“Half-Baked Baked Alaska”

Marina Abramovic with her crystal ball.

In the February 15, 2011 of The New York Observer, I published “Half-Baked Baked Alaska: Eating Marina Abramovic’s Volcano Flambé,” an account of the performance artist’s recent culinary exploit.


The worlds of art and food share a paradoxical passion for authenticity and celebrity, aesthetic novelty and rarefied sensations—the stuff of art-fair-vacation weekends. The artist-chef collaboration epitomizes this young marriage. And who better to whet the tongues of collectors and connoisseurs than the so-called godmother of performance art, Marina Abramović?

Her new dessert at Park Avenue Winter, like her recent MoMA retrospective, hinges upon what the artist has called the “exchange of energies.” For The Artist Is Present, that exchange consisted of Ms. Abramović sitting under klieg lights in the museum’s atrium for up to 10 hours per day, draped in an operatic gown, engaging visitors in staring contests. A film crew was present throughout; Sharon Stone and Björk made appearances; interlopers staged counter-performances; visitors were moved to laughter and tears; and scores of YouTube videos were posted. Attendance was high, but the exhibition was most successful as a media event, a melodrama reproduced daily for an audience elsewhere. (Eight hundred thousand people tuned in to the show live on MoMA’s Web site; one million more browsed a gallery of sitters’ head shots compiled on Flickr.) The pinnacle was the closing party, hosted by Givenchy: The artist vamped in a black snakeskin jacket while a parade of celebrities—Courtney Love, Ciara, Christina Ricci—walked a gold carpet punctuated by a 10-foot-tall portrait of Ms. Abramović looking extremely pensive.

The 64-year-old Yugoslavian-born artist’s Volcano Flambé ($20), devised in collaboration with Park Avenue Winter’s executive chef, Kevin Lasko, does for diners what the performances in her retrospective did for museumgoers: carve out space and time for a self-regarding experience of attentiveness, the immediate result of which is the satisfaction of knowing how attentive you are. Only the environs are slightly more intimate, and the dessert, an aphrodisiacal variation on the baked Alaska, is encased in Swiss meringue rather than a gown.

Actually, Volcano Flambé ($20) is not a dessert but a “multisensory culinary intervention.” Meredith Johnson, curator at the public-art organization Creative Time, which is spearheading the project, told The Observer that term—“intervention” rather than “artwork” or “dessert”—was crucial to Ms. Abramovic. “Although there are performative aspects” to the work, “she’s not actually performing.”

This in mind, The Observer visited Park Avenue Winter to sample Volcano Flambé ($20). The first performative aspect is the plating: a custom-made pine-colored cigar box containing a pair of headphones and an MP3 player arrives alongside the pyramidal meringue construction, which is ringed by chocolate crumbs and topped with a gold diadem of spun sugar. Ms. Abramovic’s breathy voice—she makes Kathleen Turner sound like Pee Wee Herman—comes through the headphones with a yogic incantation: “This is an experiment.… For the moment close your eyes, concentrate, and focus your mind on your breathing.… Breathe in, breathe out.… Open your eyes and focus on the blue flame in the center of the volcano.”

At this point, the server ignites a pitcher of dark rum and pours it onto the dessert, which briefly, kind of, if you will it, seems to be erupting. The gesture goes some way toward realizing a recipe for “fire food” included in a booklet accompanying the dish: “on top of a volcano/open your mouth/wait until your tongue becomes flame/close your mouth/take a deep breath.” Until the fire is extinguished, and your server leaves you with Ms. Abramovic, who dictates, “like in a dream or a strange dance [you] take the fork and take the piece of melting volcano in your mouth.”

Having found your center and achieved sufficient mindfulness, you burrow into the meringue flank, through the exterior layers of lava and ash—gingery sugar crystals, creamy banana mousse, and dense almond cake—before arriving at a magma chamber of ninety-eight-percent-cocoa sorbet. The phone-sex-yoga continues, Ms. Abramovic purring each word, climaxing: “Feel sensations of cold, white, gold, crunchy, soft, salty, liquid, creamy, spicy, silver, black, gold, burn.” Think Padma Lakshmi meets Deepak Chopra.

