Sonja Alhäuser's 'Exhibition Basics'
This entry deals with case studies of artists who use chocolate, and their different intentions in using the ephemeral medium, as well as their attitudes to the conservation of their artworks. I’ll look at Sonja Alhäuser, Dieter Roth, Janine Antoni, George Heslop and Prudence Emma Staite. As well as looking at the “Eat art” exhibition in general, held at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, Boston, with the artists, Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhäuser, held during 4 October - 15 December 2001.
Tanja Maka -the 1999–2001 Michalke Curatorial Intern at the Busch-Reisinger Museum.
Sonja Alhäuser constructs sculptures from edible materials, including chocolate, which are intended to be consumed by the viewer in the art gallery. These artworks directly engage with the ephemeral nature of chocolate and its impermanence, and by the end of the exhibition cycle, only photographs documenting their disappearance will remain. The artwork in this sense becomes the interaction between the visitor’s bodies and the artwork.
This act of consumption, which is usually a private act, is made public in the space of the gallery. Alhäuser’s artworks also confuse visitors to the exhibition, as the gallery becomes a space for the consumption of food, rather than merely the usual visual consumption of an artwork. The gallery also becomes a space for the destruction of an artwork, which further adds to this confusion. By using sweet food to represent the pedestals and display cases normally found in galleries and museums, the usual behaviour of museum visitors, who usually should not touch, much less eat the art, is called into question. Not only are the ideas of consumption raised through these artworks, but they are also physically enacted in the gallery space. “The work cannot evolve unless these conventions, as well as the limits of the museum, are addressed. The audience is needed to effectively complete the work, to help it fulfill its destiny of being destroyed to be created.”
Alhäuser : “I use chocolate, popcorn, and caramel to construct these objects because I want to entice visitors to nibble on them, to engage all their senses in an appreciation of the work.”
Alhäuser studied at Düsseldorf Art Academy, where Dietor Roth taught. However, in contrast to Roth’s chocolate artworks, in which food is symbolic and becomes inedible as soon as it becomes art, Alhäuser’s work addresses the “pleasurable aspects of consumption and the literal conflation of art and everyday life.”
“In keeping with her concern that the audience have a pleasurable experience, she makes her works from strictly high-quality ingredients and gives them expiration dates to prevent spoilage. Each year she creates boxes of pralines in limited editions. When the supply runs out, people who have acquired the boxes can contact the artist for a refill. In short, she wishes her edible works to be eaten, not collected. She does not allow them to be preserved by museums or art galleries.”
“While traditional painting, drawing, and sculpture appeal mainly to sight, emotion, and intellect, Alhäuser’s work attempts to create an all-encompassing sensual experience, initially through an appeal to smell, the sense most directly connected to memory. She wishes to delay conceptualization of the work by first arousing emotions associated with the scent of chocolate as the viewer comes into the gallery space. The audience for Alhäuser is a body to be moved, to be prodded into free association through the triggers of the senses.”
“In addition to smell, the sculptures demand the use of touch and taste. Viewers are invited to break off pieces of each work to smell, taste, and savor it. Alhäuser hopes this transgression will arouse feelings of youth, newness, and vibrancy. Both positive and negative reactions are appropriate. Even a response of disgust is preferable to neutrality and disinterest, Alhäuser feels. Inherent in her approach are an anti-intellectualism, a scorn for distanced judgment, and a preference for the fullness of concrete experience. Ruminations about the status of Alhäuser’s work begin after the sensual encounter.”
“For Alhäuser, as for Roth, time is an important factor in art-making. She is aware that she cannot control the work once it has entered an exhibition, and she welcomes the process of change as the audience interacts with the work.”
“Tanja Maka: Why did you chose to create items [out of chocolate] that normally play only a supporting role in the museum?
SA: I think there is nothing really unimportant in the museum. The pedestal has a very significant role in the presentation of sculpture; it literally elevates the artwork. Isn’t it true that you see the means of display first and only then the content? Often the pedestal and the placement say something about the value—aesthetic or economic—of the work. I want to point out the crucial role of presentation, of context in the creation of meaning and value. I want to engage the visitor through both the subject of my work—display cases and other supportive elements people don’t usually pay attention to—and the materials, which people are not used to seeing in a museum.
