Pasta is one of a variety of dough-based foods used across the planet and is centre stage of classical Italian cuisine.
Dough can be boiled, baked, steamed and fried, from Asian noodles, and Austrian Zillertal krapfen to orellete Spanish pastries. When yeast is added you get bread and an array of other rising doughs such as Kaimati sweet Kenyan dumplings, Indian naan bread, pizza, and flatbreads. Dough is handled in many different ways across cultures and is a shared language that opens up empathy, and social and physical connection between people.
I have made a fair amount of pasta over the years, and have read enlightening books such as Rachael Roddy’s ‘An A-Z of Pasta’ and Marcella Hazan’s ‘Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking’ to teach myself a little of the art of making this astonishing food. I have learned how to mix and knead dough, form it into handmade shapes or use a pasta machine to roll out sheets, the starting point to a range of pasta forms, from tagliatelle to ravioli. I am now trying to let loose with the material, to unlearn and find my own way of making pasta. The thing is whatever I make must be as much a visual and hand-touch experience, as one of taste and a mouth texture experience.
My art focuses on process and how objects/things come into being, with an emphasis on the handling of materials, from stable material such as ceramics and concrete to the changeable matter of clay, bread dough, salt, silicone rubber and rusting metal. Exploring and responding to material behaviours and my personal relationships to them, alongside their historical and social contexts. It is important to be led by my materials and to collaborate with them, rather than imposing myself on them. I am drawn to materials and processes that challenge me physically, materials that are difficult to control, awkward to stabilize and resist being fixed. Working with unfamiliar materials and processes often involves learning new hands-on skills. One of the ways to do this is by expanding my skill set. I have learnt skills in butchery, fishmongery, cheese making, sushi and patisserie, plus other non-foodie skills such as taxidermy, blacksmithing, shoemaking and glass blowing, all of which enrich my body-hand-material vocabulary. For example, skills learnt on a professional patisserie course, and techniques learnt from a chocolatier last year have resurfaced in my handling of materials in the studio, such as to challenge the dexterity of my fingertips, a skill essential for making pastry cases and chocolate decorations.
Up until now my engagement with food as part of my art practice has been where my exploration of handling, observing and making food gets absorbed into my making of artworks, informing the ways I engage and think about materials. For the first time, my studio work is directly informing the making of food. It has become a two-way exchange between food and sculpture production, a shift I was hoping for but did not want to force until it felt right. Being in Italy is the right time and I am here for nine months doing a fellowship at the British School at Rome (BSR) where I have become immersed in the local food culture, visiting markets, salumeris and delis, watching people prepare food – cutting vegetables, slicing and portioning meat and fish, eating in restaurants and on the streets, working with food specialist and producers, and learning skills such as handmade pasta techniques and cheese making through the eyes and hands of food experts. Food is very much at the heart of Italian life and I’m enjoying being swept up in it.
Making pasta is complicated yet simple. The simplicity of the coming together of two ingredients – flour (often semolina) and water, or flour (0 or 00 flour, finely-ground wheat flour) and eggs, and yet the nuances of this basic act of mixing two humble ingredients together is the bedrock for a multitude of pasta forms, shapes and textures, designed to complement all matter of sauces and condiments. I explore pasta’s material qualities – its capacity to be rolled out thin, to be stretched even thinner, stuck together and formed into all manner of shapes
The boundaries between food and sculpture are for me becoming blurred. Shifting between the floor, manipulating dough into unruly sculptures, and then onto the table to make tongue size ones to cook and eat. Exploring how my body moves and accommodates the small and large forms as I roll, stretch and rip the dough. I use my legs and arms to stretch and manipulate the dough on the floor, and my palms and fingertips to spread and pinch the table dough. It is as much a shift of the head as it is the hands – food to sculpture and back to food, with thoughts about context, value, consumption, inside and outside the body, capturing in the material a motion, an action, residues and reflections of a body, my body.
