In food, fermentation — the process by which enzymes from microorganisms break down carbohydrates — is both an ancient practice and a recent trend. Cheese, made from cultured milk, was being produced in present-day Iraq around 7,000 B.C., and the Chinese are thought to have started making sake from fermented rice a couple of millenniums later. Over the past decade, chefs and diners have been drawn to all manner of fermented produce, as well as to fermented staples like kombucha and kimchi, sourdough and cider, for their tangy flavors and presumed digestive health benefits. Perhaps surprisingly, so have artists, though for their own reasons. In response to a report that a Chinese factory was making soy sauce out of fermented hair, the Miami-based artist Nicolas Lobo fermented some of his own in 2012. During last December’s Faena Festival, part of Miami Art Week, the installation artist Emeka Ogboh served a craft ale with notes of lime and pepper meant to nod to the city’s diversity of dwellers that he’d brewed in the hopes of sparking conversation about immigration and globalization. And Arden Surdam, who lives in Los Angeles and works primarily in photography, is currently collaborating with microbiologists from University of California, San Diego, to develop a bioreactor that will use fermentation to desaturate the pigmentation and decrease the potency of harmful algae blooms. (Also see the Toronto-based curator Lauren Fournier’s ongoing series examining fermentation through a feminist lens, which led to the 2019 book “Critical Booch.”)
Last month, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House in West Hollywood hosted an event centered on a fermentation-based installation by the New York design agency Leong Leong. In the fall, brothers Chris and Dominic Leong fashioned a trio of gneiss stone vessels — cubelike with curved edges and, crucially, airtight lids. Then Ai Fujimoto, who sells traditional Japanese miso out of a booth at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market every Sunday, and Jessica Wang, a former pastry chef who now hosts pickling workshops in Highland Park, filled them with different combinations of soybeans, koji, barley, brown rice, radish, citrus, salt and microbes. Several months later, the altered (mushier) contents of the containers, which had sat in the outdoor hearth of one of the house’s courtyard’s, became key ingredients in an afternoon that was part art happening and part cocktail party.
Leong Leong’s physical piece, “Fermentation 01,” is one of 24 works making up “Soft Schindler,” an exhibition curated by Mimi Zeiger that imagines vanished or alternative incarnations of its Modernist setting, the Schindler House, which was completed in 1922 and restored in the 1980s and ’90s. Naturally, conservationists failed to preserve all that existed there in the intervening years. In 1949, for instance, the house’s architect, R.M. Schindler, and his wife, Pauline Schindler, were living in separate parts of the house and communicating, frostily, via letters, when Pauline painted the redwood and concrete interiors of her portion salmon pink, which R.M. took as an affront. Zeiger asked the show’s participants to think of those walls, since returned to their original state, and of other ultimately impermanent elements that might have challenged what she calls the “rigid geometries” and strict binaries (inside versus outside, emotional versus rational) commonly associated with the property.
Social gatherings are of course inherently ephemeral, and the activation of Leong Leong’s work paid tribute to past parties held at the house. For a time, the Schindlers were enthusiastic entertainers. “They’d host political rallies, art talks and dinner parties with fliers warning that so-and-so’s daughter may deprive you of a dollar at the door,’” said the MAK Center director, Priscilla Fraser. The Leongs’ vessels were also a continuation of a body of work they’ve made as part of their own practice consisting of domestic objects that enable rituals of self-care: a stainless steel flotation tank that showed at the Guggenheim in Bilbao last year; sculptural rocking seats on which a sitter can stretch, as with a yoga ball, that were commissioned for a 2018 show at Friedman Benda. Here, they were thinking about how self-care allows you to care for others. “We knew we wanted to make something that would engage the hearth and require guests,” said Dominic.
As they wandered in and around the house, those guests, the furniture designer Jonathan Olivares, ceramist Ben Medansky and curator Cameron Shaw among them, sampled grilled rice balls topped with a chunky soy sauce made in one of the vessels. In a second container, Fujimoto made a miso that she mixed with yuzu and served with daikon radishes. Sometimes, though, when you flirt with the concept of rot, things get, to use a distinctly Californian word, gnarly. This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever neglected the SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) floating in a homemade batch of kombucha, but because the vessels sat outside, Fujimoto and Wang were dealing with the added factor of the hotter-than-expected October sun. When Yang found her lemon ferment overly rich in mold spores, she decided to use a batch she’d cured at home instead. “You never know how it’s going to turn out,” said Fujimoto. Questions about the terms of transformation, and about what it means for something, or someone, to act upon another, were also raised by part of a different work on view — a line of text, inspired by correspondence between the Schindlers, that the Los Angeles collective Design, Bitches printed on plexiglass tucked into the clerestory windows of a ground-floor room: “When you touch me I fall apart.”
“Soft Schindler” will be on view at the MAK Center through February 16.