Eat a meal with a stranger.
It was an odd proposal, Rachel Hammer thought. But it came from the Rochester Art Center, so she decided to accept the offer.
"I had first thought, 'What kind of things do they allow just regular people to do at the art museum? I'm going to be a naked model?'" Hammer laughed, recalling the museum employee's proposal. "He was like, 'No, they'll make food for you. All it requires is that you participate in a conversation while you're eating.' And I thought, 'I shouldn't mess that up too bad.'"
So on a recent winter afternoon Hammer, a medical student, became part of the First Dates exhibit, created by artist Aki Shibata.
The Tokyo native has taken over the kitchen at the Rochester Art Center. She's preparing a full meal, which she'll share with Hammer in the museum.
"I'm a behavioral artist," Shibata explained as she chopped kabocha squash. "So I like to somehow engage other people's behavior."
Now based in Minneapolis, the 29-year-old sets up everyday scenarios to see how everyday people respond. And what better way to observe human nature, asks Shibata, than over dinner?
As a young girl in Japan, Shibata was obsessed with cooking shows. She collected recipes. And her favorite activity was making meatballs.
"Sometimes I would make it into a heart shape or stars and my mom is like, 'That wouldn't cook evenly. Don't do that.' But the rebel in me was, 'No, this looks great,'" she laughed.
The molded meat hearts always went to her father. Her sister, on the other hand, often ended up with smashed smiley faces.
In high school, she recalled, she'd prepare her family's lunches in portions called bento boxes. "Every morning I wake up and make full lunch boxes for everybody. I loved my own lunch and I just wanted to share," she added. "I somehow connected cooking and other people's joy."
With the meals ready to be served, Shibata sets a table for two against the bright white walls of an otherwise empty gallery, the smell of ginger pork in the air. Hammer sits and Shibata fills her bowl with udon noodles.
Shibata's interested in the art of behavior -- in this case, people's actions on a blind date. How do strangers begin a conversation? Who likes to talk and who prefers to listen? And who will try to hide the mushrooms under the fish to avoid eating them?
This dinner for two also serves as an art exhibit for everyone, although it can take museum patrons a few minutes to figure that out.
"People just poke their head in like, 'Whoa, can I look at this?" Shibata said. "'Can I listen to their conversation?' I kind of like that audience has a little panic attack moment and say, 'Oh, this is what it's supposed to be,'" she said.
Hammer said the food was a great facilitator for human interaction.
"I do enjoy what random and sometimes serendipitous topics can come together when you don't know a person,' said Hammer. "So I really had fun."
In the end, says Shibata, there is no finished sculpture or intricate block print to put on display.
"What's left for me is just the conversation of the moments that I had with that person," said Shibata. "It ends up creating the behavior that only exists in that moment and experience that we get to have together."
The way Shibata sees it, her First Dates series is as much a piece of art as the framed watercolors down the hall.