Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

What’s the Use of Unrequited Love?, by Vesela Mihaylova

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What’s the Use of Unrequited Love?
Emotions and Eat Art in Artistic Practice 

by Vesela Mihaylova
Masterarbeit Zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades Master of Arts
Betreut von:
Univ. Prof. Dr. Christa Sommerer
Univ. Prof. Dr. Laurent Mignonneau
Univ.-Prof. Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Martin Kaltenbrunner
Zusätzliche Unterstützung:
Univ.-Ass. Mag.art. Michaela Ortner
Univ.-Ass. Mag.art. BA. Marlene Hochrieser
This is an excerpt from Vesela’s Master’s Thesis at the Interface Culture Lab of the Arts University in Linz, Austria. I have done some editing work to improve the English usage.

The subject of this thesis has its roots in a personal experience. I fell in love, but I was not being loved in return and I had to ask myself the question what was the use (or the sense) of this love. The affair ended, and I decided to apply my emotions and feelings into an artistic project in order to release them, in an attempt to put them in order, to examine them and let them go.
The whole piece consists of several sub-works, some of them finished, some of them yet to come. In this study I will concentrate on two of these sub-works: 5 sculptural objects in a shape of a natural human heart, and a performance, where I visualize through cooking the feelings and emotions documented in a private blog-diary during the time of the love relationship. But first, I will present some theoretical background where the biological and neurophysiological nature of love as well as some aspects of unrequited love are discussed. Then follows a section about the heart as a symbol in history, and an overview of Eat Art artists, performances and events.
Your flirt
it finds me out
teases the crack in me
smittens me with hope
probably maybe probably love
Electric shocks? I love them!
With you : dozen a day
but after a while I wonder
where’s that love you promised me? Where is it?
— Bjork, Possibly Maybe
The subject of love is a universal one. Poems, dramas, novels, songs, stories, myths, legends, and men and women around the world have attempted to describe love. One of the earliest love poems comes from ancient Sumeria some 4,000 years ago. Our ancestors have pondered about love since the time when they established the principles of language. Love means many different things to many different people. It is a multi-leveled experience.
Unrequited love in particular has long been pictured as noble and unselfish willingness to accept suffering. Nonetheless, the literature suggests a degree of euphoria in the limerence associated with unrequited love, which has the advantage of carrying none of the responsibilities of mutual relationships. The rejection may be the catalyst for inspired literary creation.
[Limerance: “a term coined c. 1977 by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov to describe an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated.”  — from Wikipedia]
In the 14th century, Petrarch wrote his passionate sonnets for Laura, followed by many sonnets of Shakespeare on his love sufferings. In Victorian times, the poetry of Charlotte Brontë and the novel Wuthering Heights, the only published novel of her sister – Emily Brontë, tells the story of the unfortunate lovers Heathcliff and Cathy who, despite a deep affection for one another, are forced by circumstance and prejudice to live apart. The list is almost endless: Geoffrey Chaucer, E.E. Cummings, Oscar Wilde… Young Werther died from unrequited love and Cyrano de Bergerac was noble about it. Unrequited love has been one of the great themes of literature and drama.

Plato’s legend says that originally we were spherical beings with four arms, four legs and two heads. In this condition, we were more powerful than the gods, so that out of jealousy they cut us in two, producing male and female halves. So we wander around during our life in the quest for the other half.

Ever since Darwin’s concept of sexual selection explained the patterns of sexual dimorphism in birds and mammals, scientists have been describing physical and behavioral manners that birds and mammals have evolved to attract potential mates. The peacock’s tail feathers are the standard example.Although all birds and mammals express mate preferences, none copulates randomly. In most mammalian and avian species this mate preference is brief. In rats, for example, courtship attraction often lasts seconds; among elephants, it lasts three to five days, among foxes, it lasts about two weeks. But all species display similar characteristics of attraction. Among these traits, attracted individuals focus their attention on a preferred mating partner and express heightened energy, obsessive following, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, possessive mate guarding, courtship gestures such as patting and stroking, and intense motivation to win this particular individual.

