Food is Sculpture
For the past year, mostly spent in Italy in Rome I have been working with food as part of my art practice, such as investigations into dough – dough for making sculpture and dough for making food such as pasta and bread. Both types (sculpture and food) I have been exploring their materiality, and connections between the dough and other types of materials. Making a distinction between the edible and the non-edible material/objects, I make one on a clean table for cooking and eating, and the other on the floor for sculpture. There are further differences between the dough food and dough sculpture, such as the scale, ingredients, presentation and context.
Since returning to the UK this summer I have been spending more time in the kitchen than my studio, and the gap is closing between my edible and non-edible creations. What I mean by this is I’m making food; particular dough and bread; approaching it in the same way I would make my sculpture – I see both as sculpture. The only difference is one you can eat and is made in my kitchen, and the other you cannot eat and is made in my studio.
Since returning to London in June I have been cooking like crazy exploring these edible sculptures – which I’m calling Everyday Sculptures – different breads and pasta that are becoming my own inventions, mixing recipes and techniques and forming them into unusual shapes/arrangements – all can be eaten. For example, taking the methods used to make Chinese dumplings to create Italian filled pasta, to challenge tastes and expectations. I’m exploring my materials in my kitchen as I would those in my studio – engaged with material experimentations that focus on my relationship to matter, using my body, it’s just you can eat all these kitchen ones. I’m now seeing little difference between my approach to making work in the studio and what I make in the kitchen – Food is sculpture.
On the 38 bus heading towards my studio in Angel Islington yesterday, the bus pulled up outside a small restaurant called the Afghan Kitchen on Essex Road. I see through the window someone eating. Their plate has food on it, a type of stew or curry with rice. On the table are two bowls with the two foods – Stew and rice. Taking a spoon they proceed to scoop more stew from the small serving dish onto their plate, making sure they get every morsel from the dish onto their plate. They then spoon rice that is in a similar size bowl onto their plate. They sprinkle the rice over the stew then mix the rice and stew together on the plate with a fork. I can see their hands, and also under the table their feet, and I wonder what the rest of them looks like. The bus nudges forward and I see a young slim man wearing large headphones, eating his carefully plated meal. I don’t know what kind of life or profession this person has, whether they are someone who works with their hands or are in front of a computer all day. What I do understand is how they use cutlery and approach food, and the careful and slow way they maneuver both, the dexterity of their hands, the individual manner in which they sprinkle the rice over their meal, opposed to placing the stew on top of the rice, as is more common.
Food whether you are making or eating is a hands/mouth experience that deals with touch, texture, smell, sound and taste – all the senses. This engagement and negotiation we all have with food is the time in our day, whether we are foodies or not when we engage directly with our hands with materials and objects in the here and now. This may be direct touching food or manipulating tools to handle food – fork, chopsticks etc. It can be as everyday as toasting and buttering bread and eating it for breakfast, to exploring food as a material engaged practice, such as an artist, cook or chef.
I’m sitting in a cafe – my favourite type of place to write. The guy next to me is on his computer and has broken off from his virtual engagement to have breakfast, which has just been brought to him from the kitchen. Two slices of toasted sourdough bread, smooth and silky scrambled eggs perched on top, and a freshly sliced medium sized round tomato on the side. As it is placed on the table, I to break from my computer screen to experience the colourful, fragrant material on the plate. He moves the plate next to his computer, lifts the toast and bites through the layers, his fingers holding the toast by its crusts, careful not to lose the eggs balanced and nestled on top. He is straddling two worlds – that of the virtual and the real. Food is a wonderful reality check, grounding us in the here and now.
Making edible sculpture has made me reflect on what exactly I like about food and eating, and also what I love about sculpture. I am more familiar with my relationship to sculpture than that of food, even though I have been eating longer than I have been making sculpture! But I guess I have asked less questions about my relationship to food than that of my relationship to sculpture.
Making my mixed dough bread (edible) sculpture, which I’m calling ‘Baroque bread,’ as it looks like marble and is shaped into folds like Bernini’s sculpted marble fabric. My bread consists of three types of dough – a scone dough (cheese and spinach), a chestnut flour dough and a Sardinian festival bread dough, each different colours, two dyed with natural food colourants – beetroot powder and charcoal. I knead and proof the three doughs separately and then finally knead them together, making sure not to amalgamate them entirely, as I want the viewer and eater to experience each bread type within the bread mass, as they pull it apart and consume it. I’m surprised how well these three doughs have come together, considering each recipes has different cooking times.
