Susan Mc Ateer
Sometimes it feels as though artists are competing in the unconventional challenge on Project Runway. In contemporary art, any material is game. French-American surrealist and dada artist Marcel Duchamp is thought of as the father of the unconventional material, a title which he gained when he presented a porcelain urinal titled ‘Fountain’ in 1917 to the Society of Independent Artists, New York. They rejected the work, but it did pose a new idea in modern art - that an everyday object, or a ‘readymade’ as Duchamp called it, could be recontextualised to become a work of art. It has come to light though that a friend of Duchamp's (I say friend loosely as she was all over Duchamp and he was like, nah thanks) Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven; performance artist, poet, sculptor, fashion visionary and competitor for Most Extravagant Name, may have actually created the piece. A woman forgotten to art history and inappropriately credited? Shocker. (We’ll revisit the Baroness another time to talk about how she lived her art, and to shine a light on fashion statements which include wearing a caged canary around her neck, curtain rings as accessories and vegetables as hat detailing. Casual.)
With the liberation from traditional materials and methods we’ve seen artists work beyond the conventional. And as though Heidi Klum has just announced to the artworld that they have 30 minutes in Hershey’s to gather materials, some artists are creating works from candy. Pretty sweet right (I will apologise for no puns)?
An exhibition which left one of the most lingering impressions on me was a retrospective of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat at Fondation Beyeler, Switzerland. It ran concurrently with an exhibition of Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Basquiat I knew of, but Gonzalez-Torres was new territory and I was quietly winded by his work. Born in Cuba, Gonzalez-Torres moved to America on a study fellowship where he lived and worked until he died of AIDS related complications at the age of 38. Gonzalez-Torres was best known for his minimal sculptures and installations. While he used materials such as light bulbs, clocks, and text on walls, the most recognisable of his sculptures are ones made from candy.
Walking through the exhibition I noticed a pile of candy spilling from a corner of the gallery. I experienced the contemporary art double take - is this legit or did a child spill all their halloween booty? I quickly latched on to the former as no kid is good enough to get that much swag let alone leave it, but you can hardly be surprised or scoff at people for mistaking things in galleries for artwork. The candy was wrapped in shiny, multicoloured foil which took on a really joyful quality when the light hit the pile, making the sweets sparkle and bounce. Reading about the significance of the candy I pretty much instantly became an emotional wreck. The work was titled Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) 1991, referring to the artist’s partner who passed away from an AIDS related illness. The pile of candy weighs in at 175 pounds which is equivalent to Ross’s weight. Viewers are invited to take a piece of candy home with them leaving the work to diminish in size and mass, just as Ross did. The attractive, gaudy pile of sweetness suddenly takes a melancholic turn. This is the appeal of conceptual art; our initial visual response to something can take a sudden u-turn and make us think and feel about something in a completely different way.
In total Gonzalez-Torres created 19 works made from candy. A few works were about Ross while others took a step outside the immediately personal to consider and critique political and social issues. I don’t still have the candy I took. I ate it; which then brings up questions of what does the dispersed artwork become when individuals possess part of it? Is it still an artwork or does it cease to be one after it leaves the gallery? I don’t have the answers, but I remember it had a sharp, sweet taste which left my mouth dry.
It appears that we have mainly surrealism to thank for the crossover of candy into art. In 1924 German composer Richard Strauss debuted Whipped Cream, a ballet which takes a little boy OD-ing on sugar as its starting point. From there on in a world of candy, sugar, and dancing pastries takes over (cut to Homer fantasising about the Land of Chocolate; the artist formerly known as Germany). The show wasn’t too well received with reviewers calling it derivative, in poor taste, banal and the dreaded ‘kitschy’. American Ballet Theatre thought that a revival was due, and last year they recruited artist Mark Ryden to create the costumes and the set. To be honest, Ryden’s work makes me feel uneasy and a little irrationally angry. He belongs to a group of artists known as ‘Pop Surrealists’, or ‘Lowbrow’ artists. Both are actually pretty accurate descriptions and fit in with my visceral reactions. This kind of art originated in LA in the 70s with Ryden as one of its pioneers. Taking inspiration from popular culture including comic books, punk music and street art, lowbrow art tends to portray exaggerated dreamlike scenes and can be pretty snarky.
As uncomfortable as I am about Ryden’s paintings, it is actually a smart appointment. While I don’t want to see his bug eyed, childlike figures on the canvas all that much, the weird, surreal and pop elements of his work coming to life is pretty spectacular. I feel like I haven’t put across how weird this ballet is. So the boy overdoes it on the sugar in a pastry shop and we enter his hallucinations which feature a giant whirl of whipped cream emerging from a bowl. Waking up in hospital, he calls on his new pals Princess Praline, Prince Coffee and Princess Tea Flower to rescue him (I think we’ve all called on Prince Coffee to come to our aid). Liquors save the day by luring the doctors into a drunken state and then all the sweets are there having a great time (I think we’ve all also called on ‘Liquors’ to save the day but it rarely would end as rosy as this). Trippy right? That level of sugar (or whatever induced) induced story needs a surrealist unafraid to hold back.
Ryden didn’t look to the original costumes by Ada Nigrin too much when doing his research because he wanted an interpretation that wasn’t influenced by previous iterations. His sketches are very much in his style, which again make me shiver, but which make clear why a painter is a good choice for set and costume design; he doesn’t hold back on the canvas and isn’t formerly trained in theatre design which means a greater artistic freedom. And boy does he go for it. Pink makes up the primary palette, some characters have comical heads that look a little like they’ve stumbled out of a parade, and the details, such as a peppermint swirl as a headpiece for a character called ‘Swirl Girl’, are just too good.
The exciting thing about art is that nothing is out of bounds. An everyday material can be transformed physically and theoretically, and crossover and collaboration between art forms can produce work that wouldn’t have the same punch if done in isolation. Candy is just one example of a medium, subject, or catalyst in art which makes all this work. In the words of pre-teen Aaron Carter, ‘I want candy’...and also a peppermint swirl hat!