The Domestic Kitchen as Performance Space: The Female Artist vs the Housewife

Athena Stourna*

Abstract

In this paper the domestic kitchen is studied as a performance space of female artistic creativity from the 1970s up until the 2020s. Stereotypically considered to be the realm of the housewife and the mother, the domestic kitchen is also a site of women’s “incarceration” and oppression. “Performing the everyday” within the inescapable walls of the kitchen has led to an awareness of feminist concerns as artistic expression and political practice, while the kitchen itself provided a locus for female artists to produce performance pieces that expose their changing position in society, by turning the kitchen into a laboratory, a workshop and a private theatre.

Keywords: performance space, kitchen, female performance, performing the everyday, food

In this paper I propose an understanding of the domestic kitchen as a marginal, lesser-known performance space and as a polysemous scenographic environment. I will study the kitchen as a site of female artistic creativity and social protest, from the 1970s until the present day. How do female artists get inspired by and experiment with the kitchen, the cooking utensils and food preparation, in order to speak out loud about being trapped and muted within their opposing roles of wife, mother, and artist?

Stereotypically considered a female realm, a “family temple” served by the housewife and the mother, the domestic kitchen is also the site of women’s oppression, solitude and confinement. I will discuss how this spatial and psychological “incarceration” that is related to the realities of the life of some female artists, has turned the kitchen into a site for producing performance pieces that expose women’s changing position in society over the past five decades.

Since the 1970s, a “turn to the domestic” has been witnessed in the Arts, especially in the work of female visual and performance artists. I am thinking of the project Womanhouse (1972) led by Judy Chicago and Myriam Shapiro with other female artists: a house in California was converted into a performance and installation space with collectively authored rooms. In its kitchen, the installation Nurturant Kitchen represented the biological role of female bodies and the labour involved in breastfeeding.

In Chantal Akerman’s hyperrealist film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), domestic chores, including cooking, became the protagonist in an all-devouring performance of the everyday. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cindy Sherman created numerous projects in domestic spaces, especially in kitchens. I am also thinking of Helen Chadwick’s 1977 feminist performance In the Kitchen (Washing Machine). In this project, four female performers wore costumes that represented gendered kitchen appliances, thus challenging the stereotype of a woman as a dehumanised electrical domestic appliance.

In recent theoretical writings the centralisation of the domestic kitchen as physical space in artistic creation has been studied as an autonomous subject by Lindsay Kelley, in a chapter titled “Semiotics of the Kitchen: Feminist Food Art” (2022 [2016]), which traces how the Taylorist kitchen of the past was transformed by the work of American feminist artists of the 1970s, with the performance politics of food and eating. Adding later examples of the next generation of feminist art, Jody B. Cutler (2017) extends the studies of earlier feminist works that included eating and feeding as “prevalent subjects that intersect in the kitchen with myriad notions of domesticity” (142) and brings into light the physical kitchen space as a central site of feminist artistic creation.

This paper is not an exhaustive cataloguing of female performances in the kitchen. It aims to study the kitchen as a marginal performance space, starting from the first explorations of feminist art of the 1970s and its resurgence of the 1990s. Two seminal kitchen performances from these two distinct eras are analysed: the first is Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), and the second is Bobby Baker’s Kitchen Show (1991). If both these performances are now part of the performance art canon, the kitchen has also been used as a performance space in more recent times and in different contexts. I am, therefore, including in this study an experimental performance that used both a physical and a virtual kitchen, that was created in 2013 by the international group of female artists The Food Project. Part of this collaborative performance was my own piece, Medea’s Kitchen, which serves here as an empirical approach–as an input “from within”. It was this personal practice as a female artist working in the kitchen that sparked my interest in the subject of this paper. The fourth case study is Rivers of Blood–a video performance by Anna Birch in her kitchen, that was streamed online in 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic’s first lockdown.

