Today, Dallas Contemporary opens MADE IN TEXAS, an interactive, performative, food installation by artist Jennifer Rubell as part of the DC’s LEGENDARY benefit. Featuring a 1-ton pile of tortilla chips, live stretching of Oaxaca cheese, on-the-spot salsa making, beer chilled in 55 steel drums, and on-site floral arranging, the one-night-only event seeks to draw attention to the artisinal quality of food production in Dallas’s assorted factories.

Following this event, Rubell sees the opening of her more durable, large-scale exhibition, NUTCRACKERS, which features provocative female mannequins lying in an odalisque position, being used as large-scale tools to crack open pecans.

I spoke with the artist via phone about what inspired these shows, the misogyny of the nutcracker industry, and how to break the energy of a museum by letting your audience touch (and eat) the work.

PATRIK SANDBERG How did this exhibition come about?
Dallas Contemporary asked me to do a show and a project with them so I went down there and kind of felt around town. I wanted to see a lot of the places where food was produced and made. I looked at a bunch of the restaurants, streetside vendors, and sort of felt my way around until I found something really interesting. I was captivated by the artisinal rebel food work that was happening in Dallas. I walked into these places and people dressed like factory workers, but were making food of a very high, artisinal quality. I was intrigued by the lines between food and the worker, and saw it as a metaphor for art making. The food world is sort of the last bastion of the system once used in the artist’s studio in terms of apprenticeship or a gild system.

PS How did the NUTCRACKERS concept come to be realized?
In general I am very interested in vernacular sculpture; sculpture that is made but that we don’t even think of as sculpture because it is utilitarian. I started to research nutcrackers, specifically for pecans. A lot of nutcrackers online have to do with these jokes about women, like “ball breaker” women. There was one of Hillary Clinton in particular. Interested in the mechanics of them, I began to collect nutcrackers on ebay and I came across this decent-sized group of nutcrackers that engaged the female form in some way. On a parallel road to my research, mannequins are a form of vernacular sculpture that I have been interested in for some time, in that they are essentially marketing objects for clothing.

PS Seeing that your work is, at times, performance-based, mannequins can be seen as representative of human beings and bear an echo of performance.
Although I never perform myself, I think the history of performance, which I engage a lot in my work, has to do with the body and denaturing the body. The mannequins have a robotic quality now, because of the mechanism placed inside that turns them into nutcrackers. That bridging of the space between the human form and the mechanical form is something artists have been interested in for a long time. For me it’s been a real treat to have them in the studio and work on them. They are very evocative forms to me. Some of them have huge breasts, some of them are flat-chested. There are black ones, white ones, they run the gamut of human forms, but none of them are taken from an actual human form. They aren’t even an idealized human form, because their purpose is to be covered. They are all sort of deformed and distorted in different ways.

PS Where did you source them from?
They are all sourced from one place. These are new mannequins that are made in China and distributed in Newark, New Jersey. The other thing in Dallas that led me to the mannequins was Neiman Marcus, which is this big force in Dallas. I think they either have theirs custom-made, or they’re different. I wanted the most generic, regular mannequin that was not abstract in any way. These have their makeup done and their eyelashes on. They are theoretically representational sculptures.

PS How do they work?
There are these teeth that look like a vagina dentata form. Nutcrackers that are designed especially for pecans have these teeth. They are in this concave, egg-shaped indentation on the mannequin’s inner thigh. The resting position is with the top leg open. When you see them in this position, your instinct is to close their leg. When I use preexisting sculpture and I want people to take an action, I take something a move it from its correct position. Instinctively, a viewer looking at it will want to position it to be in the position that it is meant to be in. I’m interested in these existing next to a painting or a sculpture, where touching them is a transgression or eating the nuts is a transgression. Any situation in a museum where you are even allowed to touch the work is very exciting in a primal way.

PS This interactive element is also present at Thursday’s event. How would you compare the two?
I make durable work and ephemeral work. Well, I only make work that is interactive, which is apparently ephemeral, so there is an ephemeral element to my durable work. Thursday is definitely ephemeral. It is looser, with less control, and I love that because I am doing something that is less resolved. I create situations inside a museum context and I see what happens. Creating it in itself is interesting, but the way people engage with the prompts I put in place is almost a kind of research for me.

PS What are you hoping for with the MADE IN TEXAS installation?
I have seven white pedestals and on each pedestal is an example of something that is made in Texas. There are a lot of things I was exploring there. I like the idea of the museum as a functional institution. You think of a museum as having one or only one function, engaging one of your senses in an exciting way. One of the pedestals will hold an exact facsimile of a kitchen tamale company. Putting on a pedestal something something that is invisible to everyone prompts them to look at it and think about it. There is no hidden labor of any kind. When you put something on a pedestal, you think about it.

MADE IN TEXAS is open tonight from 7 to 10PM at Dallas Contemporary. NUTCRACKERS opens 9/24 and runs through 12/4/11.

Above image from Nutcrackers, 2011 courtesy the artist