All these traits are also characteristic of human romantic love. Moreover, many creatures express this attraction instantly. This may be the forerunner of human “love at first sight.” Animal studies indicate that this mate preference (or attraction) is associated with elevated activities of central dopamine, another similarity with human romantic love.

The mammalian (and avian) attraction system most likely evolved for the same adaptive reason it evolved in humans: to enable individuals to prefer specific mating partners, thereby conserving valuable courtship time and energy. Then, at some point in hominid evolution, this mammalian neural mechanism for mate preference developed into human romantic love. Perhaps this process initially began as early as 3.5 million years ago, along with the evolution of hominid pair-bonding, then started to take its developed human form some two million years ago as the brain began to exhibit some characteristic human traits.

Artworks which deal with the subject Love, Suffering and Confession

The life of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was highly loaded and saturated by suffering. As a kid she developed polio, had a near fatal traffic accident at the age of eighteen, and experienced a traumatic spontaneous abortion when 25 years old. Three years later, she felt betrayed and hurt when her mentor/husband Diego Rivera had an affair with her sister. During her life she underwent a total of 35 surgeries, including bone grafts, and became addicted to pain killers and alcohol. “My painting carries within it the message of pain”. Many of Frida’s paintings center on the conflicting forces of her identity and relationship with Rivera. Her paintings empowered her to go on living and were an attempt to create mirroring self objects out of those who responded positively to her art.
Her biographers believe that Kahlo’s art did not exist until July 1932 when she spontaneously aborted the loss of a desperately wanted pregnancy, and in effect gave birth to her own personal style. During her life she had three miscarriages and although she compensated for these losses with paintings, she grieved all her life for a child, and the inability to have one provided an impulse to her artistic work. The fierce honesty with which she recorded her loves, losses, illnesses, childlessness, and abiding passion for her husband was recognized by Rivera. “Frida,” he said, “is the only example in the history of art and of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings…”.
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) was a French-American artist and sculptor, contributor to both modern and contemporary art. Her works, abstract and confessional, explore subjects like the human body, sexuality, protection and vulnerability. Most of her sculptures are suggestive of the human figure and express themes of betrayal, anxiety, and loneliness. In general Bourgeois’ work is wholly autobiographical, created from a constant evaluation of her own past as she finds inspiration from her childhood years and hidden emotions. She is recognized today as the founder of Confessional art.In the 1990’s, artists of varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations began to become highly visible. Women in particular achieved quite high levels of recognition. Yet while many artists from previously disenfranchised groups were praised for bringing new perspectives to the traditional constraints and conventions of the art world, critics also objected that some of these artists were perhaps too narrowly focused on their own personal experiences. Women artists especially, including Sue Williams and Tracey Emin, were criticized for bringing matters of sexual and domestic abuse-subject so often regarded as “women’s issues” – to the forefront in their art. Supporters proclaimed that these artists were reversing the tradition of regarding woman as the muse or object of artistic representation, and were, instead, becoming agents of their own creativity. By frankly addressing the dark side of female sexuality, they were creating art that was both inspired and empowering. But other viewers said that these artists could not be taken seriously because their self-proclaimed status as “victim” had the effect of placing their art “beyond the reach of criticism”.

Confessional art has been around in art for quite some time already. Female writers, artists, musicians and theorists have been mining their autobiographical experiences for decades in a bid to widen the range of issues and experiences that art can depict, and often to search for personal catharsis as well. It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, when artworks by women were given a new prominence within the artistic community, that confessional art came into prominence as a significant genre of the decade. During that period these artists attracted substantial amounts of both criticism and praise. Tracy Emin (b. 1963) places herself in the center of her work, telling intimate stories about her life. Several of the works refer to traumas, such as having an abortion or splitting up with her boyfriend. These painful events are conveyed with simplicity and frankness, but Emin claims that being an artist isn’t just about making nice things, it’s some kind of communication, a message. She has made several works documenting painful moments of sadness and loneliness experienced when traveling to foreign cities for various exhibitions. Aspects of these influences remain her subject matter and her style. By basing her art on her emotional life, through the narration of traumatic experiences, Emin found a way to repair her personal damage and to communicate on a direct and open level with her audience.

