Featuring scores of performance and installation artists from 10 countries, the first Miami Performance International Festival kicks off on Thursday and runs through Sunday, when the Miami Beach Botanical Garden will host an all-day program of artist talks, readings, and live action performances. One of the participants, Colombia-born, Miami-based artist Catalina Jaramillo, will be preparing a free meal for 400 people for a performance called The Picnic. Before losing her to the prep kitchen, I traded emails with Jaramillo to find out more about her conception of the relationship between food, art, and community.
Your bio says that you place yourself “in emotionally and spiritually trying states in order to overcome personal boundaries of pain and experience” — can you tell us about a past work where you did this and what you were trying to overcome? Cocoon, Oneness II, and Eternal Living come to mind.
CJ: I think all of the works have a large component of that. In fact, I think I only consider something a real project when I allow it to … kick me in the butt. Through performance I am forced to look in the eye of the painful parts. By creating a set of rules for a piece I am forced to abide to them, hence staying in the uncomfortable space I was avoiding to begin with. As for the three you mentioned:
Editor’s note: For ‘Cocoon’ (2004), Jaramillo’s mother, wearing a nightgown, wrapped Jaramillo, who was naked, in 12 pounds of yarn while they chanted.
CJ: With Cocoon I was dealing with issues of vulnerability to my mother’s disease. I had for a while realized that I came directly FROM my mother. I was a piece of her. By her being so sick, there was a part of me that was facing disease as well. I wanted to become a sculptor and just carve cancer out of my mother’s body. Cocoon celebrated the earlier days. The times when as a kid I depended on her, when as a baby I had nothing but her. I knew this performance was one of the few times my mother could be in the role of caretaker and this was very sad.
Editor’s note: For ‘Oneness’, Jaramillo ironed the names of every person she could remember interacting with onto a used wedding dress following a traumatic break-up. She performed the piece twice in 2002.
CJ: Oneness I and II. These are huge ones. These ones were rough. I had gone through very painful breakups before both. In both instances I used the same dress. I wanted to muster the faith and courage to realize that I had probably lost the person I was most attached to at the time, thus the most painful to lose, but I could still challenge myself to realize that there was a whole world out there. I lost my partner but I was still one with (and married to) everyone else. So I decided to list EVERYONE I could recall no matter how faint the memory was and decided to publicly (just like we get married in public) pray to make that union solid. I chanted as I ironed these names one by one to my wedding dress.
Editor’s note: For ‘Eternal Living’, Jaramillo laid motionless for 190 minutes while focusing only on God as a crowd watched.
CJ: This one was challenging in a different way. I was going through a tough time and wanted to explore the idea that no matter what I could always be in constant communion with God. So I remained quiet and meditative for the length of the event.
Your work seems to incorporate aspects of various cultures, from communal meals and chanting reminiscent of Eastern practices to a painting style that seems rooted in Western technique. Are you a world traveler? How do your travels influence your work?
CJ: I think it was 1996 when I became curious about Asia for the first time. I was raised in Colombia and most history learned in school is Western. I never met anyone other than Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. My uncle had traveled to Japan and had multiple books about reincarnation and Zen. He basically introduced me to Japan. Being raised Catholic, the concepts of guilt, shame, and sin were very familiar to me. When I would read about reincarnation and the purest most subtle realms of energy, I would just think, “Maybe in a couple lifetimes…”
We moved to the US in 2000. This shocked me. There were so many people from so many countries in one place. I met two very dear friends around this time and the same day that 9/11 occurred, I chanted for the first time. Something changed forever. I think I “became” a Buddhist that same night. Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism was so radically new and refreshing [and] because of this I understood the underlying connections that we have with other forms of life and, when you start to think about life like this, country and nationality limits really seem useless. As a Buddhist I was determined to be (and later help my son be) a citizen of the world.
After that I visited China on two different occasions for over one month each. Beijing felt like home and the way people would relate to my son was as if almost he was the son of the whole city. Asia is fascinating. I got my master’s in Asian Studies. I think I was probably born an Asian all lifetimes but this one!
For financial reasons I have not traveled as much as I would like, but I’m constantly dreaming and looking up tickets. I want to spend a long time in India at a Yogananda ashram. I think both travel and religion have defined my sense of purpose.
You’re preparing a meal for 400 people for the Performance International Festival — do you see this as a performance? If so, can you elaborate on the “meal as performance” concept and tell us what to expect from The Picnic on Sunday? What kind of food will you be serving? What kind of experience are you hoping to create with the massive shared meal? How do food, art, and community relate to each other in your view? Also, I’d be curious to know the details of the preparation — what is the process of cooking for 400 people?
CJ: Yes! this is performance. What isn’t? I have read about diets in times of famine as well as Westerners’ accounts of meals they have shared in different temples in Asia. I personally had one of this meals in Beijing. There is something very unforgettable about that experience. With these in mind, I thought, “What a beautiful feeling to convey.”
I was also reading about generosity as a precept and being that I officially live on the poverty line, what a great way to “offer” what I don’t have. I think cooking for a lot of people is a great way to express gratitude for our health, for the food we’ve had, for the people we have been able to eat with.
I will be preparing definitely an Asian dish. I want it to express the affordable quality that those temple and Cultural Revolution meals have, without loosing any flavor or comfort. I also want it to be healing. What better way to express love than to give for free a meal full of these intentions? I will literally provide calories, I will supply energy in that sense. Performance (the ritual of cooking and infusing with intention) transformed into energy is just such and exciting concept. The energy that the audience’s organs requires to run smoothly will be supplied by performance itself! Amazing! an audience running on art…
Also, performance is not capitalist by nature. You cannot buy or trade it. This is socialist in the real sense of the word. That day we will all be in a space that requires no admission and we will all share the same meal served in the same kind of plate. We will all be the same.
Food + Art + Community — I think the better any one of them is, the stronger they will make the others. Those three things are the pillars of every culture and definitely the three things I think of all day.
In the same way these three elements are what make a culture, I think the lack of any of them also marks the demise of it. We can go on and on and on, but I immediately start thinking (and worrying) about the way we are feeding our people today, the art that is being produced and purchased in some circles, and the lack of interest in our communities. I think it is sad that a culture can be wealthy but so very broke in any of these areas.
I want art to be the springboard of an era where none of those aspects is overlooked. I wish there were universities (maybe I can start one?) where you graduate with the ability to make food that energizes you, the ability to survive in any land, a green thumb, the ability to express yourself in a healthy way, the ability to sit in meditative silence so that your internal compass is wise, the ability to heal people and understand how your environment possesses all the elements you need to repair any kind of tissue, the ability to see how interconnected we are, the ability to really understand physics, science, metaphysics, and the power of affection and love.
When you think of it, it really is a miracle that we are endowed with even one second of life. If the work I make can be some kind of microcosmos of any of this, I can die happy and very old some day. I think in that is where the power of the new art resides: in the dormant mythopoetic qualities our lives have and how they can be awakened and strengthened through the efforts we make. I think in those magnanimous efforts we can all make, is where Performance resides.