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Artist Puts Rats on the Menu for Lower East Side Gallery Show

By Serena Solomon | July 26, 2012 11:48am

LOWER EAST SIDE — A knife and fork are the latest weapons in the war on rats at this local gallery space.

A new exhibition at the Allegra LaViola Gallery shocked art-lovers Wednesday night by making a feast of the sewer-dwelling scourge.

Brooklyn artist Laura Ginn organized the $100-a-head dinner party for patrons of the the East Broadway gallery, offering up an entree of vermin as part of her new show, "Tomorrow We Will Feast Again on What We Catch."

The event, which purported to explore urban self-sufficiency using "one of New York City’s truly sustainable resources," raised the needed funds to pull off the art show using the fundraising site Kickstarter, "culminating in an urban hunter-gatherer feast."

"I am hoping to give people the experience of pushing their boundaries," Ginn said in a video posted on Kickstarter. More than $2,000 was pledged by 64 backers to help cover the cost of the rodents, ingredients and kitchen equipment required for the dinner.

Clifford Owens, a performance artist and a friend of Ginn's,  attended the feast Wednesday night and said the food presentation was "beautiful."

"The [rat's] head was removed, but you could see the limbs," said Owens, 41, of the main course of braised and grilled rodent. "It freaked me out."

A rat and pork paté was served as an appetizer, with braised and grilled rodent carcass dished out next, followed by a palette-cleansing sorbet to finish it off, Owens explained. 

However, he said could only stomach a small bite of the entree — noting that it tasted like beef — before passing it off to his friend, who polished off two helpings.

"I live in New York, and everyday I encounter rats. They are filthy," said the Queens resident, adding that he and other patrons were made to sign a disclaimer from the gallery "in case you died or choked on something."

Owens noted that diners joked about the meal at the start, but settled into interesting conversation where "a lot of people didn't obsess over it."

Gallery owner Allegra LaViola said prior to the meal that she was "excited" about the rat feast, but declined to elaborate further on the show.

Another diner, a 33-year-old Brooklyn man who declined to give his name, was told 75 rats were used to make the meal, prepared by chef Yuri Hart.

"There were very few plates with something left on it," said the man, adding he is a friend of Ginn and had previously eaten rats with her.

But gallery-goers didn't gnaw on your typical street rat. Owens said guests were told the rodents were "medical rats," imported from a "clean and safe facility" on the West Coast, and taste-tested beforehand by both the artist and chef.

"They were sourced from California," said gallery assistant Deanna Donegan, adding that the rodents were bred to be eaten and that the show's 20 available seats had sold out by Wednesday morning.

The artist herself did not return requests for comment.

The exhibition, which was also be accompanied by photos and videos taken by Ginn, states that it explores post-apocalyptic themes of urban survival. Ginn planned to deck the dining room out in "salvaged materials," with the artist hosting the feast adorned in rat pelts she claims were skinned and tanned with her own hands.

A female guest who attended the performance said 300 rats were skinned to make the outfit that "looked like it could have been couture."

"I've spent the past year-and-a-half working on a new project exploring self-sufficiency in an urban environment," Ginn wrote on the Kickstarter page. The artist states that she has developed a "crash course in self-reliance," teaching herself over several years to hunt, trap animals and tan leather.

A video on the page pitching the idea to potential donors shows Ginn preparing rat pelts before flashing to a picture of a partially skinned rodent as she speaks about her planned show. 

"What I want to do with this dinner," she said, "is for people to really be aware of their physical relationship with the world."