The originality of this study lies in the fact that it extends beyond the well-known performances offered by Martha Rosler and Bobby Baker. It adds lesser-studied examples and sheds light on how the kitchen evolved and inspired female performance artists under new historical challenges. In other words, it looks at how this marginal performance space becomes less marginal over the years: it acquires new layers of meaning under important changes in global society and politics, such as the globalisation, the advancement of new technologies and communication, and a global pandemic.

The Domestic Kitchen as Performance Space: From Private to Shared and from Real to Virtual

Richard Schechner recognises a “displacement from the streets to seminar rooms” after 1968 (Performing Imaginaries 23-24). This transitional year was marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the US and by the street battles in Paris and elsewhere, where the youth rebels had been defeated by the conservatives. The result was the end of optimism “with regard to real change coming from or being forced on the ruling classes” (Schechner, Performing Imaginaries 24). It was then that a number of radical intellectuals and artists had to find refuge in the university nutshell.

Indeed, by the 1970s, the wider deception after the failure of all the hopes placed in the rebellion of the streets for political and social change, directed the thousands of still enraged street protesters towards closed spaces. The community spirit evaporated and lonely figures had to continue their battles for change on their own.

In the video performance Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) Martha Rosler found herself alone in a kitchen with no fellow street companions and no physical audience: all her energy, rebellion, action and rage were now disseminated through a new medium, the video, that provided wide and durable exposure through the international museum circuit.

The arrival and quick spread of AIDS in the 1980s, radically changed the tone in public behaviours affecting human relations beyond sexual ones (Schechner, « L’avant-garde et les systèmes globalisants », 10). As a consequence, the whole decade was marked by fear and solitude and the rise of a new conservatism. Added to this was the centrality acquired by the business world and the spreading of consumerism and materialism.

The beginning of the 1990s saw the need for the return to communal experiences, by embracing spectators and viewers in a shared, social activity and by providing art as “ways of living and models of action within the existing real” (Bourriaud 13) as was proposed by Nicolas Bourriaud in his notion of “relational aesthetics”.

For her performance of Kitchen Show (1991) Bobby Baker opened her home kitchen to spectators who became her guests. Hence, she created a more personalised, reciprocal communication between performer and spectator. However, this communal spirit had lost its political fervour of the 1960s and saw art as a commodity that has to be paid for and definitely not as a way of action for social change: “Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to micro-utopias and imitative strategies, every stance that is ‘directly’ critical to society is futile, if based on the marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive”, notes Nicolas Bourriaud (31).

Two decades later, in 2013, the Food Project’s geographically dispersed virtual kitchens echoed the utopia (used here in its literal sense–a non-place) proposed by the effects of globalisation, with its elision of time and obliteration of geographical distances. Mother Tongue: Adapting / Translating / Transcribing / Performing Food was the group’s first artistic research project that took place during the 2013 World Stage Design, in Cardiff. The artists-participants in that project were: Anna Birch, Rachel Hann, Kathleen Irwin, Mariana Kútulas-Vrsalović, Nicole Ponczak and myself.

The Food Project’s virtual rehearsal meetings from kitchens around the world and the dissemination of the project through smart devices and applications was provided via the Project’s website. New communication technologies facilitated the exposure of a globalised domestic kitchen, where local recipes, cultures, histories and myths cross borders and can be easily approached by servers worldwide.

In 2020, the global pandemic caused a slowdown to globalisation. A dystopic reality emerged abruptly. Strict lockdowns around the world gave a new insight to domestic spaces and the kitchen in particular. If, on the one hand, domestic space became a huis clos of forced incarceration, it also became a space for homemade artistic creativity with what was at hand. Anna Birch used her home kitchen in her video performance Rivers of Blood (2020) to portray a generalised existential crisis brought by the frustration and fear towards an unknown, invisible enemy. Her work was created during the first and strictest lockdown and was viewed by spectators around the world, who were also in home confinement.

Historical Overview: The First Voices to be Heard from the Kitchen

One of the most provocative works of art with a living model and real food has been Spring Banquet (also known as Cannibal Feast, 1959) created by Méret Oppenheim. A female model lying on a table and garnished with lobsters, fruit and nuts–a depiction of what seemed as an ironic representation of the woman as both nurturer and food item, speechlessly invited the guests to participate in a “cannibalistic” banquet, picking up food from atop her body using cutlery.

