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Artist Dishes Out Lots Of Food For Thought


SAN DIEGO — Scholars of performance art trace its origins to the pageants of Italian Renaissance princes. Leonardo da Vinci designed many of the spectacles, masquerades and fireworks of the Milanese court. Performance artist Berne, however, is not out to dazzle his audience with extravagant display. Nor does he deal in the chic exhibitionist outrage so popular with many of his peers.

His medium is food and, more specifically, the universal act of its preparation.

"For a while, performance art was highly expressionistic," Berne said. "But I wanted to deal more with the performance of ideas, rather than the performance of Angst . To be able to have something shared in common with the audience, I decided that food was a good place to start.

"I learned very early to differentiate between the consumption of food and its preparation."

Not surprisingly, he took a cue from his mother's kitchen activities. "She rarely sat very long at table with us," he said. "She was always scurrying back into the kitchen for something--our meals were quite elaborate."

Over the last year, Berne has created three performance artworks on the theme of food preparation. Last fall he staged "Table Manners," in which he cooked and served a complete vegetarian repast to the audience at the Java Annex in downtown San Diego. In March, he created a satirical short skit entitled "Your AIDS-Free Kitchen" for an AIDS benefit concert at the Lyceum Stage. Tonight and Saturday, he will present his latest food piece, "A Way Around the Soup," at the Sushi Gallery, as part of Sushi's monthlong festival, Neofest V.

Trained as a sculptor and furniture maker, the 36-year-old Berne came to San Diego from his native Texas to pursue a graduate degree at UC San Diego. In some of his presentations, the diminutive performer slips into a folksy Texas drawl, which is completely affected.

"I never really had a Texas accent," he said. "I grew up in a house where Yiddish was spoken very heavily. My mother is from Boston, and my father is from the Ukraine, so it's a wonder that I can speak at all."

Another affectation is the actor's use of his first name only. He grew up as Berne Smith, but he rejected his surname because it had been arbitrarily assigned by an Ellis Island immigration officer who could not understand his grandfather's actual Ukrainian name. "It's my way of denying the legitimacy of the melting pot concept," he said.

Berne's initial foray into performance art occurred in 1981 when he was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. For his final project for a course in contemporary art history, he commandeered the teacher's class, without notifying the professor beforehand.

"He was in the middle of a crucial lecture on Kenneth Knowland--a painter whose work I don't like--when I just turned the lights out and turned his slide projectors off," he said. "I wheeled my projector onto the stage and started my presentation. He was not happy about it. We had a meeting afterwards, and he told me that they would have laughed me off the stage in the performance galleries of New York." According to Berne, however, the piece was a hit with the 160 students in the lecture hall.

In tonight's piece, the soup Berne will prepare in front of his audience is as much metaphor as food. "Soup for me is not only the soup I'm preparing, but the soup of culture. And since I do a great deal of side-stepping around the actual giving of recipes, 'A Way Around the Soup' is a way of announcing beforehand that I plan to step around the issue of giving the recipe," he said.

Even if Berne does not complete the soup-making--his Texas reminiscences and sociological observations frequently detain his progress through a recipe--he has vowed to make popcorn to serve to those who arrive early to the performance.

"I'll be talking a bit about popcorn in terms of the explosion of the kernel as being similar to the formation of the universe," he said. "Kind of a big bang theory based upon popcorn--little bangs."

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