If the personal is political, then how we choose to eat may be the most personal and political act of our daily lives. No one knows this better than Honey and Bunny, the Austrian performance artists who have rearranged a supermarket’s shelves based on each item’s water consumption, enveloped themselves in clingfilm to eat a surreal meal for two, and constructed a larger-than-life sculpture made entirely of bread and sausage.
Their tendency is towards the absurd, but what makes Honey and Bunny so innovative is that they aren’t just doing this to please an audience. Their art seeks to promote sustainability and cross-cultural understanding, getting us to question how our backgrounds shape our eating habits, and the effects these habits have on our environment. They want to know why we eat the way we eat, and once they’ve had their way with you, you may never look at a piece of cake, a slab of meat, or a simple carrot the same way again.
The duo, Martin Hablesreiter and Sonja Stummerer (who also happen to be a couple in real life), met while studying architecture at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, a formidable institution that has produced or nurtured the likes of Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Vivienne Westwood, and Karl Lagerfeld. What caused them to leave behind the colourful but upper-class confines of Austria’s illustrious art scene to shake up the food world?
According to Hablesreiter, it all started when they worked for an architectural firm in Tokyo, where they found the vision they had of themselves turned upside down: “You learn that your own culture is completely constructed, and what you think is normal isn’t,” he said of their time there. “In Japan, you cannot disappear.” He described a kind of awakening that extended to all aspects of their lives abroad: “Your daily routine is full of rituals, traditions, rules, conventions, but you just don’t see them anymore.” He could just as easily be describing Honey and Bunny’s manifesto, if they had ever written one. Instead, they’ve published several books that pair playful photography with an undertone of pointed criticism: a spoonful of wacky performance art sugar to make the medicine go down.
Now, Hablesreiter explained, they’re hard at work on a new book about daily housework, called Cleaning. “So basically it’s about feminism,” he said with a laugh. Their past published efforts, which include Eat Design and Food Design XL, are also meant to challenge society’s expectations about wealth and poverty, gender roles, and a Western tendency towards overabundance that, Hablesreiter warns, will continue to be a big problem in the future. “Right now in Europe, everybody tries to find solutions to reduce waste, but we produce too much in the first place. This should be the issue.”
Whether on the page or on the stage, Honey and Bunny are always up for interrogating societal norms, encouraging us to ask why we must perform a certain way in the kitchen or at the table. A first-time visitor to Asia, for example, may be flummoxed by a pair of chopsticks. A Chinese or Japanese person may find a fork hopelessly clumsy. How to convey the arbitrariness of these utensils through performance? At a recent Vienna Design Week, Honey and Bunny’s solution was to confront an audience with industrial machinery instead of forks and knives, as the two prepared a meal from scratch with blowtorches and drills. The results, even by their own account, were “repulsive”.
Their bread-and-sausage sculpture, constructed around a metal frame at Vienna’s MAK Museum of Applied Arts and playfully titled, “Knack” (both the name for a type of sausage, a Knackwurst, and an onomatopoeia for the sound it makes when you snap it in two), perhaps inspired a similar feeling of disgust. Honey and Bunny’s targets are very often the types of highly educated, sophisticated crowds likely to feel at home at art galleries, museum exhibits, and design fairs. But this time, ravenous guests were invited to rip off bits and pieces of the sculpture to eat. If just a few of them stopped to recall a National Geographic image of a lion’s pride feasting on a carcass, then the piece was a success.
We humans are at once animals and artists when we eat; fulfilling a biological need, yet elevating food to the level of high art. As Hablesreiter says, “On the one hand [food] keeps us alive; on the other, every bite you take symbolises who you are.” A few decades ago, the restaurant world might have shunned such an attempt at introspection, preferring to stick with spectacle, but these days, a show of concern for food waste, environmentalism and sustainability are all par for the course, even in fine dining. In fact, Honey and Bunny’s projects, whether consciously or not, now often mirror the interests of many top chefs today. These include Scandinavian stars like Noma and Fäviken, which eschew the ordinary supply chain in favour of self-raised and self-foraged ingredients, and Blue Hill’s wastED project, a three-week pop-up that conspired to create a menu out of food byproducts and waste. Diners these days want—and indeed expect—their meals to come with a healthy helping of innovation, education, and activism. Honey and Bunny were just ahead of the curve.
But Honey and Bunny, ever modest, still claim that they’re only food designers; not wacky performance artists with an international cult following, and certainly not daring disruptors of the status quo. But to Hablesreiter, perhaps being a food designer is a crucial enough role: “The goal of a designer shouldn’t be creating an expensive but beautiful chair or piece of jewellery. It is to think how to make the world better, because designing means solving problems.”
Put that on your plate and eat it. And then, with Honey and Bunny’s encouragement, allow yourself relentlessly to question why.
Discover more of Vienna’s contemporary art and design scene with the Concierge team at InterContinental Vienna, starting with one of the modern creations of PARLOR chef Ralf Geese.