The dining table where the model lay was also used as a surface of display of both the woman and the food, as objects of both sexual and culinary desire. The table served at the same time as a bed and, even more so, as a deathbed: the woman’s brutal passivity resembled a corpse or a gruesome representation of a dead animal body on a platter ready to be consumed. According to Nancy Joyce Peters, Méret Oppenheim’s installation:

 […] undercut the tyranny of the conventional male-viewed mythic woman with typical verve. Laid out on her back, filling the eye with fruit and flesh, here was woman-as-feast, an effigy of perfect passivity, simultaneously homage to women’s delectable attributes and a witty mockery of the Nurturer and of Woman Objectified.”

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Méret Oppenheim’s initial intention was the creation of a feast of fertility and a matriarchal spring celebration and the artist was annoyed that the outcome of that banquet, intended to be appreciated by both women and men, was interpreted as a spectacle of female passivity and the fetishization of the female body. It was probably too early for Oppenheim to be fully understood.

Spring Banquet (Cannibal Feast), Méret Oppenheim, 1959. Photo: Van Hecke Roger. Courtesy of Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Fonds Breton

Yet, from then on, the seeds were laid. Women’s stereotypical relation to food, cooking and the kitchen was destabilised in the form of installations and performance art pieces using food as a medium that sought to challenge gender conventions, and to establish new meanings to women, their position in society, and the female body. Female artists, in the decades that followed, chose themes, images, objects and actions related to the traditional role of women in society that placed them within their homes, and especially their kitchens, and tried to challenge these associations.

This is evident in Yayoi Kusama’s sculpture Oven-pan (1963), who used a pan, a slotted spoon lying among organic-looking sculptural elements resembling vegetables or penises, thus creating a “phallophagic” plate. By referring to items associated with the female domain of the kitchen, cooking and food presentation, Yayoi Kusama claimed a position in the art scene as a woman artist against the establishment (since time immemorial) of male creators whose genitals were now offered to be consumed. There was a lot of rage, resentment and a need to reclaim agency in this artwork: kitchen items became violent tools, spilling over death and revenge.

artist: Kusama, Yayoi
title: Oven-Pan
date: 1963
medium: paint, canvas, cotton, steel, wood
dimensions: 9-3/4 x 18-1/2 x 24″ overall.
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1996
Brief History of the Kitchen as a De-centered Site on the Stage and in the Home

In the history of Western theatre, up until the late nineteenth century, the kitchen had never been seen on stage, since it was considered a degraded, de-centred site, as opposed to the rest of the house. However, an exception to this rule has been a couple of French plays that were set in kitchens and performed in Parisian theatres during the nineteenth century. These performances survived in theatre history as scandalous, exactly because at the time, the idea of showing a domestic kitchen on the stage as the play’s dramatic setting was extremely shocking. It was for this reason, that the first performance, Dugratin or La Croûte aux champignons, by Ugotin (1821), was a complete failure. Following the same path, another play titled Voyage autour de ma marmite by Eugène Labiche (1859), was censored and banned from the stage, judged for immorality.

Indeed, for the social and theatrical morals of the time, the kitchen was a room that was not worth showing in the theatre. August Strindberg was the first playwright to make a durable impact by placing the kitchen as the dramatic centre of his play Miss Julie (1888). From then on, throughout the twentieth century, the kitchen reappeared several times in the theatre, representing a space with strong social connotations. For example, the kitchen was the dramatic setting in plays belonging to the (often pejoratively called) “Kitchen sink drama” of the 1950s and to the Theatre of the everyday that flourished in France and Germany, from the 1960s until the 1980s.

The positioning of the kitchen on the stage forms a parallel with the historical evolution of the domestic kitchen. For many centuries, the kitchen was a dirty, humid and dark room, often hidden in the basement. It was therefore regarded as a marginal space–a place apart. From the late nineteenth century onwards, hygienists, doctors and social workers denounced its fetid aspects. This led gradually to the kitchen’s modernisation, especially after the turn of the century. The kitchen became clean, bright, and ergonomic, reaching its apogee in the 1950s kitchen–the centre of the American dream, with its labour-saving appliances and functional design (Stourna 174-79).

