Aleksandra Mir

The How Not to Cookbook

By Laura McLean-Ferris
Art Review, #35, London, October 2009

Culinary knowledge rises, its wings a little singed, from the charred remains of others' bad experience in Aleksandra Mir's The How Not to Cookbook. Opening up a world of failure in the kitchen, the artist has gathered cooking advice from a thousand cooks based on their mistakes, distributing a form of knowledge that can be gained through the negative. Mir sets about sorting her snippets and redistributing them in a pragmatic style, recalling projects such as Newsroom (1968-2000) from 2007, in which she collected and remade the front pages from New York tabloids. While the subjects the city talked to itself about could be divided into Cops, Teens, Horror, Weather and Donald Trump, The How Not to Cookbook is divided into danger zones, including Coffee, Drugs, Eggs, Ice Cream and Erotica. The resulting advice is a mixture of sage, funny , melancholic and superstitious advice. "When trying to think of something different to add to a stir-fry, do not add cheese. The result will be an unsatisfying solid mass of inedible food."

The chapter headings are accompanied by Mir's signature Sharpie drawings and include short poems such as: "Hello Beautiful - it's alright to cry", illustrating the start if the Milk chapter. If you do feel like crying, however, stay away from the kitchen, says the book. Don't cook when you're in a bad mood - people will taste it. This sounds hokey, yet the atmosphere generated in these pages, owing to oral histories of sharing, coaxes us to pay attention. Cooking and the memories associated with food are emotional terrain, embedded in matters more complex than the average cookbook can help us with. One entry warns from personal experience against destroying a parent's desire to cook, and with it "the one unifying family experience that you might ever have had".

Around this book have blossomed participatory events such as giant-omelette-making, and as food is an agent in the formation of relationships, it's no accident that. historically, many participatory art projects have revolved around food - soup kitchens, potluck dinners and sweet in glistening wrappers. To fully engage with a piece of art of any kind is, so to speak, to "break bread" with it. However, like a lot if the art of this sir, this book is a statement of intent - more an anti-book than something you would get down from the shelves again and again. It means to think differently, above all. But if there is one lesson here that is worth revisiting for cooks, artists, writers, and anyone attempting a creative or inventive act, it is this : "Do not forget the worst experiences in the kitchen often come from the enthusiasm of a pioneer." As the book's subtitle instructs, these are lessons learned the hard way. And when it comes to making something all your own. forcing an odd brand-new think into the world, there's really no other way.