Human Gourmet: Zoran Todorović

Human Gourmet: Zoran Todorović

Zoran Todorović is a Serbian performance and video artist. Zoran deals with modes of enacting bio-political control and explores the ways in which institutional spaces of control and punishment are inscribed in the body. He is best known for his new media and video works that often shocks and confronts the viewer. 

The following is a transcript of the conversation between Zoran Todorović, Stahl Stenslie and Zane Cerpina in October 2016, in the Belgrade Youth Center (Dom Omladine Beograda; DOB), Serbia. 

SS: Can you briefly explain your work “ASSIMILATION”? (1)

Zoran Todorović (ZT): It is a simple idea to make food out of human flesh and body, but it is also about the concept of beauty. I used plastic surgery clinics to collect the (human) material for meals. I also took pictures of patients during those surgeries. “Assimilation” works as some short circuit or, in psychological terms, as the artificially created cognitive dissonance which disturbs us through the simultaneous occurrence of two contradictory phenomena.

I used plastic surgery clinics
to collect the (human) material for meals

SS: Did you take part in the actual surgeries?

ZT: Yes, I was one of the medical team photographers who followed the procedures. In the end, they usually throw it (the human waste material) in the toilet, but I just collected and kept it. For the first performance, I asked a professional chef for advice, and he suggested to make some aspic dish - local traditional food. Because I wanted to prepare food for many people, the first time I collected leftovers from a face-lifting surgery (which was done with only a small cut and therefore produced little material), an aspic recipe sounded like a promising idea. 

The first time I collected leftovers
from a face-lifting surgery

SS: You are connecting beauty and the body, and there are many other artists who have done that using body as a material. But you have taken a step further to share it with your audience, so you do the cooking and the eating as a piece of art.

ZT: Yes, but I also used professional chefs who aestheticized food, so this involved the process of aestheticization, or normalization, of our bodies and some piece of meat. I wanted to connect to and problematize the process of aestheticization by using the taboo of cannibalism. 

SS: What was the procedure of cooking and serving? How did people perceive it?

ZT: For chefs, that was an interesting experience! They were very excited about it. But for the audience, it was a moment of conflict. For example, people who ate it had to explain and justify why they did it to the other part of the audience who refused to taste it. So, it was some moment of conflict and attention. 

For the audience,
it was a moment of conflict

SS: Were the patients notified about the project?

ZT: No. The patients were not involved in that story. The material was acquired from the surgeons, and it was an agreement between doctors and me.

SS: What about the taste?

ZT: I don’t know because I never tasted it. First, I did not want to eat human flesh. But another reason was more artistic. I always want to avoid a situation in which I make a performance out of myself, like a theater where audience looks at what the artist is doing.

SS: What were the exact reactions from the audience?

ZT: In different places, I hear different reactions. For example, here in Serbia, Croatia and especially Slovenia, many people wanted to taste it and to open some discussion around it. But in central Europe, for instance, and especially in Germany, the primary question is whether this performance is legal; the answer may surprise you – cannibalism is not forbidden, at least not in Europe. In Great Britain, the underlying problem about this work is a sanitary one. The British are concerned whether the offered food is healthy, and it is only in Britain that it is prohibited for the audience to taste this food since it was not possible to get the sanitary certificate for this food, which otherwise, in other places, was eaten for the most part during the performance. The performances usually function in such a way that during the performances themselves there's the discussion going on between those who tasted the food and those who refused it. On one occasion the discussion which started at the exhibition in Novi Sad ended up in the parliament of Vojvodina province.

Cannibalism is not forbidden,
at least not in Europe

SS: British would have been punished if they ate it?

ZT: They didn't allow it, I don't know what would happen if someone tried to.
SS: How many people have tasted your food? How many have crossed the taboo of eating human flesh?

ZT: I don't know the number of people, but many. When I was setting up the performance, I put up very detailed information with pictures and many details about the prepared meal. I tried to avoid misunderstandings about what the food was made from.

SS: Your work touches so many political and ethical aspects. You take it from the body, prepare it, externalize it, then take it back into your body, of course not just by eating and tasting it, but also by making the human flesh eternal, beautiful.

ZT: Yes, As I said beauty is some kind of construction and some kind of politics. On that level I want to provoke: what is beauty, what does that mean? 

What is beauty,
what does that mean?

The works I make have relational nature. These are procedures or situations which do not have a finite form and in whose formation the audience is somehow involved. The material used in their realization is some kind of tactics in which their institutional and symbolic origin is inscribed. If I make food out of human tissue, then it is essential that this tissue appears as a waste from the industry of aesthetic surgery, and therefore it acts as an ‘accursed share’ which hinders us to fit into some aesthetic standard. It is a fictional surplus which is problematic, socially produced, and which in an aestheticized form, in the form of tasteful food, is returned to the public, more concretely, to the audience which somehow must react to this normative stoppage in which it found itself. Here the taboo of cannibalism is some method through which a symbolic interruption of its own kind is made, where the effect of the abjection occurs as a denied truth of medical and normative procedures which relate to the body and its aestheticization.

It is a fictional surplus
which is problematic

This work, as well as some other works which I made, produces the effect of abjection which does not allow an easy identification with it. Namely, the problem of abjection is the problem of the abject (neither the object nor the subject), it is something which is external but is also at the same time yours. For instance, the shit, the snivel, the corpse, etc., it is some ‘accursed share,’ the surplus of the waste, which not only belongs to you but in some sense also constitutes you…
ZC: Do you think there is moment of normalization of the taboo (cannibalism), when people taste it?

ZT: For some people, it is OK. And also, many people told me that they would like to taste themselves; for some, it is their skin; for some, it is their finger. They were just curious. But for others that was a very problematic behavior.

Many people told me that they
would like to taste themselves

ZC: And how did chefs perceive the challenge of cooking human flesh? 

ZT: They almost immediately understood what the problem was. We carried a tiny piece of meat and had many people who potentially might want to taste it. So that was the frame for them, practically and economically. They would add spices and other ingredients to prolong the meal.

(1) Assimilation by Zoran Todorovic: Performance/Action, realized between 1997 and 2016.
A series of events which questioned the idea of beauty. It’s about meals, for example, suppers, made of human tissue which appears as a leftover in the industry of aesthetic surgery. The installation involves showing photo and video documentation that explains the origin and preparation of the food offered to spectators.

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