I use chocolate, popcorn, and caramel to construct these objects because I want to entice visitors to nibble on them, to engage all their senses in an appreciation of the work. I allow viewers to alter and, in the end, to destroy my work. The norms of museum-going are turned upside down. I hope that visitors will be able to see my work and other artworks in a new perspective, with curiosity, in a way that removes some of the aesthetic distance. The usual way of approaching art seems quite staid, and it misses the point of actually enjoying art.
Because my installation has to be fresh, I will cast the chocolate parts at the museum a few days before the opening. I use dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, and popcorn to stabilize the construction. The whole sculpture will then be covered with white chocolate, which I will dye with food coloring to match the color of the display cases. Regardless of what is displayed in these cases, the pedestal is the crucial part! The display itself I consider to be decoration, the last stop of the eye.
TM: I’m sure some visitors will be wondering if you see your edible work as a kind of service, a reward for coming to the museum.
SA: No, I’m not trying to reach the hearts of my audience through their stomachs. By using this nontraditional material I hope to prod people out of the habit of “going to the museum to look around a bit,” of memorizing names and dates, which is tedious. To help viewers start all over again, to elicit a childlike curiosity, calling upon all of the senses—that is what I hope to do. What happens outside the museum and inside the museum do not have to be disparate modes of experience.
This site deals with the “Eat art” exhibition in which Alhauser, Beuys and Rothare in, which raises serious questions about consumption, gratification, permanence, and preservation.
“Entering the museum, the overwhelmingly seductive scent of Belgian chocolate is too much to resist. As museum guards look on indifferently, visitors break off and eat parts of the sculpture. Some even lie on the floor to get a better chomping position, leaving tooth marks in Alhauser’s rapidly diminishing sculptures called "Exhibition Basics." Alhauser used 800 pounds of the finest Belgian chocolate in addition to marzipan, popcorn, and caramel to craft sculptures that represent the pedestals and display cases normally found in galleries and museums. By encouraging the destruction of her sculptures, Alhauser challenges the role of the museum as an institution that preserves art. Even the usual behavior of museum visitors, who usually should not touch, much less eat the art, is called into question.”
Alhauser follows in the tradition of Beuys and Roth who used food materials to make art more accessible and parody the seriousness of the art world.
Tanja Maka describes visitors' surprised reactions to Alhauser's sculpture. "No one is neutral when they see all that chocolate. You can actually see teeth marks, so some people don't want to touch it," she says.”
“While Alhauser's work will remain fresh for the remainder of the show, the other two artists'food art has definitely become inedible, and probably toxic, with time. Maka says all three artists used the medium of food to convey impermanence, transformation and decay.”
“Roth's 1971 self-portrait, "Chocolate Lion," has changed over time to resemble marble or stone more than chocolate. The impermanence of food is a metaphor for the human condition and mortality. Roth used food materials to thumb his nose at what he considered the pretentiousness, predictability and rigidity of the institutional art world.“
This site looks at what is calls a “the growing number of more traditional venues, including museums are exploring food as an artistic medium,” in relation to the exhibiton "Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhauser."
"The use of nontraditional, especially edible and organic materials, is a major theme in 20th-century art," explained Exhibit Curator Tanja Maka. "Food is a major part of our everyday lives, and when it is used by an artist to communicate a message, it is transformed into a new medium that departs from its everyday associations."
Maka: "This exhibit was more provocative than what some people were used to, but I think most people were inspired. As a visitor, you were forced to have an opinion of it. The smell of chocolate was really intense, for example, and it was interesting to see how people reacted to Alhauser's work--whether by eating it, smelling it or breaking it. I think artists are more interested in food today, became it has a life of its own as an organic material that changes and cannot be controlled. It decays, or it is eaten and disappears. It is closer to our everyday life."
Maka, says that chocolate artworks can be about "waste, abundance, consumption, eating disorders, gender roles, the aging process and sensuality. Roth, for example, is interested in the aging process, and his intention was to make time visible by allowing organic objects to decompose. Others use food for lighter themes. Alhauser, for example, creates installations that are meant to be consumed by visitors. Her work is about enjoyment and living in the moment. It is very interactive."