“Marina wanted an exploding volcano, but it’s very difficult to make something that will explode on command,” said Mr. Lasko, a cherubic 29-year-old. “We tried some things with Diet Coke and Menthos, but we couldn’t get a controlled explosion. We decided the best way to get hot and cold was a traditional Baked Alaska.”

Ms. Abramovic has long been interested in the effects of extreme, antithetical sensations on the body. In the 1975 work Lips of Thomas she consumed one kilogram of honey and one liter of wine, carved a five-pointed star onto her stomach with a razor blade, then reposed on a cross made of ice blocks, which was situated beneath a heater pointed at her abdomen, causing the star to bleed as the rest of her body froze, until after half an hour visitors ended the performance by removing the ice.

“The history of Baked Alaska is having these extremes of cold and hot come together,” Ms. Johnson said.

As the sorbet seeps out of its encasing and suffuses the almond cake beneath it, and the banana mousse ensnares the gingery bits of crystallized sugar, Ms. Abramovic’s mantra loops in your headphones. The instructions call to mind her 1996 book Marina Abramovic Spirit Cooking, which the artist brought to her first meeting with Mr. Lasko and Ms. Johnson in September for inspiration. “Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk,” reads one recipe, “drink on earthquake nights.” Another: “Fresh morning urine/sprinkle over nightmare dreams.”

There is nothing so discomfiting or otherworldly (or intestinally challenging) about Volcano Flambé ($20), which may be the first Abramovic work to focus exclusively on amplifying a pleasurable, spectacular experience rather than calling its conditions into question. (It is also the first in a series of four artist-chef collaborations here; in April the restaurant, which changes with the season, will become Park Avenue Spring and host a project by Paul Ramirez Jonas.) We’re not sure whether Ms. Abramovic’s exhortations to “breathe slowly and deeply” enriched our experience of the gussied-up Baked Alaska, or if the welter of contrasting flavors, however aptly harnessed by Mr. Lasko, provoked a heightened level of consciousness that couldn’t have been attained by eating a Klondike bar at yoga class. But we are certain of the gulf between Volcano Flambé ($20) and other notable forays into gastronomy by artists, in terms of inventiveness and effect, if not taste.

As a fusion of art and life Ms. Abramovic’s “intervention” pales in comparison to Gordon Matta-Clark’s fabled 1970s dinners, which included a whole-pig roast under the Brooklyn Bridge (yielding 500 pork sandwiches) and bring-your-own-fish stews cooked in a cauldron hung from the ceiling of the artist’s SoHo loft; the Fluxus tradition of subverting the conventions of taste via “monomeals” featuring such delicacies as fish ice cream and coffee-filled eggs, and performances like Identical Lunch (1968), an exploration of the dining routine that culminated in puréed tuna sandwiches (and, later, Ferran Adriá); or Rirkrit Tiravanija’s transformation of art galleries into Thai-green-curry stalls in the 90s.

And as a set of instructions for an experience, Volcano Flambé ($20) lacks the combinatory zest and sense of psychic displacement captured by F.T. Marinetti’s “Aerofood,” from The Futurist Cookbook (1932). That recipe calls for serving a plate of black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats from the diner’s right side and a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk and velvet from the left. Throughout the meal, a waiter sprays the nape of the diner’s neck with “a conprofumo of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent conrumore of an aeroplane motor and some dismusica by Bach.”

When we finished our Volcano Flambé ($20) we felt somewhat catatonic, perhaps on account of the sugar (though maybe we were just processing the energies that had been exchanged). What the dessert-work provides is a refinement of the dining experience, a moment to focus your mind and indulge your senses. But whatever mindfulness we had mustered slipped away as the mousse, meringue and sorbet pooled together.

Ms. Abramovic has said that the artfulness of her work is derived from “the sense of purpose I feel to do something heroic, legendary, and transformative; to elevate viewers’ spirits and give them courage.” The Observer asked Mr. Lasko what affect Volcano Flambé ($20) has had on diners.

“A lot of people enjoy it, but it makes some people uncomfortable,” he said. As with The Artist Is Present, visitors have laughed, cried, meditated—and, of course, staged their own interventions. “The other night a girl came in and had her friend videotape her for forty-five minutes while she stared at the dessert,” Mr. Lasko said. “Look for it on YouTube.” The Observer looked; it has not yet been uploaded.