At the time, the home kitchen became the centre of political demonstration and ideological debate. One needs to remember the 1959 “Kitchen debate” between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Union Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, during the American National Exhibition held in Moscow. The two leaders exchanged a series of political debates on the competing merits of their respective political and economic systems. One of these debates took place in an unorthodox setting, in front of an exhibit model American kitchen, whose new appliances echoed the virtues of consumerism and, consequently, the superiority of the Capitalist system. The “Kitchen debate” situated the domestic kitchen as a political symbol of post-war American power. However, the American kitchen’s glossy appearance became a sort of “trap” for women in the West, and this entrapment was going to last for decades.

As Jennifer Rachel Dutch points out, in the American kitchen of the 1950s: “[…] kitchen appliances made cooking easier–for women–not for men. For all the changes represented in this vision of the future, some ideas remained stubbornly fixed. If there was a button to push in the kitchen of the future, the finger that pushed it would be a woman’s.” (Dutch 49) In other words, the modern kitchen became a prison conceived for women by men.

The Kitchen as Scenography of the Margins: Between Life and Death

Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
[…]
The smog of cooking, the smog of hell
Floats our heads, two venomous opposites,
Our bones, our hair.
(Plath)

The most well-known, tragic performance of death in a domestic kitchen was carried out by a woman, artist, and mother, who did not make it to escape from her kitchen-prison and to regain her own life, identity and self, as woman and artist. Sylvia Plath was “swallowed” by her gas oven. Thus, the domestic kitchen, a place traditionally linked to nurturing, motherhood, and the perpetuation of life through cooking and feeding, instead of a womb became a tomb. Home confinement became a “domestic labyrinth” that was choking her, as she had confessed in one letter (Dobbs 24).

In Sylvia Plath’s case, the choice of ending her life in her kitchen, was both a performance and a statement: Plath liberated herself from a role she could no longer carry out, that of a wife and a mother, a domestic performance compelled by both society and nature themselves. While the mother and the wife died, the woman and the artist emerged.

Sylvia Plath’s suicide is the most palpable example of the destruction of the idealised image of the kitchen as the realm par excellence of the housewife and the mother, a collective imaginary that was carefully cultivated as the culmination of the consolidation of post-war consumerist society in the West. Bitter truths about the kitchen being the site of women’s oppression, a huis clos of solitude and confinement, have long been (and still are) passed over in silence.

Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975): the Videotape of a Kitchen in Commotion

Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen is a black-and-white video performance belonging to the early stages of autonomous video art, created in New York in 1975. Martha Rosler is standing in what seems like a strange, uninviting kitchen. Inspired by Julia Child’s TV cooking shows, Martha Rosler performs a mock cooking demonstration with antique kitchen tools that she names, following their alphabetical order. She mimes each utensil’s use in exaggerated, often violent gestures. By transgressing the socially acceptable serene gestures of female domestic cooking, Rosler’s actions resemble murderous acts and exteriorise suppressed rage. The kitchen utensils thus change connotation and are portrayed as possible lethal weapons.

Martha Rosler, during a talk she gave in Moscow some decades later, in 2012, characterised this domestic performance as:

a way of saying these Semiotics speak you, that is that the pre-programmed activities in the kitchen for women were already something that spoke them, that was not a chosen role and no matter how much Julia Child, the media, the whole structure of married life, of growing up female was to say ‘You can be arty about this, you can be a good cook, you can be wonderful, but you cannot not cook.