“Lou Anne Kwon of the Nolan/Eckman Gallery in SoHo, which has represented the work of Dieter Roth since 1987, agreed. "Roth's work is very popular among collectors who tend to be young and a little offbeat. They are usually very familiar with his work beforehand, and they often come into the gallery knowing exactly what they want." According to Kwon, Roth's food pieces range in price from $3,000 to over $50,000.”
“Photography collectors represent yet another segment who support food artists, since many food artists photograph their work as a way to document the process. Brazilian-born photographer Vik Muniz, for example, began "drawing" with chocolate syrup and photographing the result in 1997. His photographs range in price from $8,000 to $50,000, and, according to Denis Gardarin, associate director of the Brent Sikkema Gallery in New York, "there was an immediate response to his work when he began using chocolate. People were really drawn to it," he said.
While collectors are buying this type of art, Maka said some may hesitate to purchase the actual food art because of conservation issues. "I think it can be much harder to sell this kind of work to collectors, because the collector always knows the work will change, decay and may be gone after a while," she said. "It depends on the collector. Those who collect as an investment probably wouldn't buy it, while those who are art lovers and are interested in a specific kind of art would."
"People ask all the time about the conservation of these pieces, and I can't say that I know what will happen in 50 years," said Meltzer. "There has been a lot of art made over time with candy. If you were to open the packages of Albers' work, I'm sure you would find that the chocolate had turned white. But as long as they are not exposed to elements, like extreme heat, moisture, or insects, there is not all that much reason for them to change ... We typically case them in Plexi now to preserve them, and the kinds of collectors who are attracted to this work understand the conservation issues of art."
According to Kwon, Roth's work usually keeps very well because it is housed in air-tight frames or boxes. "As long as humidity and temperature are controlled and his work doesn't shift too much, there isn't much of a problem," she said.
Many artists have figured out a way to stabilize their work, and museums are responding. New York's MoMA and Washington D.C's Hirshhorn Museum each own a Janine Antoni sculpture made of chocolate, for example, while the Denver Art Museum and Smith College each own an actual Skoglund installation. Maka said she believes museums will continue adding food art pieces into their permanent collections. "It is more and more being regarded as an important part of art history of the last century," she concluded.”
William V. Ganis
Alhäuser's Exhibition Basics is looked at by Ganis as a subversive and effective institutional critique. The work's destruction leads to its fulfilment, we can view, smell, break, handle, and ingest the Exhibition. Of course, Alhäuser's work, like Roth's and Beuys', is about undermining the art object's preciousness and permanence.
“Alhäuser leaves documents of her process—her only capitulation to commodification. These documentary works are not evidential photographs à la Christo or Andy Goldsworthy, but compelling Rube Goldbergian watercolors deemed "recipe paintings," implying that the work can be made again according to her visual instructions.”
Another useful site on Janine Antoni.
Kuspit calls Roth’s work “a pathetic attempt to mass-culturize avant-garde art by turning it into a spectacle,” and eloquently states that even Roth’s work not literally made of excrement are indeed excrement. He also notes that “much of his work updates and extends ideas of Kurt Schwitters, also born in Hannover, and “the basic problem was that Roth had no secure sense of himself.” This site provides a strong criticism of Roth as well as his use of chocolate in his art.
“Artists Without Borders”
Arthur C. Danto
A review of a useful book onDietor Roth.
Conservation report by MACBA on Dieter Roth’s Schokoladenmeer
Dieter Roth’s Schokoladenmeer (Chocolate Sea), 1970
Lindt chocolate and typed paper
This site documents the extensive research compiled on the effects of deterioration of chocolate over time from this artwork. Roth’s metaphor of disappearance and decay is evident in this artwork, which documents the extreme effects of decay upon chocolate and the paper strips. Interestingly, the gallery displaying this artwork, has chosen for some conservation to occur, in which they hope to delay the process of time upon the chocolate, against Roth’s intentions. It is now placed inside a display case, with measures taken to control the insects, temperature, humidity and lighting. The curators hope to slow its surface whitening, cracking and powdering, unpleasant smell, and infestation of micro-organisms.
