Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mud Muse

In the early 70's, my parents dragged my siblings and me off to a kinetic art exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In retrospect, it's surprising that this opportunity ever arose, as my parents aren't exactly connoiseurs of this scene.

On arrival, we were greeted by a giant, undulating ice bag. It might have been 20 feet high. (Note 5/31/2009: click on the link and you'll see that it's not 20 feet high...so much for childhood memories). Bearing in mind that my memories are dim, I certainly wondered "what's the point?", and probably didn't get any satisfying answer.

Inside the museum, the first piece was a snooker-table sized tub of slowly gurgling, bubbling glop. A plexiglas window prevented most of that glop from going splat on the art aficionados. There were occasional major eruptions, however; the evidence was all over the floor.

I didn't want to leave that room. "What's the point?" didn't have much point at that point. You'd just strain your little head to catch the next explosion, mesmerized by the whole messy affair.

Onward to a pre-laser light show. After that, I don't recall. I assume we ventured into other, more permanent exhibitions. We may have passed by Van Gogh or Picasso. Or Warhol, for that matter. The art that left a lifelong convex-shaped impression, at least until I go senile, was that tub of mud.

A few years ago, I got to wondering what exactly I saw. Turns out, it's "Mud Muse" by Robert Rauschenberg. He died just last year! Quite a famous figure, if you know your modern art. Along with Jasper Johns, Warhol, Twombly (friends and/or lovers, actually), the stereotype of the whacked-out modern artist.

I asked my father about that exhibition. He retains a sort of catalog of all the pieces at the event. More than 200 pages. The construction of "Mud Muse" is covered in a fair amount of detail. The "mud" is actually bentonite, known best to me as a protein-removing substance in winemaking. The gurgling was caused by some sort of vibrating action under the table, not a conventional system of pumps.

Google "mud muse" and you'll read the art critics a-cooing. According to one, it's "the interactive work of art conceived as the perfectly responsive lover." OK. Others make note of the fecal texture and color of the work. Even as a toddler fresh out of his anal expulsive phase, I don't think I saw things in that light. It was just the essential, amplified, glorified gloppiness of mud.


Below is a video of "Mud Muse" in action. I don't recall any soundtrack, and have a strong recollection of the mud being far more viscous. Perhaps someone over-diluted the bentonite on the day the video was shot.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Yum Kai Mangda

An American friend once described a horseshoe crab as culinarily useless. Not true, as you can see. Those orange globules are the eggs of one of the critters, served up with onions, chilis, mangos, and the other sorts of ingredients you typically find in Thai "yum".

The experience is something akin to eating little nuggets of candle wax. That's not a complaint, actually, as the resulting texture is unique. As with any number of other Thai dishes, there's an element of "sanook" (fun) involved in the gustatory process. It begins when the appalling form of the "mangda" is presented on the table, continues as you endure the spices, and nears completion with those little spheres rolling about in your palate.

Now, don't start combing the nearest beach for these buggers. For one thing, there are some conservation issues. More immediate, however, is the fact that the eggs of certain species are loaded with tetrodotoxin, the same poison found in fugu, the famous Japanese pufferfish. A Mahidol University paper counts 280 cases of poisoning, including 5 deaths, between 1994 and 2006. In Thailand, the culprit is the species C. Rotundicauda, as opposed to the edible Tachypleus Gigas. The appearance of the two is quite similar.

It's a tad difficult to hunt down this dish. A couple of the aforementioned deaths were fairly recent and well-publicized, so restaurants and customers are a bit wary. You could start by avoiding the sorts of joints that have large numbers of tourists. Also, smallish eateries probably won't have the kind of customer volume that justifies purchasing fresh horseshoe crabs on a daily basis.

Did you know the mouth of a horseshoe crab lies between its legs? Another interesting factoid: the beasty is more closely related to spiders than crabs, shrimps, or lobsters.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009