YouTube, 00:19:40-00:20:20

Up until the famous feminist slogan “the personal is political,” the political dimension of the private space had been disregarded in the West, even though it echoed the complex system of political issues at stake as experienced in the public sphere, such as the issues of domination and oppression. Martha Rosler pointed out the diachronic antagonism between the private and the public sphere as being an ideological potent friction. She concluded that she wanted to “explore the relationships between individual consciousness, family life, and culture under capitalism.” (Rosler in Wark, 115). The kitchen, as a private domain, as a space of the everyday and therefore an insignificant locus was used as a sign of social injustice against women. However, this secluded and serene environment related to the preparation of food, could become a site where a violent female rebellion might unexpectedly break out.

In an article about Feminist art in California written by Martha Rosler a couple of years later, the artist presented how early feminist performance in the West coast took off by recurrently referring to issues stemming from “private life”. She discussed how the energy invested in what she calls “‘forced labor’ of domestic maintenance” (Rosler 69), expressed by taking on passive, dependent and depressive roles, was redirected to become a positive anger used by the performers in order to communicate their taking of control.

Semiotics of the Kitchen, “Ice pick,” Martha Rosler, 1975 (video still). Image copyright of the artist. Courtesy of Video Data Bank, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Martha Rosler located early Feminist performance and the Happening as the continuation of historical avant-garde performance as regards “the return of daily-life material to an abstract art that had developed ‘private myth’ into an almost unreadably obscure and increasingly formalistic set of strategies for invoking human content.” (Rosler 70). Her own performance in the kitchen was a lonesome battle of a woman who redirected her anger by performing violent, aggressive gestures with no actual recipients, as if the enemies were invisible. The woman was presented as a tool herself–a tool of imposed roles. These roles could not be altered, unless she revolted from the interior of her kitchen-prison. But revolting cannot happen without violence.

Bobby Baker’s Kitchen (1991): the “Relational” Kitchen and the Artist’s Personal Theatre

In a more implicitly political performance, Bobby Baker used her own kitchen in her North London home as the first location for performing Kitchen Show (1991) as part of the London International Festival of Theatre. She insisted on performing this piece in working kitchens while touring her show nationally and internationally. The kitchen should hence be a real one–not a representation of it as a décor, serving as both the artist’s workshop and personal theatre.

Bobby Baker, The Kitchen Show, 1991. Photo: Andrew Whittuck. Source: Barrett Michèle & Baker Bobby (eds.), Redeeming Features of Daily Life, Routledge, 2007, © 2023, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ΟΣΔΕΕΤΕ, Αthens

It was only three years after Bobby Baker had returned to making artistic work after an 8-year pause being a full-time mother. This period was marked, as she states, by ambivalence about her role, by her loss of self and significant status, by boredom and frustration and, at the same time, by pride (Baker 47).

Bobby Baker transformed her kitchen routine as a mother and housewife into a dozen plus one (baker’s dozen) performative actions, in which she related the gestures she liked to do in her kitchen to her psychological states: these ranged from serenity to anger and from frustration to euphoria. Like Martha Rosler, Bobby Baker performed a cooking demonstration, but, unlike Martha Rosler, she used real food and based her actions on the dramatic quality that the materiality of food can offer: from throwing a ripe pear against a cupboard door to smearing margarine on her cheeks. At the same time, Baker also used “undramatic” moments related to food and cooking, such as resting a wooden spoon on top of her saucepan.

Baker twisted elements that she drew from her life as mother and housewife in a playful manner, while she approached her subject with a humorous attitude. Even her anger and frustration had a lightness in tension. Yet, the whole show’s concept was based upon the hundreds of hours a woman spends in her kitchen, a human labour that is unacknowledged, undervalued and unpaid for. One must dig deep to find Baker’s resentment and melancholy–not as apparent as Martha Rosler’s overexposed fury–as she urged herself to create art out of her everyday chores and needed to share her loneliness in the kitchen by inviting spectators to watch her in what had been until then a private and secluded space.

Bobby Baker would welcome some twenty-five spectators in each show, who sat on benches facing the stove and the sink area and offered them a welcoming hot drink. The performer paid attention to embracing her audience (she referred to them as “guests”), with “extra care and hospitality” (54).