Humidity and temperature are the main conservation issues for chocolate, and must be properly managed to prevent the formation of agents that cause it to deteriorate. Chocolate manufacturers recommend a temperature between 14゜C and 18゜ C, with the best being 15°C. However, for the comfort of visitors to museums, it is not possible to keep the temperature at 15°C, therefore the chocolate will continue to deteriorate.
The relative humidity for chocolate should not exceed 65%, in order to keep condensation of the chocolate surface from occurring, which dissolves the sugar, leading to sugar blooms. Between 22°C and 25°C the chocolate becomes soft, is easily damaged and particles stick to the surface, becoming distorted after 25°C and begins melting at 32°C. The melting point, however, can vary, and the greater the milk fat content, the lower the melting point.
After only one year of manufacture, chocolate looses its flavour, as most of the organic molecules forming part of the chocolate disappear into the air through oxidation. The volatile molecules and fats migrate outwards, and flavours and smells move inwards. Chocolate deteriorates through many different ways, one of which is coca butter blooming, which is from warm temperatures. This results in a malleable, flexible and elastic, fragile and powdery chocolate. Milk chocolate is less susceptible to this process. Sugar blooming also occurs, in which high humidity can draw sugar to the surface of the chocolate, resulting in a white surface. Added products to the chocolate, such as nuts, are weak points in the chocolate, and are most likely to attract insects or mould infestations. Over time bacteria makes the chocolate brittle and cracks. Larvae and beetles can easily infest the works, weakening its structure, until it is fumigated, or frozen and deoxygenated. Coatings have been developed for chocolate; however, most artists will refuse this treatment to their works, especially if they are to be eaten or left to decompose naturally.
Roth does not allow any steps of conservation to be applied to his work that would slow or prevent decay, despite them now being placed inside display cases. The chocolate in these artworks, thirty- six years from their creation, has whitened on the surface, shows signs of cracking and powdering in several places, gives off an unpleasant smell and has been perforated in several places by micro- organisms. The innermost areas of the chocolate are less disintegrated, there is less porosity, and all surface cohesion has gone. Due to this the gallery has taken steps of preservation and conservation, including insect traps near the artwork, temperature and humidity control.
Roth’s Chocolate Lion (Self portrait as a lion) makes time visible by allowing organic objects to decompose and although it does not resemble the artist in any physical way, it does resemble the human body that lives and dies. This chocolate self- portrait is now in its dying stage, as it is over thirty- years- old and is well into its process of decomposition. The chocolate now smells of rancid fat, has hardened, contains insect holes and cracks, and bears the marks of its many handlers. It often induces visitors to want to retch, and it is this response, which differs so greatly to the pleasure created from Alhäuser’s artworks.
Through the allowed deterioration of Roth’s chocolate artworks, he explores the metaphor of disappearance and decay through ephemeral materials, which are intentionally left unpreserved. Roth’s organic artworks, which explore impermanence, are left to interact with the environmental conditions, which incorporates elements of chance. These artworks present Roth’s belief that museum are “funeral homes
implying that once art was in a museum, it was on its way to burial in the archives of history.”
This idea of the museum as funeral home is physically enacted in Roth’s artworks, as they deteriorate and eventually die. This inverts the Lion’s traditional Western symbolism of kingly pride, nobility and permeance in the artwork, as the lion appears to be a harmless looking puppy, in an artwork that is ephemeral. Dieter Roth’s artworks point to the impermanence of using chocolate as an artistic medium, which mocks the high value of art and its traditional ideas of permanence.
Wiltshire Art Gallery Exhibition
Heslop is one of these few artists that I have looked at that does not mind preservation tactics being applied to his artworks, and if an artwork does not sell, he simply melts down the chocolate to recast another artwork. An example of one of his works is Jesus on the Cross, displayed during the Easter time exhibition at the Wiltshire Art Gallery.
This artwork displays chocolate’s ability to transform an artwork’s meaning into something controversial. In making Christ in a chocolate form, Heslop provides an opportunity for Christ to be consumed, like an Easter egg, in order to draw attention to the commercialism of Easter. Critics denounced this artwork as “sinful.” Not everything made out of chocolate has “sweet” connotations.
