Eat your art out

BY RENEE KAPLAN

“Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhäuser”October 5 through December 15, 2001Busch-Reisinger Museum

“Eat Art,” commands the exhibit, and so we do — big chunks of popcorn-studded dark chocolate, shards of spun sugar, and a crust of blue-dyed white chocolate, all of which were — still are — the disappearing remains of an artwork on display. Last week, when the exhibit first opened at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, you might have been able to nab some marzipan and caramel objects, too, but those were eaten up in the very first days. By now, all the corners and edges of the large rectangular boxes have been bitten and gnawed at.

The whole exposed, edible, crumbling installation is kind of gross. But it is also cool: You get to eat it. The chocolate is not half-bad and it turns out that defacing art is fun, that there is a taboo thrill to chomping at it, or walking on the crumbs of the messy chomp-job of some previous viewer — and consumer. It certainly changes the idea of what it means to take in art.

And that is the point. “Eat Art,” is a small exhibit of the food-related works by three prominent German artists, Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth and Sonja Alhäuser. All of the works either use food or represent food in sculpture, drawing or installation format. And all of them use the apparent inappropriateness of food-as-artistic-medium to challenge the whole idea of art and the conventions of exposing art. The edible chocolate work was created on-site by Sonja Alhäuser: Its pale blue chocolate bases, translucent spun-sugar cases and marzipan objects on display within were meant to mirror in delectably edible form the actual display cases of the exhibit itself, a tongue-in-cheek (and food-in-mouth) parody of the tradition of distancing and protecting art from the viewer. Never mind the old rules, her works insist dig in, taste, enjoy.

In Dieter Roth’s 1975 “Hunting Ducks,” small toy soldiers in knight’s armor stand knee-deep in a swamp of nasty, hardened chocolate. They are battling little armies of toy ducks and roosters twice their size. The whole battle scene is encased in a neat pine box marked “Duck Hunting,” like some portable board game, the Ducks ‘n’ Knights version of Shoots and Ladders. Roth’s work is whimsical and weird, a strange mix of incongruous materials. He suggests the ideas of playing with your food and playing with your art, light-heartedly thumbing his nose at two deep-seated taboos of civilized society.

Nearly all the works in the exhibit question the typical preconceptions about art — the idea that art is something eternal and often untouchable, its pleasures intangible. There is nothing eternal or intangible about Roth’s decayed “Chocolate Lion” sculpture (rancid, cracked chocolate from 1971) or Alhäuser’s piece of disappearing chocolate art. The first questions her chocolate installation brings to mind are less about beauty or transcendence than they are about public hygiene and the idea of swapping spit on a piece of cocoa-butter sculpture. Suddenly art has become interactive and communal — and even commensal — a succession of diners (or nibblers, really) sharing in the work’s evolution. Yum-meeee.

Food also seems very much out of place in art, inappropriately earthly and dirty in the context of art’s allegedly sublime meaning. Roth’s 1971 “Big Cloud” painting made of mayonnaise and ink on paper is, in fact, disgusting. The ancient, crackling, grease-stained paper framed behind a glass panel is covered in layers of black mold, a mold so old it’s turned into a dry dust, like a corpse gone to ash. But if it were not made of 30-year-old grease stains and mold, the work would have a beautiful evanescence: a blurry cloud of white on white behind a dusting of lacy black, evoking the spare aesthetic of Asian pen and ink art. Maybe art really is just what you think into it, or what you suspend disbelief long enough to see into it. Maybe materials and meaning matter less than the moment in which viewers engage the work and make of it what they will.

This kind of freedom, and revulsion, make each of the works in the exhibit a taboo novelty. “Eat Art” desanctifies art and demands that you reconsider the proprieties of making and viewing it. Art rarely has this kind of physical appeal, pushing the naughty gross-out buttons. With food decaying behind glass and crunching underfoot, the unclean essentials of everyday life become art. And as you bend down under the watchful eye of the museum guard, open your mouth, and prepare to take a bite out of the sculpture, eating in public takes on a whole new meaning, too.

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