The idea of including the spectators in an affectionate manner in the performance and within her private lodgings–now a performance space, fell into the aesthetic issue of participatory and relational art. This claim arose at the beginning of the 1990s, mainly by Nicolas Bourriaud. In his work Relational Aesthetics he discussed the possibility of a relational art, that is “of an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” (14).

If Martha Rosler used the kitchen for the execution of her lonesome videotaped performance, Baker needed to share this space with an audience, hence the kitchen lost its private character. In Kitchen Show Bobby Baker showed how her kitchen was experienced as a space of life-providing production through food preparation and daily chores, but also as a death-site of the woman and the artist. In other words, by making a performance space out of it, Bobby Baker achieved her resurrection as artist.

The Food Project’s Mother Tongue (2013): Cooking Globalisation

My personal artistic experience of using the kitchen as laboratory and performance space to mark my own return to artistic activity after the birth of my daughter came accidentally when in 2013, I joined the international group The Food Project. A domestic kitchen in a rented apartment in Cardiff provided the workshop area and performance space, where members of the group executed a series of “performed recipes”–a combination of cooking and storytelling. Both actions were related to a specific historical, cultural and political subject. For example, Kathleen Irwin spoke of the early Canadian history and the eating habits of First Nations people, while she cooked a traditional dish and offered drinks related to the stories to the other members of the group who served as spectators/guests.

My own “performed recipe” echoed my frustration of coping with my responsibilities as a young mother and the insurmountable need to resume my life as an artist. Titled Medea’s Kitchen, it decomposed the stereotypical image of the woman-nurturer and focused on the “dark side” of female cooking. It looked at mythical women, such as Eve, Medea, and Circe, who used their cooking, feeding, or deprivation in order to take revenge, kill, disseminate hatred, and display authority, in terms of a private matter or as part of a political act. While I prepared the recipe for a traditional Greek cake, Mariana Kútulas-Vrsalović played the accordion in the background of the kitchen and the other participants had their eyes blindfolded and listened to the stories. Traces of this cooking performance were left on the white tablecloth.

Medea’s Kitchen, The Food Project/Athena Stourna, 2013. Vine stills: Rachel Hann. Source: The Food Project (foodproject.utopiantheatres.co.uk)

Previous preparation time happened online, while we connected from our home kitchens at the various locations we found ourselves at, around the world. We used group video chats applications in order to communicate and rehearse our works–a method that proved useful and was propagated years later during the global pandemic. Sharing our ideas and everyday lives in our kitchens formed web installations as “an attempt to capture and share performances of food preparation through technology without losing the intimacy of the kitchen” (Owen s10).

This rented kitchen in Cardiff became home to our investigations revolving around national and cultural identities, and the connections between performance, food, gender and technology. These performative investigations used mobile devices to archive unrepeated one-off performances through photographs, audio and vine short videos that are available to be viewed through The Food Project’s website ( The Food Project (foodproject.utopiantheatres.co.uk)).

Hence, the internet offered a platform for “inviting” spectators-guests from around the world, who could “taste” fragments of our projects. Indeed, the word “taste” was used here in a paradoxical way, since the senses of touch, smell and taste, normally activated in eating, were being muted. This virtually accessible kitchen was not a secluded and lonesome space: it was a site of sharing and creation between artists from different cultures. In contrast to Bobby Baker’s opening of her physical kitchen and the sharing of conviviality between her and her guests, the fragmentary, virtual viewing of The Food Project’s kitchen performances in Mother Tongue lifted the fourth wall and functioned like an invitation to intrude into the intimacy of this internationally inhabited, convivial, private online kitchen.

Empty plates, The Food Project, 2013. Source: The Food Project (foodproject.utopiantheatres.co.uk)
Travels in Space and Time in the Virtual Kitchen During Coronavirus

The global pandemic and forced home confinement for most countries brought a new insight to domestic space. The kitchen became a laboratory, a studio, a rehearsal space and a virtual performance space for artists. Anna Birch’s video performance Rivers of Blood (2020) took place in her home kitchen in the U.K. as part of the international tele-video-performance collective artwork Forced Memories, directed by Emmanouela Vogiatzaki-Krukowski (YouTube, 00:19:45-00:24:50). This project was created to be viewed online during the first period of home confinement, in July 2020.