Prudence Emma Staite’s artwork Space Venus was also in this exhibition. Despite no preservation tactics being utilised, in order for the work to remain edible, Staite does not wish for the audience to eat the artwork. This she says is for hygienic reasons, and after the chocolate looses its flavour, which Staite believes is three years, she simply recasts the artworks for each exhibition or client. This artwork has been shaped and “personally interacted” from Staite’s action of licking and biting out chocolate, revealing the layers underneath the glossy finish, which is commercially associated with chocolate. Based on Salvador Dali’s Space Venus, this work also explores the idea of cannabalism, sexual desires and femininity, as a female body made from chocolate appears to be asking to be consumed. The aim of Staite’s work is to stimulate more than just the eye, “but the whole body and the senses, and ultimately the stomach,” whilst drawing upon the history of art, in a recreation of a famous artwork.
This is a very useful interview with Antoni regarding her artwork made of soap and chocolate, Lick and Lather. Key quotes:
“I wanted to work with the tradition of self-portraiture but also the classical bust. So the way I made it is I took a mold directly from my body. I used a product called alginate, … an incredible product because it gets every detail, every little pore. I even casted my hair. So I started with an exact replica and then I carved the classical stand. I made a mold, melted down thirty-five pounds of chocolate, poured it into the mold, and when I took it out of the mold I resculpted my image by licking the chocolate. So you can see that I licked up the front and through the mouth up onto the nose, over the eye and back up over the ear onto the bun and then down in the back around the neck.”
“For me it really is about this kind of love-hate relationship we have with our physical appearance.”
“There is an element of eroticism in the work because chocolate has fenylamine in it, which is the chemical that’s produced in our body when we’re in love.”
“I think what’s humorous about the piece is that I’m playing with a tradition of the classical bust, which is very serious. And I asked myself some questions about why, traditionally, would artists want to make a self-portrait. And I came up with a few answers for myself. The first one is to immortalize yourself. But of course my materials are ephemeral, so I’m kind of trying to work against the grain of that. And it was a funny thing because I conceived the piece to be in the Venice Biennial and I knew that there would be classical sculpture everywhere. And I arrive in Venice, and as you probably know Venice is totally eroding. I came upon these stone sculptures and they looked very much like my soap head, because the features had been washed away. And I thought to myself, what does that say about our mortality that even stone has a lifespan? And then the other answer I gave myself about why make a self-portrait is this idea of creating a public image of yourself. An image that you were presenting to the world. And I guess my question was—is that an accurate description of the self? And are we more ourselves alone at home eating a meal or in the bathtub, in these everyday activities? So that’s where I got the idea to work with the chocolate and the soap.”
She also speaks of the intimacy of the creative process in this artwork.
“A lot of times there’s this element of destruction. That we have to kind of unmake in order to make. And that interests me very much. And also working from very basic materials. I’m also thinking a lot about this idea that there’s this kind of relationship between me and her that I’m literally feeding myself with myself and washing myself with myself. So there’s this circular narrative that’s happening.”
She describes the process of licking the chocolate busts as “It’s like being your own lover. Like putting yourself in the position of your lover and trying to understand what they’re seeing when they look at you.”
“what I’m doing is starting from a representation of myself and then removing from it.”
Janine Antoni’s artwork Gnaw is made from two large cubes of chocolate and lard. Antoni’s interaction with the cubes is to bite, chew and to spit out the contents, in order to mould the chocolate aspects into heart- shaped chocolate trays. These by-products appear in the display case, which brings the idea of consumption and commercialism of these materials in a full circle. This involves a complex play of desire and repulsion, evoking both a society in which for women, eating is transgressive and body image is highly important, as well as the production of feminine consumables. The modernist looking geometric cubes, when exhibited, must be recast repeatedly, as it looses its form quickly, whereas the chocolate aspect of the work is created the day of the exhibition, so as to only last the length of the exhibition. This furthers the idea of ravenous self- consumption, through exploring society's obsession with beauty and physical appearance.
"With Gnaw I was thinking about traditional sculpture, about carving. I was also interested in figurative sculpture. I put those two ideas together and decided that rather than describing the body, I would use the body, my body, as a tool for making art."