It may be hard to swallow, but who says you have to sculpt in clay? What's wrong with say... jelly? Or cake? John Windsor offers food for thought and answers that most crucial of questions: can you eat it afterwards?
In Kendal, Cumbria, you can see a life-size corpse made from yellow jelly that has sprouted a green mould. In Limehouse, east London, there is a giant table and chair made from nearly a quarter of a million sugar cubes (lick it, but don't sit on it) and, in Eastbourne, bread baked in women's underwear.
Why have artists suddenly become gourmands? Lene Bragger, visual arts officer of the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, which is showing Food for Thought, suggests that the Seventies were the arts and crafts decade, the Eighties were keep-fit and that the Nineties are for foodies.
Whether edible art turns you on or turns your stomach seems to depend on your upbringing. Chris Jones, 25, who created Heaven and Hell with 26-year-old Phil Jones (no relation), his co-worker at Jane Asher's Chelsea cake shop, reports that his friends' and relatives' quizzical attitude towards conceptual art seems to soften once they are told it's made of cake.
"People are into cake," he says, "so they don't ask the sort of difficult questions they might ask if the sculpture were made of clay."
But a few of the good people of Cumbria are not so sure about the novel use of good food. "What a waste!" one scoffed.
Other Cumbrians have responded with mouth-watering zeal to The Brewery's invitation to help make the jelly-corpse. It now has extra heads and two pairs of breasts - favourite parts, it seems. There is a heart shape where the genitals should be. To avoid argument, Ms Bragger has classified it female.
The trouble with food is that it is easier to digest than sculpt. New technologies have had to be invented. In Kendal, where four artists' foodworks are on show, local chefs solved the problem of icing that sticks to the rolling-pin: sprinkle cornflower on it. Jones and Jones abandoned royal icing for their fluffy heavenly cloud because it drips. Instead, they used ready-to-roll stuff that is like plasticine. Jelly-corpses demand extra gelatine as a stiffener. As for building furniture from sugar cubes: Sarah Buist and Mia Cavaliero at the Cable Street Gallery, Limehouse, have just the solution - Evostik.
And if you are ever faced with the problem of how to make wearable body casts from toffee - of the sort that Clare Russ's dance ensemble Sweet Sensations, will perspire in, in Kendal on 14 August - the answer is to pour the toffee over moulds made from muslin and glue. That way, you can bake it brittle without it cracking. But we'll know on the night...
Food art is, of course, not just a confection. It is earnestly conceptual. Hermione Allsopp, 25-year-old resident artist at The Brewery, Kendal, who is still boiling up toffee for torsos, is also exhibiting an 8ft-high emaciated female crucified saint, made from icing sugar. She explains that it is about the reversal of moral codes. Before religion was de-popularised, fasting saints were worshipped. Nowadays, it is starved fashion models who get the adulation.
The forthcoming exhibition at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne - Wait and See (What's for Dinner?) - is the most sociological, exploring the role of food beyond sustenance: culture, identity, manners, humour. Six restaurants will each submit table settings together with their piped music. And a hypnotic film by Lucy Gunning will show her grandmother's ritual attempt to remove the peel of an apple in an unbroken strip.
Chris Jones, an RCA graduate (as is Philip Jones), who also lectures in packaging, graphic design and digital imaging, points out that the damned writhing in his hell are modelled from mashed cake that has actually been through the inferno of an oven. The heavenly icing-sugar cloud does not come into contact with the cake-people: it is insulated from them by their red marzipan prison. Evidently, for the Great Chef, the creation was a piece of cake.
Sarah Buist says that her sugar-cube 4ft-tall table and 6ft 6in chair, titled Sweet Conversation, might evoke the awe and bewilderment felt by a child under a table, eavesdropping on an adult conversation. Apart from that, the gallery's former role as a sweet factory was an inspiration.
In Kendal, dogs and cats carved from vegetables the Chinese way - by Julie Fu, who has spent half her life in Hong Kong, half in Britain - put the point that in the Far East, dogs and cats are eaten.
Exploding bread is in both the Eastbourne and the Kendal exhibitions. In Eastbourne, Harriet Jackman's Body - bread baked in women's underwear - is inspired by the "doughy" quality of obese female flesh. It alludes to women as bread bakers rather than bread winners. Definitely dangerous: Rika Walter-Schill's bursting bread-filled containers, in Kendal, include bottles that have gone bang in the oven. Very nasty they look, too. They explore "growth, breaking new ground and finding new ways of life".
Can you actually eat any of the exhibits? The glass shards embedded in Rika's bottles are not very appetising. But for pounds 1,000 to pounds 1,500 you could carry off the Joneses' Heaven and Hell cake and gorge on it, first picking off the icing sugar wings of the angelic family and their dog, then skewering the damned fruit-cake figures. Smaller cake-characters are promised at pounds 100-pounds 160 and a writhing five-tier iced extravaganza will be pounds 3,000.
Chris Jones says: "I'd be thrilled if people bought them to eat. After all, we always make them in hygienic conditions."
Other food artists have no price tags, but say, "make me an offer". Or rather an order. A carrot cat for starters, please, and the lady will have a bread in underwear, without the trimmings.
`Cooked With Gas', 24 Sept to 18 Oct, Jason & Rhodes, 4 New Burlington Place, London W1 (0171-434 1768). `Food for Thought', to 16 Aug, The Brewery, Highgate, Kendal, Cumbria (01539 725133). `Sweet Conversation', 8 to 31 Aug, Cable Street Gallery, Thames House, 566 Cable Street, London E1 (0171- 790 1309). `Wait and See (What's for Dinner?)', 9 Aug to 9 Nov, Towner Art Gallery, High Street, Eastbourne (01323 417961)
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