I used a recent lunch hour to visit Marylhurst University, the latest stop for Julie Green’s installation, entitled “The Last Supper: 500 Plates,” which quietly protests the United States’ practice of capital punishment by commemorating final meal requests made by death-row inmates.
Green represents each inmate put to death by the government with one second-hand white plate on which she paints the meal that inmate requested. She has vowed to continue this meditation until capital punishment ceases to exist.
Walking into The Art Gym, Marylhurst’s gallery, I was taken aback at the sheer number. I know “500 Plates” is part of the title, but wow. On some walls, they were neatly organized in groups and on others they seemed to stretch from floor to 12-foot ceiling.
Over loudspeakers, I heard what I assumed was Julie Green’s voice reading from a list of meals: “Texas, 18 September 2001: Western omelette, fried potatoes, sliced tomato, pan sausage, three biscuits, white gravy, pitcher of vanilla milkshake, half a cantaloupe. Texas, 22 October, 2001: One bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers.”
The source of the audio turned out to also be a video. Someone placed one of the artist’s plates onto a black surface, square in the camera’s overhead frame. Green read the contents of the plate, and then the frame faded to black. Over and over. The presentation was brilliant, a disembodied hand placing each last meal before the viewer.
I had to wonder: “How did they decide what to ask for? How could they possibly finish their meal, or even eat at all? How long do they have to consume the meal?”
I was grateful I’d eaten lunch before going to the exhibit.
As Green points out in an interview, food is one of the few things people truly all have in common. Some of the inmates were limited by rules or statutes to certain types of food—in California they have to order “fast food;” in Texas they would get hamburger if they ordered steak. Some requested extravagances; some ordered the same meal being served in the prison; some refused food altogether.
Regardless of what the viewer feels about the idea of capital punishment; whatever these people had done to earn their fate; Green succeeds in humanizing them, one plate at a time.