The aesthetic significance of a plate of food is usually considered only for the few seconds it takes to bite into it. In fact, when taste and not style is of the essence, a bowl of grey-coloured slop could be just as satisfactory as a tower of carefully constructed haute cuisine, so long as said slop is well seasoned. In the age of culinary pretentiousness (ie now) with chefs like Heston Blumenthal producing food which has been tweaked, preened and garnished with the artistry of, well, an artist, it’s unsurprising that some of it should have found its way into the Tate Modern.
Last week it was revealed that Britain’s ‘cultural cathedral’ had acquired a scale model of an Algerian city made out of couscous by French artist Kadia Attia. While wheat coated semolina granules might be an obvious choice for a summer salad, the foodstuff, which goes flat as it perishes, is less obvious as a means of representing stable structures. Be that as it may, Attia is only one of many creatives straddling the boundary between art and catering, as a host of artists producing work from chocolate, butter, sugar, cheese and lard (!) will attest. From life size chocolate Jesus-maker Cossimo Cavallaro, to butter sculptor Jim Victor, or biscuit-based celebrity portrait painter Jason Mecier, there’s a whole weird world of edible art to be nibbled on.
And the recent election seems to have served as a catalyst for these artistic foodies. Prudence Emma Straite, a self professed “food obsessed” artist and owner of Food Is Art, produced scarily accurate pizza portraits of the party leaders out of dough, basil, mozzarella and pasata. Meanwhile the “Jellymongers”, otherwise known as Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, abandoned their usual jelly sculpting to open up a pop-up Waffle House in London’s Soho, where people could “waffle” on about the election. They staged political eating contests (the Lib Dems won), encouraged attendants to try Margaret Thatcher’s “miraculous 28 egg a week diet,” and served waffles. You might ask why? “Because we noticed that the Parliamentary logo looked a lot like a waffle,” they say.
But while food and politics are contemporary bedfellows, other artists are looking much further back for inspiration. Elaborate sugar sculptures have graced palatial tables for more than 600 years and Irish artist Brendan Jamison has taken the idea to another level. He’s currently constructing an enormous model of the Tate Modern out of sugar cubes, plus a sugar cube version of the tallest of the Richard Rogers’ NEO Bankside pavilions (currently under construction next to the gallery), a commission by the NEO Bankside developers for the London Festival of Architecture this July. Jamison’s work has a permanency unusual for art made from food. Other work includes vast fairytale towers, turrets and minarets which sparkle like diamonds and look extremely lickable. “The thing with sugar is that when people look at it they’re not just seeing it, they taste it in their mouth,” Jamison says. “One man said it made him feel quite weak, the thought of all that sugar in his body!”
There is a stark dichotomy between food artists. Some believe the art is simply a visual feast. While others think you should actually be able to eat it. Attia and Jamison are in the first camp, as is former advertising photographer-turned-artist Carl Warner whose elaborate “foodscapes” use fresh fish, vegetables, meats and cheeses. He photographs them over several days and by the end of the shoot much of the food has gone off and can’t be consumed. He says: “Some people criticise me and say things like ‘What about the starving in Africa?’ and ‘Isn’t it a waste’ and that sort of thing. But I don’t consider my work to be a waste just because the food isn’t being eaten. It brings people joy to look at.”
But Staite, who created the world’s first entirely chocolate room, disagrees. Her work is designed to tantalise the taste buds as well as the eyes. “I really like seeing people eating the art,” she says. “It’s like a final journey. I often spend months making something and then it’s put on display and chomped up. Eating Obama’s face made out of cheese is just so much more interesting than having a normal block of cheddar.” She’s trying to combat, what she refers to as, the “ready meal culture” by making bold statements with food to get people to consider its consumption more carefully. “The art is about putting the magic back into food. So that when someone sees a life size chocolate sofa they’ll think ‘wow that’s amazing.’ And hopefully next time they eat chocolate, instead of just gorging on it and throwing away the wrapper, they’ll take a bit more time to think about what they’re eating.”
Bompas and Parr, who are making Occult Jam (a fruit-based stew of all manner of ingredients, including a fragment of wood from Nelson’s ship the Victory) at the Barbican next month, agree with Staite that the food art should be safe to consume. But Bompas remarks that there is a fine line to tread when playing with the aesthetics of the edible, and that sometimes it can just be really bad taste mucking about with food. He says: “Where do you find most food that looks like other stuff? At the low end: chocolate willies for Hen parties, teddy bear shaped ham at Tescos etc. That’s why the element of skill is so important. If you get it wrong then it becomes really disgusting.” The pair seem as concerned with the ritual of dining (and drinking!), as they are with the eating, seeking perhaps to reclaim the pomp and ceremony of 18th Century dining, or the crazy largess and over consumption of the Roman feasts.
Ultimately, talking about food art carries the risk of provoking a discussion about “what is art”. But in the cases above, the artists are mostly light hearted and playful enough not to get embedded in the dizzy heights of pretentiousness that such a question can lead to. While Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde might cause some to lament “That shark could’ve made a wonderful Shark Fin Soup,” most people don’t expect to be able to eat art, which makes it all the more exciting when you are invited to. And for the food artists for whom the art is not edible, while they may come into criticism for waste, the pieces themselves are usually interesting enough to combat this. And as Warner remarks: "Just consider how much food gets wasted in restaurants, but people still eat out." Thankfully, food art is a delightful way to abandon practicality and enjoy the moment of subversion, however brief. Who knows, maybe something of Blumenthal's will be among the Tate's next big acquisitions.