Sue Williams (b. 1954) started working in the early nineties as she began showing raw, cartoonish paintings depicting brutal rape and abuse. She exhibited these paintings at the 303 Gallery in New York. She was one of the most celebrated female artists of the era, along with Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman. Williams’ work in the late eighties and early nineties almost exclusively dealt with issues of abuse. Her early work often included black-and-white cartoon-inspired figures of women being assaulted or brutalized, accompanied by scrawls of crude text.

During the later 1990s Williams made a shift in her art from confessional towards abstract. Nowadays her works are large white canvasses covered with abstractions, colorful swirls and doodles of color.

Take Care of Yourself by Sophie Calle (b. 1953), presented at the Venice Biennale in 2007, was prompted by an e-mail she received from her boyfriend who was ending their relationship. It ended: “Take care of yourself.” Calle asked 107 women from different professions to interpret a break-up e-mail sent from a boyfriend using their own critically developed viewpoints. The responses were gathered on paper and film and the women participating ranged from a schoolgirl, through lawyers, headhunters and lexicographers. Sophie Calle went on a search for meaning in the action of her partner and this created far more questions than answers.

Sophie Calle’s first piece about being dumped, Exquisite Pain, is the record of how in 1985, Calle won a fellowship in Japan for three months and her boyfriend arranged to meet her in India at the end. While she was boarding the plane she got a message saying he was in hospital in France, because he had actually met someone else. She repeatedly told the story of her dumping, asking others about their worst moments of suffering. She found it too raw to show the piece for almost 20 years, until a Pompidou Centre exhibition in 2003.

Another personal story was presented in an installation called Raquel, Monique in the basement of Paris’ Palais de Tokyo. Wall text described how Sophie Calle received the news last year that she had been accepted at the Venice Biennale and on the same day she learned that her mother had only one month to live. In a simple language, she describes her mother’s last month and her fears. Across from the text, a portrait of her mother and in the next room a video of her mother resting peacefully on her deathbed, in the last minutes of her life.
Calle has been revealing her emotional life in order to feed her artworks but this is also her way of handling situations, finding consolation and sharing the outcome with a broader audience. It is her journey through dealing with heartache and loss.
The photographer Sally Mann (b. 1951) uses obsolete photographic methods and nearly abstract images in order to explore the themes of mortality and vulnerability. Focused on the theme of the body, in her photographs she studies relationships between parent and child, artist and subject, life and death, love and loss. In her most recent series, Proud Flesh, photographs taken over a six year interval, Mann turns the camera on her husband, Larry, who is suffering from late-onset muscular dystrophy. The results are frank portraits of a man at his most vulnerable moments, thus, the artist’s way of dealing with the most painful moments in her life.
Truong Tan (b. 1963) a performance artist and painter, known mostly for the erotic references to his sexuality, is making use of his autobiographical experiences, perceptions and feelings to express his artistic narrative. The artist had to depart from his home country Vietnam in 1997, due to his challenging art that openly expressed his gayness and questioned the contradictions of the political system in Vietnam. Tan moved to Paris and emerged as one of Vietnam’s most internationally acclaimed artists.
In a net.art project Impossible Love, Mar Canet (1981) gathered impossible love stories. The visitors to the website were supposed to contribute their lost loves. The installation consisted of two parts. The first part was a web-based application where tags were being displayed with stories of lost loves, and where the public could contribute their own story, and the second part was located inside an exhibition hall where a printer would print the stories and deposit them in a container.