Rivers of Blood is named after the eponymous speech made by British politician Enoch Powell in 1968, which is known to include racial undertones. The performer shows only a small part of her body and hands in blue plastic gloves, as she is “kneading” tomato purée, contained in a thick and watery plastic bag. She then starts smearing the tomato on her white overall, and when she is all covered up with the crushed tomato, she places two miniature boats that “sail” on the tomato-covered plastic bag–the “rivers of blood”.

During the performance, a text by Indian author Suzanne Arundhati Roy is read out in a voiceover by Kathleen Irwin. According to Anna Birch “the focus is on the pandemic as a portal for a better future for humankind and not returning to normality as we knew it before the pandemic” (personal communication, June 7, 2022. This applies to all citations by Anna Birch). The artist qualifies this performance as both a feminist and a political one. Even though the performer’s gender is not apparent in the video, she considers having created this performance from the point of view of her position as a woman. Along with the experience of the first lockdown, the performance tackles the issue of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, considering “current racial injustice, slavery and the history of fascism in the U.K.”

At a time when all activity had been transferred indoors, the kitchen became a locus of global forced incarceration for all, while the fear of death as a threatening force invaded this space. As a reaction to this dystopic environment, the kitchen became a site of homemade artistic creativity, where food was used as an artistic medium since it was one of the few commodities that were still widely available. Birch’s piece was a response to the idea of restriction, either physical, spatial, social, or political and how this state of inertia could make ideas and energy flow in a more internal way:

By making this piece in my kitchen, I was able to bring the elements of Black Lives Matter into my home and to consider the terror of racism through my body, through embodied performance and my mind through reading and research. This was an opportunity the Lockdown gave me – time to consider, research and make. This experience made me feel engaged and alive and in the role of an ally to the global BLM movement.  

Rivers of Blood, performer: Anna Birch, director: Emmanouela Vogiatzaki-Krukowski, 2020 (video still)
Domestic Kitchen: From the Hidden Margins to the Virtual Epicentre

Richard Schechner in his chapter “A Polity of its Own Called Art?” questions whether the “lifelike tendency” in art can go too far:

The question here is different: the act itself, not its representation. The “lifelike” tendency in art – can it go too far? But what of nonrepresentational arts such as the “martial arts,” the “art of cooking,” or any activity executed with graceful expertise? Is “art” in this sense mere metaphor? I don’t think so. What the nonrepresentational categories indicate is an artistic “approach” or “style” that can inflect any activity.

37

Sylvia Plath’s suicide in her home kitchen proved a lifelike artistic act with which she symbolically annihilated her traditional role as wife, mother and nurturer and claimed, with her death, her role as woman and artist. The stereotypically “feminine” domestic kitchen thus acquired a dissident reading to the mainstream notion of a happy “family temple” for women: that of a prison – a site of oppression and solitude.

It also brought attention to a room that had been considered for centuries as insignificant, disregarded and mundane. One could barely imagine the amount of drama that can take place in a kitchen. Indeed, this observation applies to both life and art. August Strindberg was the first one to present the domestic kitchen as a theatre of a woman’s frustration, drama and tragic death in Miss Julie.

As opposed to the masculine, professional restaurant kitchen, the domestic kitchen has acquired the connotation of a feminine place through the tyrannical lens of centuries of patriarchy. In this paper, the kitchen was examined through the eyes of several women artists, from the 1970s until the early 2020s, who shed light on women’s changing position in society. Tackling personal, sociological, political and aesthetic issues, the domestic kitchen was exposed as a scenography of the margins and a de-centred performance space, as in Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and Bobby Baker’s Kitchen Show (1991).

In the decades that followed, with the flourishing of the internet and online performance, the domestic kitchen moved from the margins of a private, secluded space to the more accessible virtual kitchen. In The Food Project’s Mother Tongue (2013) the women artists’ kitchens around the world were used as artistic laboratories for multinational/multicultural experimentation, while the final performance was later executed in a real kitchen in Cardiff and documented to be viewed online.

