Søren Aagaard is the Danish chef and artist drawing an affinity between the experiential realms of eating and contemporary art. Multidisciplinary in his approach, Aagaard’s work is informed by anthropology, linguistics, sociology and, instrumentally, his background as a chef, using film, installation, live cooking shows and sculpture to explore the intersection of art and food. With the act of eating as his starting point, Aagaard work extends to the political, economic and social concerns of our society, exploring how labels and social conventions can be translated into visual art and performance.
Ahead of his art-food fusion at new exhibition space, Tropez, SLEEK caught up with the artist to talk about his life and practice.
“Culinary history can’t be separated from the history of culture in general” – Søren Aagaard
I think of my work as something like gonzo-journalism or gonzo-anthropology, where the borders between objectivity and subjectivity are blurred. My works often include myself (or a stand-in) in a first-person narrative where the rather dry stories I tell are spiced up with sarcasm, humour, social critique and self-satire. The difference between me and a journalist, however, is that I use all kind of media to tell the story – video, performance, photographic work, found objects, food, sculptures, drawings etc.
What keeps me motivated is a feeling of ambivalence towards nearly everything I do, and an urge to find out why I feel that way. If I’m working and geeking out in the kitchen, I can’t help all of a sudden seeing the whole scenario from the outside. The same goes for a visit to the supermarket. I love everyday routines — working, shopping, cooking, eating and running — but when I look at the person who does these things, in this instance myself, I can’t help but see a caricature or an archetype or a “foodie”. This external perspective where I zone out, losing sight of my personal situation, and see myself as a character is essential for my work. It offers a form of self-criticism where I can ask critical questions on identity and identification. This is where my practice as a chef differs most fundamentally from my art practice: in the restaurant I have to provide a good reliable service, in my art I don’t have to do that.
On work and education
I studied a BFA from Malmö Art Academy and then a MFA from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. I think my former education as a chef and years working in restaurant kitchens is an experience that has significantly impacted my work practices and thematic interests. While studying, my job was to help people start up restaurants, making menus and so on. Now it seems like there is no strict borders between my jobs and my art practice anymore. My artworks often end up being combinations of text, video, graphic work, photo, performance, objects and food. In some ways it’s similar to making a concept for a new restaurant: the food, light, music, decoration, art at the wall, menu design and what the employees wear become a coherent story that forms that restaurant.
On art and food
To work in a kitchen is to work, quite literally, backstage — so I started out by making video and performance projects about the structure of the dinner conversation, the architecture of a restaurant etc. Over the last few years, my work has been focused on the history, sociology, linguistics and trends surrounding the world of food, projects which on the surface look like studies of different food products and their history. These projects have take the form of ‘documentaries’, TV kitchen shows, performances and installations.
To me, food relates to art in many ways. Culinary history can’t be separated from the history of culture in general — economics, aesthetics, racism, politics, manners, display of self-identity, social life, health, rituals, habits or private desires — all of which are interesting starting points for new work. The parallel between the structures of a restaurant and the onstage/backstage dichotomy of a theatre is also interesting to me. Working in the restaurant business for so many years it has become a natural frame of reference, and often it just feels like the right way to start a project.
My most recent work was a documentary study of the Ostrea Edulis (the European flat oyster) that is threatened by the non-indigenous and invasive Pacific oyster, Crassostrea Gigas. Underneath the seemingly easy-going style and tone of the food documentary are layers latent with issues of immigration, nationalism, racism, food economics and extravagance, gently addressed through the battle between the two species of oyster.
I was born and raised in east Jutland and moved to Copenhagen around 15 years ago. The city was great when I moved here but when I got used to it, it began to feel small and boring. I wanted to leave for a bigger scene, but never did. Now I’ve learnt to love it for what it is — there’s no use comparing it to somewhere bigger. I try to do what I can to make good things happen here and be a tourist in my own town. There is a lot of inspiring thing about Copenhagen. Both the food and art scene are very good and always moving. Copenhageners are obsessed with food and lifestyle which is interesting for me to observe. There are also a lot of artist run spaces in Copenhagen that keeps on doing really good and progressive shows … also the whole music scene around “Mayhem” is great to follow too.
On his work at tropez, Berlin
It might sound like two projects but is actually just one — “Fries” is the headline of the over all project and the “In search of …” is the title of a series of live cooking shows, with me in the kitchen and the German curator and art historian Nico Anklam as a host. The shows will invite guest chefs – artists and art historians united under a different topic, from “origin” to “perfection”. Alongside the cooking shows there will be additional video and graphic material and maybe some special created dishes will be served in the cafeteria.
I run an exhibition space in Copenhagen called YEARS together with four other artists and friends (Anna Margrethe Pedersen, Steffen Jørgensen, Merete Vyff Slyngborg & Ditte Boen Soria) who I think all do really good stuff and think differently. Working, talking, thinking and hanging out with them always inspires me. I also run two food project (foodoir and okto) together with my old friend and anthropologist Henrik Hedegaard — he is always inspiring to work with. My colleagues and friends Rasmus Røhling, Michala Paludan, Heine Thorhauge Mathiasen and Nico Anklam should be mentioned too.
On the future
My next project is a collaborative venture with Louise Bak, Nico Anklam and Niels Lomholt and will be based in Birsay, Orkney. As a starting point for exploring the place I will focus on the history of the local lobster industry – fishing and processing.
Søren’s project at tropez runs from 15 August – 3 September. Check the website for more details