Dinner at an Exhibition: Rat, Prepared Many Ways

July 27th, 2012

Evan Sung for The New York Times

Prepping for a dinner at her eponymous gallery on the Lower East Side, Allegra LaViola learns how to skin a rat in her home kitchen.

AT first glance the opening and dinner at the Allegra LaViola Gallery on the Lower East Side on Wednesday night looked like any other New York art event. There were stylish people from Brooklyn and Manhattan, in dark clothing and notable shoes. Photographs lined the walls. Thematically appropriate mood music — in this case, live drums — came from a corner of the gallery. Laura Ginn, the artist being celebrated, wore a one-shoulder, one-of-a-kind dress.

There was a bit of a stench coming off it, though. Ms. Ginn’s gown was made of rat pelts, 300 of them, that she had tanned and sewn together. Their tails encircled her abdomen; two rat faces met on her right shoulder. “I thought that was cute,” she said, and laughed. “They’re kind of kissing. I do anthropomorphize them sometimes.”

Ms. Ginn, 28, has made working with animals her m?tier since she graduated with an M.F.A. in photography from Cranbrook Academy in Michigan in 2010. A video looping on one gallery wall showed her dismantling a deer head in the rain. A photo presented a still life of pelts drying on a rack in her shower. And at this dinner the centerpieces, such as they were, were small piles of rat bones — a tiny section of rib here, a spine there. “They’re all from the rats you are enjoying,” Ms. Ginn said, as people sat down to eat at tables covered with faded American flags. The opening of her exhibition, “Tomorrow We Will Feast Again on What We Catch,” centered on a multicourse meal in which the main ingredients, and aesthetic stars, were rats. The show runs until Aug. 3. Those easily queased should stop reading here.

Twenty people, mostly friends of Ms. Ginn or the gallery owner, Ms. LaViola, nibbled on goat cheese bruschetta topped with rat leg tenderloin, and rat-pork terrine encircled with beef fat, prepared by a chef after much trial and error with his proteins. The rats were shipped from a United States Department of Agriculture-approved West Coast processor that supplies pet owners with humanely killed, individually flash-frozen rodents, in classifications ranging from “jumbo” to “fuzzy.” Seventy five rats were skinned and cooked — and broiled and smoked and grilled — for the dinner, and most guests paid $ 100 each to attend, signing a liability waiver, some not entirely willingly.

“If I see an entire carcass, I might throw up,” said Clifford Owens, a performance artist. Mr. Owens, who had an exhibition at MoMA PS1 this spring, invoked the daredevil spirit of the performance artist Marina Abramovic, to get himself through the evening. “This is about risk,” he said. But even people with ample gross-out experience were put off. Curtiss Calleo, a founder of the adventure-eating club the Gastronauts, who has eaten wild yak and goat brains, wrote on Twitter of his trepidation about ingesting rats. Timothy Hutchings, an artist and video editor who said he’d once worked in an animal sanctuary feeding dead rats to alligators, copped to some squeamishness.

Fear was not the issue. “I like rats,” he said. “They’re friendly. You can train them. They have personalities.” For Ms. Ginn skinning and eating rats represents the survivalist instincts she likes to explore in her work. “To have these sorts of skills, it’s very empowering,” she said. “It makes me feel like I have more control over my world.”

Contemplating urban wildlife in New York naturally led her to rats. “I could’ve gone pigeon,” she allowed. But, she added, “I think people are a little more comfortable with pigeon, and I wanted to put people outside of their comfort zone.”

It was her challenge too: Ms. Ginn was a vegetarian until she decided to do this project last year; her first meat in 16 years was fried rat. “We had it with kind of a spicy dipping sauce,” she said. How’d it taste? “Strange. I didn’t have a good frame of reference.” (Her appetite for irony is robust, though: While she was skinning animals at home, she worked as a pet-sitter.)

Ms. Ginn fed people rats for the first time two weeks ago, at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, where guests learned to skin rodents, and then ate them, barbecued on skewers and as rat tacos. “We drank a lot of moonshine,” said Stuart Horodner, the center’s artistic director, who also attended the New York dinner. “That helped.”

For New Yorkers, though, rats — skulking around their daily lives, ferreting through garbage, seemingly unpoisonable — occupy a different psychic space than they might elsewhere: the embodiment of gothic urban horror.

“When I get in the subway going home and the rats are scurrying around, I’ll be thinking, ‘I ate your distant cousin,’ ” Mr. Owens said. Ms. LaViola, dressed in a vintage gown decorated with rat skins, said the appeal of the event was its ephemeralness and communality. She has done other offbeat dinners at her gallery, including one with live chickens (for performance only) and a hydraulic table, and another where dessert included snail caviar. To keep people engaged at Wednesday’s dinner, she poured wine (a California chardonnay and a Spanish Grenache) liberally, and discouraged photographing food.

Conversation turned naturally to industrial farming and apocalyptic scenes. A yoga teacher wondered aloud about the nutritional value of her meal. Rodents and their relatives are, of course, eaten all over the world: guinea pig in Latin America (and parts of Queens); nutria, a giant invasive rodent, in Louisiana, where the state’s control efforts include offering a $ 4 bounty for each nutria tail; muskrat and squirrel across Appalachia; and rats in at least a few restaurants in China. Without their skin, they look similar to rabbits, said Yuri Hart, the chef for the dinner.

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