Dîner noire

This account of Dîner noire in Istanbul appeared on artforum.com:

Tristan Bera and Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Dîner noire, 2014. Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Photo: Protocinema.

“AT 7:30 be ready to go across the street to that building there,” a man standing by the open window whispered as he placed a square wooden object in the palm of my hand. I followed the direction of his gaze to a tall opulent building—the Vault Karaköy, which used to house the Credit General Ottoman, recently converted into a luxury hotel—on the other side of Bankalar Caddesi, just a few doors down from SALT in Istanbul’s Galata quarter.

For the time-being we found ourselves in a shabby room bathed in an eerie blue light, as Charles Arsène-Henry initiated some of the black-clad dinner guests into the mysteries of his Library is on Fire project, installed all around us. The object I’d been handed—a three-dimensional rendering of a prison-cell image from Adolfo Bioy Cesares’s novel A Plan for Escape, displayed in the library—was the equivalent of a cinematic dissolve, prompting the transition to another state or dimension.

By the time we reached the hotel lobby and traded in our token for a black envelope containing a mask to be worn (when instructed) and a letter outlining the protocol of the ensuing “ceremony” (with its mild sadomasochistic overtones), we had become ghosts. At least that’s how we were addressed in the letter signed by artist Tristan Bera, who bid us to exit and “disappear” at the appointed hour, which would be signaled by a bell, rung twice.

Bera and Dominique Gonzales-Foerster conceived this multisensory Protocinema event as a sequel to 121st Night, which took place in Istanbul two years prior, during a full moon, like this evening. Roughly half of the twenty-two ghosts sitting down to the Dîner noire—artists Camilla Rocha and Mark Van Yetter, choreographer Gisèle Vienne, architect Philippe Rahm, writer Evrim Altug, dealer Stephanie Lockwood, and collector Ari Mesulam, among them—had taken part in the previous event. While in 121st Night they had been party hosts, incarnating various movie characters, here they were demoted to a more passive one as guests, glued to their seats for much of the occasion, which had been minutely planned so as to leave little room for improvisation or maneuver.

Tristan Bera and Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Dîner noire, 2014. Photo: Protocinema.

“We were ready to surrender,” Mihda Koray, founder of Istanbul-based project space and magazine Near East, told me once the dinner is over, “but the chance to surrender was denied us.” Was it the film noir soundtracks—which had played in the Library and in the hotel lobby while we milled about sipping black rum and stout beer—that had set our nerves on edge? Or was it the prospect of meeting “France’s most famous dominatrix”—as a recent Vanity Fair interview dubbed Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the widow of nouveau roman author and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet—who was acting as our mistress of ceremonies?

What we did relinquish, the minute we stepped inside the dark, candlelit hall, was a measure of control. Blindfolded (or as good as) with the mask, we were taken to our seats by Robbe-Grillet’s partner and faithful assistant, Beverly Charpentier, after pausing at the head of the table long enough to inhale the gothic fragrance of tuberose and listen to some opera. Appropriately, given our state of confusion, it was Mozart’s “Dove Sono” aria from The Marriage of Figaro, to which a contorted life-size mannequin resting atop the black tablecloth at one end of the table owed her name.

In an unexpected twist, “Comtesse Rosine” would eventually be joined at the other end of the table by a real-life counterpart, art critic Sinziana Ravini—one of the few participants to play an active part in the Dîner noire. The reddish-blond Ravini, who let herself be tied with ribbons and spoon-fed a bittersweet liquid concoction of sorro and black beet granita (one of the six courses devised with the Vault Karaköy’s chef Coşkun Uysal), was at once a doppelgänger of the mannequin and of Charpentier; indeed like her, she sported a tight-fitted black corset and fetching sarouel pants.

When we were not being expertly stroked with ostrich feathers and rubbed with fur by Robbe-Grillet, or entertained with readings from her autobiographical accounts and other books fit for Bera’s rayon noir of forbidden texts, my fellow voluptuaries and I attended to the business of feasting on all things black. Liberal doses of squid ink tinged our lips black, so that when the time had come for us to disappear and mingle as ghosts with those guests who’d only just arrived to see the remnants of the feast, we actually looked the part.


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