de Safo, Vaso Roto Ediciones, Madrid, 2019, p. 99.
(3) Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton University Press, 1986, p. 10.
Text of the brochure of the exhibition Sobremesa (Chiquita Room, June 30 to July 30, 2022)