My idea for making pasta (to eat) is to create an experience in the mouth that captures my enjoyment of eating pasta, the sensation of it moving inside my mouth, looping across and around my tongue, to then bite into it having a range of textural experiences. This requires fairly large pieces of pasta, thin flaps of irregular shapes that fill the mouth, where a soft and slithery meets moments of al dente bite. So really a pasta that is both gentle and giving, one interrupted by firm resistance. I’m not claiming to invent a new pasta experience, as there are many kinds of pasta that deal with these ranges of eating sensations, but for me, it is a ‘way in’ to feel the material inside and outside my body, and explore my own pasta-dough relationship.
It has also helped to make edible pasta in the same space where I make sculpture. Setting up a table in my studio to make the pasta and space on the floor to make my pasta dough sculptures so that I can make direct links between them. Taking the physical experience of interacting with the dough on the floor up onto the table and then back to the floor. This close connection has, for example, taught me to knead my sculpture dough for as long as I do for my consuming dough. The kneading exercises the gluten in the material making it more elasticated. This is important when rolling out thin pieces without tearing the dough. This has made a big difference when rolling out large pieces on the floor for my sculptures. (I had not been doing this, so my sculptures were more likely to rip when stretching them.)
I feel a bit awkward referring to my eating pasta and sculpture pasta as I don’t really want to separate them, but feel the need to in terms of what can and cannot be eaten! I must also add that I am combining other materials to my floor dough to make them more stable, from basic salt to more sophisticated binders, but I am very careful not to add anything that compromises its doughy behaviour.
In my studio, I roll out small individual balls of pasta with a rolling pin on the clean table, I stretch the results to make them thinner, my shapes are irregular and unplanned, some measuring up to 12 cm wide, some long and thin, others more rounded. Then, gathering them all up into irregular folds and creases, I pinch some of the ripples together, to stick and hold the shapes in place, not too much as this will make the pasta too thick, but enough to hold the gathered shapes. I then crumple up greaseproof paper and arrange the individual shapes on top to hold their sculpted forms, giving them space and time to dry.
Cooking a couple of my table-dried pasta forms a few days later, I toss them in a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper for a quick trial, thinking that either they will lose their shape when boiled in water or they will not taste very good! BUT, to my surprise the shapes hold and they taste delicious, and the texture is spot on for the oil dressing to cling to them. I was very careful not to over or undercook them. Placing each, one at a time into my mouth I slowly manoeuvre the test pieces around inside my mouth, prolonging biting into them until I can hold back no longer. I think about my large dough sculptures on the floor as I eat, their inflated scale and physicality, like internal organs, throat, stomach, and colon, where the digested pasta will pass through inside my body.
Over a few days, I accumulate a pile of my table pasta shapes and decided to cook for fellow award holders at the BSR. What was I thinking!? Cooking for one is not the same as cooking for 12! How would the pasta hold together when cooked in larger quantities? Would it all stick together? And how to mix a sauce into the pasta without breaking the pieces up? And what kind of sauce to make?!
I wanted a sauce that was minimal and would showcase the pasta, so I decided to do a very simple sage butter, sage from the BSR garden, good quality butter from the local supermarket and a grating on top of pecorino cheese from the local market. I served it up in small bowls to a table of hungry residents. Someone made a salad and another bought a fruit tart for dessert, so if all failed no one would go hungry. Asking everyone to give me feedback on their experience of eating it, the responses were positive and very appreciative. It was serving to be a very sensual experience, with reflections on the slippery seductive texture of the surprising range of pasta shapes, and the requirement for different fork actions to move it from plate to mouth.
The scale and individualized shapes of these edible pastas connect to a unique nature and language of sculpture, perhaps they are object multiples or maquettes for large sculptures. It has got me thinking of making even bigger pasta shapes to eat, big enough to fill the base of a serving plate, and to make a broth to ladle on top. It would require different cutlery manoeuvres to eat, not the usual fork rotation and scooping method.
The pasta dough on the floor of my studio is also growing and spreading, with multiple shapes and sizes occupying different surfaces, coloured with a range of food colourants to open up their object and material associations. The coloured veined dough is formed into folds and twisted like the fabric representations in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble sculptures. High art meets the every-day, with dialogues of otherness and a non-linguistic speech of the body. This is re-framing pasta outside of the domestic sphere to see it anew.