This experience of globally dispersed online kitchen performances would later become habitual, during the coronavirus pandemic. Anna Birch’s Rivers of Blood (2020) echoed the shift in the positioning of the kitchen from a marginal space to a central one. Her “pandemic kitchen” became an online theatre, accessible to all, while domestic kitchens around the world became a refuge and a prison for all, despite their gender. If, until then, the domestic kitchen used to be a lesser-known, de-centred, marginal performance space, it now became a central site of artistic creativity in the pandemic-stricken era.

Note: Parts of this paper were presented at the 2022 IFTR Conference, in Reykjavík, Iceland, as part of the Scenography Working Group, convened by Donatella Barbieri and Xristina Penna.


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Dobbs, Jeannine. “‘Viciousness in the Kitchen’: Sylvia Plath’s Domestic Poetry.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 1977, pp. 11- 25.

Dutch, Jennifer Rachel. Look Who’s Cooking: The Rhetoric of American Home Cooking Traditions in the Twenty-First Century. UP of Mississippi, 2018.

Joyce Peters, Nancy. “Women and Surrealism.” Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, edited by Penelope Rosemont, U of Texas P, 1989, pp. 459-69.

Kelley, Lindsay. Bioart Kitchen: Art, Feminism and Technoscience. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016 (reissued 2022).

Owen, David. “A Photographic Journey through Digital Technology in Canadian Performances.” Canadian Theatre Review, vol. 159, 2014, pp. s1-s11.

Plath, Sylvia. “Lesbos.” In Ariel. Faber and Faber, 1965.

Rosler, Martha. “The Private and The Public: Feminist Art In California.” Artforum,  Vol. 16 No. 1, 1977, pp. 66-74.

Schechner Richard. Performing Imaginaries. Routledge, 2015.

———–. “A Polity of its Own Called Art?” Artistic Citizenship. A Public Voice for the Arts, edited by Mary Schmidt Campbell and Randy Martin, Routledge, 2006, pp. 33-41.

———–. « L’avant-garde et les systèmes globalisants, » translated by Marie Pecorari, Théâtre/Public, no. 190, 2008, pp. 8-14.

Stourna, Athéna-Hélène. La Cuisine à la scène : boire et manger au théâtre du XX siècle. Presses universitaires de Rennes & Presses universitaires Franҫois-Rabelais de Tours, 2011.

Wark, Jane. Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2006.

Videography

Birch, Anna. Rivers of Blood in Forced Memories, 2020, YouTube, uploaded by the Theatre Department, Nafplio, University of Peloponnese, 10 Sep. 2020. Accessed: 05/11/2023.

Oppenheim, Méret. The Feast EROS gallery Cordier 1959, YouTube, uploaded by Philippe Szechter, 23 Jul. 2017. Accessed: 05/11/2023.

Rosler, Martha. Martha Rosler – Semiotics of the Kitchen 1975, YouTube, uploaded by Everything has its first time, 18 Oct. 2017. Accessed: 05/11/2023.

Rosler, Martha. Показ видеоработ Марты Рослер / Showing videos by Martha Rosler, YouTube, uploaded by Safmuseum, 20 Jul. 2012. Accessed: 05/11/2023.

Website

The Food Project website. Available at: The Food Project (foodproject.utopiantheatres.co.uk). Accessed: 05/11/2023. 

Interview conducted by e-mail

Birch, Anna. E-mail interview. Conducted by Athena Stourna, June 7, 2022


*Athena Stourna (PhD), is a scenographer, theatre and performance maker and researcher. She is Assistant Professor of Space, Scenography and Performance at the University of the Peloponnese, Greece. Her research and artistic practice focus on performance space and design, as well as in the relationship between food, drink and cooking with theatre and performance. She is the author of the monograph La Cuisine à la scène : boire et manger au théâtre du XXe siècle (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2011). She is a member of the international group The Food Project, and the artistic director of the Okypus Theatre Company, active in Greece since 2007. 

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Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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