Proposition #2: Make a Salad
While it’s tempting to say that you’ve never heard a piece quite like Proposition #2: Make a Salad, the truth is that the sound of Alison Knowles’ masterpiece is intimately familiar. And that’s precisely the point.
As a founding member of the Fluxus movement, Knowles sidesteps any perceived boundary between art and life in her work. It’s a canny move that reframes both: high art suddenly becomes more accessible when it’s comprised of common experiences, and the quotidian becomes sanctified when it’s viewed as art in itself. Make a Salad’s event score – it reads, simply, “Make a salad” – suggests an attempt to see the world afresh and to reflect on the rituals that make up our daily life, whether we consciously think of them as rituals or not.
Knowles first performed Make a Salad in 1962 during a Fluxus program at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and has performed it over a dozen times since. Armed with knives, cutting boards, and a bounty of fresh vegetables, Knowles and her assistants proceed to chop, toss, and serve a large salad to the audience, their every knife-cut captured and amplified by microphones positioned at their workspace.
It’s this amplified sound that gives the work its sonic character: the crisp sound of a blade slicing through a sheaf of lettuce, the thump as it hits the cutting board. Taken together over the course of the performance, these sounds respectively suggest texture and rhythm, while the murmurings and occasional joyous laughter of the audience might be understood as the piece’s melody and harmony. Or not. The idea, after Cage, is to remind audience members that we are surrounded by sound, and to challenge our ideas of what, exactly, constitutes music.
Whether it’s being performed at New York’s High Line or at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, Make a Salad proceeds in exactly the same fashion, with the only variation being the salad’s ingredients. While the original salad was comprised of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, Knowles’ performance at PS1 in 2014 incorporated unexpected components, including shiso leaves, thai basil, and marigold flowers. The piece’s determinism marks it as different from most Fluxus scores, which typically leave much of the performance to chance.
In other words, we know precisely what will happen when Alison Knowles makes a salad, just as we know precisely what will happen when we prepare our own lunches every day. The piece’s apparent absurdity proves its argument – and transforms an everyday action into a delightful, purely hopeful work of art. — Martin Sartini Garner