The art of Barbara Smith, one of the first California performance artists, is characterized by personal revelation, ritual, and community involvement. Food and feeding have been the content and metaphor of many of her performances. Works such as White Meal (1969), Surgical Meal (1969), and Mass Meal (1969), provided a re-examination of the cultural, spiritual, and creative implications of the acts of preparing and eating food. In the now-classic work Feed Me (1973), Smith sat naked from dusk to dawn in a room filled with candles, food, flowers, books, records, and other personal objects. Visitors entered the room one at a time and heard her voice on tape repeatedly saying “Feed me.” The work profoundly challenged both the artist and the visitor.
In Perpetual Napkin Smith continues the food theme. She writes: “We have all been annihilated, we have all been consumed. We eat food and we are eaten. We are one in our Permeability. There is no fundamental difference between body and soul, matter and energy. The trick is not to escape the body but to transform it at deeper and deeper levels of energizing awareness.”
The Perpetual Napkin performance began in advance of the public event. Five people were directed earlier in the week to one of four sites, each at a specified time of the day. They were asked to bring along some food to eat and to follow whatever clues they might find. At each site they found a small table with tablecloth and a red napkin. Nothing else happened except what they experienced themselves. They were asked to return to the gallery to be interviewed about their experiences. The locations selected were: the G.A.R. Room of the Chicago Cultural Center, Billings Hospital and Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus, and a near Northside apartment.