Sweet-and-sour cane toad, cat consommé: Kirsha Kaechele serves up new approach to sustainability | Art and design
Kirsha Kaechele receives Guardian Australia in Cinemona, the plush cinema in the basement of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. The artist is reclined on a velour sofa, dressed in a canary-yellow suit with hot pants and heels. Guardian Australia has been fashioned with a gin and tonic.
It’s an odd vibe when we’re here to talk about sustainability, but then, Kaechele doesn’t believe environmentalism need equate to slumming it, as evidenced by her deluxe new food and art compendium, which retails at $277.77.
“I like humble environmentalists,” she says, “but I’m not very … you know.”
The vision for Eat the Problem – a book, exhibition and feast – came to Kaechele during a psychedelic trip 15 years ago. “The whole book is psychedelic,” she says conspiratorially. “But I wasn’t going to tell them that.”
Earlier, in front of a bank of news cameras, she stood upon a giant, rainbow-coloured glockenspiel to field questions about her mission to turn invasive species into food and luxury items.
The last time TV crews were so frenziedly interested in Kaechele may have been during the artist’s three-day wedding to MONA owner David Walsh in 2014. Now, most of the questions are about cats.
Nearly 10% of the world’s bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile species on the brink of extinction could be saved by killing invasive mammals such as cats and rats on 169 islands – including Tasmania. In collaboration with longstanding MONA chef Vince Trim, Kaechele has designed a nine-course degustation feast, some of which is based on recipes in the book, which include sweet-and-sour cane-toad legs, myna-bird parfait, fox tikka masala and, most controversially, coal-roasted cat.
In the lead up, The Mercury emblazoned “CATS ON MONA MENU” on its sandwich boards, and the questions at the media call were preoccupied with how the cats – the arch enemies of local birds and bilbies – will be culled. (Shot, and checked by the Department of Health.)
Kaechele chides the reporters for being salacious. Slightly more rattled is chef Trim, who wants to make it clear that cat won’t be made available to the paying public at the feasts held at MONA from now until June. It’s legal to eat cat, he says, but illegal to sell as food. And no, he’s not going to describe the taste.
Tonight, the feast will be served to 72 friends and journalists for free, so cat consommé is on the menu. The guests will sit on bum-shaped poufs along the length of the glockenspiel, which doubles as a grand dining table and is itself made of fat from the deer that roam the Marion Bay property of Kaechele and Walsh, as well as camel fat, tapioca and wakame.
They’ll dine amid the accompanying Eat the Problem exhibition, comprised of the glockenspiel itself, on which there will be regular performances by musicians using giant mallets; Elena Stonaker’s psychedelic sculpture garden; and living sculptures in the reclining bodies receiving healing treatments.
It was in her former home of New Orleans, that Kaechele first established sustainable architecture projects lauded by the cultural elite. And it was there that she first began working with invasive species after considering the abundance of nutria – an invasive swamp rat that resides in the Louisiana wetlands.
“There was a lot of stigma around it being a giant rat,” she says. “I just thought, come on, that is gorgeous fur. So [the label] Marni has made some nutria jackets. It’s like a luxury item and an environmental problem solved at once.”
Kaechele is a nimble conversationalist, turning interviews into dinner-party yarns. One mindbending meander takes us from a commune in Maui, to Switzerland, to a snowy cowboy town in Wyoming; peppered with the artfully dropped names of internet pioneer (and her mentor) John Perry Barlow; folk singer Rambling Jack Elliott; the novelist Tom Robbins; LSD inventor Albert Hofmann and counterculture scientist John C Lilly.
“But I’m much more conservative now,” she says.
That night at the feast, Kaechele arrives wearing a gold-plated, taxidermied brown tree snake as a headpiece. She lived in Guam as a child, and these snakes outnumbered people. The guests are dressed in strict colour code, designed to match the musical note at which we are initially seated. With the conclusion of each course, and at the musical urging of gospel singer Maria Lurighi, the diners rotate to sit at the next note and eat a new monochromatic dish. We’re attended to by the wait staff – one for each diner – who are dressed in beige and choreographed in a routine of obsequious diligence.
The glockenspiel further transforms into a dance floor, with Indian girls in saris descending its length. A naked woman dances up it when the feasting is done, an operatic duet between Lurighi and Kaechele marking her way.
The book that accompanies the exhibition veers from the surreal to the fantastical and was five years in the making. Much more than a cookbook, the design brief included Dali’s Les Diners de Gala, Ram Dam’s Be Here Now and illuminated manuscripts. Contributors include Marina Abramović, Germaine Greer, Heston Blumenthal, Mike Parr, Pablo Picasso, Laurie Anderson and Yves Klein, in the form of essays, scientific articles, recipes, art and verse. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular invasive species, including aliens and artificial intelligence. There’s also a chapter on humans, culminating in a deadly hemlock cocktail. It’s a joke, of course, but MONA jokes do tend to make one nervous.
Despite that sense of being toyed with, MONA projects do tend to give back to the community, and Eat the Problem is no different. Proceeds of Kaechele’s book will fund her 24 Carrot Garden Project, which has set up kitchen gardens in primary schools around Hobart. The project began in New Orleans, where it has run into the kind of strife she is trying to apply the Eat the Problem mindset to.
“Little kids are growing everything and cooking and selling it, but suddenly there’s a new wave of young heroin addicts coming into New Orleans and occupying our gardens,” she says. “Which is fine, except they leave needles and shit everywhere.”
Fencing off the gardens puts her in an awkward position. “It completely goes against my philosophy of transforming a flaw into a feature,” she says. “If I fence something off, then on the other hand there has to be this opening and accommodating. If that is the black, what is the white?”
She thinks the solution could be found in psychedelics. “I had this inspiration going back to my youth when I lived in Maui,” she says. “The Native American church would run peyote ceremonies on the property that I lived on, and I know how effective that is at treating addiction. So I would like to invite them to the lot to run ceremonies.”
But only members of the Native American church are allowed to use peyote for religious purposes, so would this really be legal?
“Well, that’s always a good question,” she says. “And I think it’s a good part of a good artwork.”
• The Eat the Problem exhibition runs at Mona until 2 September. Lunch feasts are held on Sundays in April and May, with tastings held at weekends during Dark Mofo