Eating this bread I find myself carefully breaking it and exploring it with my fingers before putting in my mouth. Bread is a food that we touch with our hands, toast, sandwiches, wraps, buns ….. We may use cutlery sometimes, such as to eat toast that supports other food types – eggs, beans, melted cheese, but on the whole bread is handled.
Handling is such a large part of the eating experience for me. The experience in the hand shifts to the mouth, different senses coming into play. It is the textures that excite me the most, how the texture in my mouth is different to the touch with my hands. How I handle the bread affects the experience of eating it – a chunk, a strip, a crumb…
I enjoy handing and biting into complex textures – the crust of a bread that gives way to a soft interior. Every bread has a different structure. I made pretzels the other day and was fascinated by the doughs stringy consistency, and when eating the baked material I enjoyed separating the dough strands, tearing them longways, like peeling bark off a tree.
My ‘Baroque bread’ has layers and pockets of different flavours, appearance and textures, and I find myself pulling it apart with my finger tips to separate the different breads, so I can taste each separately and also together. Cheese scone meets chestnut sweetness, black layers revealed inside from the charcoal dyed Sardinian bread.
I have never much liked food that is only one texture, such as blended soup, even if the taste is complex. I became heightened to this when I recently bought a block of baked ricotta in the central food market in Turin. I was attracted to this cheese by the way it looked – totally black and charred. The ricotta must have been baked on open flames to get its intense burnt exterior.
As soon as a I bought it I opened the packet and tore into the cheese, noticing how inside it was quite rubbery and only a bit softer in the middle. I bit into it – my teeth cutting though the charred hard rind. It was amazing. I gave some to Mark, who was totally unimpressed. The taste of this cheese (some say ricotta is not cheese!!) was pretty underwhelming, but the textures where extraordinary. This touch experience from hand to mouth for me was sensual, exciting and challenging. I could not get enough of it, despite its lack of flavour. I realised in that moment how texture was so important in my food.
Nothing gives me more please than a plate filled with multiple textural experiences, each food arranged on a plate with its own unique consistency, which when combined with other foods on the plate create new layers of textures – a springy Chinese dumpling dough meets a wet pool of thick soya, changing the consistency and textures of both as they make contact.
So what is sculpture? More specifically what particular qualities of sculpture am I engaged with that connect so closely to my experience of food? Sculpture is material and has a direct relationship firstly to my physical body, and then my emotional and mental body, whether as maker or viewer. It is wrapped up in the language of materiality, process and making. It challenges my understanding of inside and outside, and requires me to move around it to make sense of it. It deals with and impacts on the space around, and ignites the senses such as exploring texture, mass, weight and gravity. It explores ideas of touch. Even when we do not touch sculpture it pulls from previous experiences for us to engage with touch through our eyes. Sculpture challenges our existence in the here and now, and is a shared experience with others in the same space.
Food is sculpture, as everything above I can apply to food. It is material, it is stuff, existing in the here and now to negotiate and share with others. Maybe it is even better than sculpture as we get to handle and explore it inside the body as well as outside. Food like sculpture can challenge our perceptions, expectations, connect us to previous experiences and memories, is political, social, historical. Food is sculpture.
I’m releasing there are all sorts of benefits to making edible sculpture – I don’t have to deal with storage, worry about its life span. There are no physical barriers between the object and audience, we can actually touch it, it is inclusive and allows for an instant visceral response one that can be shared with others. Creating a meal for a group of people feels somewhere between a performance and an exhibition of sculpture. There is nothing new in crossing these genres, however there is still resistance when calling food sculpture – down to that irritant commercial art market that still struggles with the transformative qualities of sculpture, especially when it turns to shit.
Not wishing to finish this text thinking about shit! I have some more thoughts, before I bring this text to an end for now. (There is so much more to say about this and I’m sure I’ll post more soon.) I find moving fluidly between producing edible and non-edible sculpture brings them closer together, such as to challenge how I make both and where? The importance or not to follow a recipe to create a material, questions about the kitchen being both a studio and shared domestic utility. I’m acknowledging the lesser confidence and experience I have with edibles compared with my non edibles. I want to be more confident with my flavour combinations, and to think about my audience, how they might engage with these edible sculptures – what is the experience and expectations?
I’m off to the shops now to buy ingredients to make tiger bread, a bread of Dutch origin – Tijgerbrood. I found this recipe searching on Google – ‘Unusual breads from around the world.’ What is extraordinary about this bread is you coat your dough with another type of dough made from rice flour, which causes the crust dough to crack when you bake it, an opportunity to explore layers that are challenging in appearance, touch and taste.