Definitions of the Heart

From earliest times, humankind has located soul, spirit, Self, conscience, thought, feeling, compassion, passion, the eternal, and God within the heart. The metaphor has been of significance to many cultures, religions, and philosophical beliefs.
The word “heart” comes from the Latin cor, cordis. So, Spanish (corazón), French (coeur) and Italian (cuore) taking the Latin root, while German (Herz) and English (heart) takes the Greek one (kardia). The Indoeuropean root *kr- has the original sense of “vibrating”.

The Heart as a Metaphor in The English Language

Language itself balked at the idea of the heart as an organic pump; after all the heart can be broken, one can cry one’s heart out, lose one’s heart, or wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.

Even today these idioms are common usage.

The heart symbolizes sincerity: From the bottom of one´s heart, To speak from the heart.

The heart expresses worry: To have something at heart.

The heart is a breakable object: To break somebody’s heart.

It is possible to “possess” someone´s heart: To give somebody your heart.

The heart manifests sadness: To take something to heart.

The heart shows courage: To lose heart.

The heart is made of material: To have a heart of gold.

Gold symbolizes the virtues that can be found inside, as goodness or kindness, and those virtues are conceptualized as riches. When someone has a heart of stone, iron, steel, marble, etc., metaphorically, we associate these materials with the heart when we refer to negative feelings.

The hardness of the material corresponds to the hardness or coldness in attitude, as we can also observe in the following expressions: To be hardhearted, To be soft/tenderhearted.

The largeness of the heart has positive connotations, like kindness or generosity: To have a big heart.

On the other hand, the smallness or absence of heart has negative connotations: He has no heart.

The heart has temperature, To have a cold heart/to be coldhearted.

The heart is the seat of the intellect, To learn by heart.

The heart is the center or core of something. As an organ situated in the chest the heart is almost in the middle of the body. The function that it carries out is vital for human survival. That is why we refer to a central place as its heart, especially if that place is very important or has a lot of activity. The heart of the city.

The Heart in the Timeline of Civilization

Historically, the heart was the singular metaphor for what was essential about being human. Besides its physical purposes, it was thought of as the “vital center of being, seat of understanding, memory, and the passions, a sort of microcosm of the self”.

The ancient Egyptians considered the heart to be the core of the soul and the seat of emotion, mind, thought, and psyche. The heart was the only part of the viscera left by the Egyptians in the mummy, since it was regarded as the indispensable part of the body in eternity. When a person died, on his way to the Underground world, his or her heart was weighed on the scales against the feather of Maat, the principle of truth and justice. If the heart was found to be free of wrongdoing, the person would continue to exist for all time.

The Rig Veda, The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita, the classic texts of India, saw the importance of listening to the voice of the heart, which is our source of happiness. In these writings, the heart is the place where the universe is realized in the self. There lies the center of the body, and inside there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus-flower, the castle of Brahman (the one supreme, universal spirit that is the origin and support of the phenomenal universe). The little space within the heart is as great as this vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, the sun, and the moon, and the stars; fire and lightning and winds are there; and all that now is and all that is not: for the whole universe is in Brahman and he dwells within the heart.

One of these sacred writings called Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells how in deep sleep the heart absorbs the mind and the mind goes back to its habitat which is supposed to be the heart. This happens only in the sleeping condition.

According to this Upanishad, people have three states of being: waking, dream and deep sleep, but our native house is the deep sleep where we become one with Brahma – the supreme, universal spirit. So from the brain, which is the center of activity in the waking state, the mind descends to the throat in dream, and goes to the heart in deep sleep.

This Upanishad tells about the complex anatomy of the heart: in the heart there is a space, which is called the ether of the heart, into which the mind withdraws itself when it is fatigued from the external activity of the waking condition. Inside this heart there is a network of nerves, or nerve currents. This network is the passage for the movement of the mind inside the heart for the fulfilment of its own wishes during the dream state through dream images, wishes which it could not fulfill in the waking state for certain reasons.

The other ancient Indian documents – the Vedas, describe that in the human body there are a number of centers, or wheel-like vortices, which, according to traditional Indian medicine, are believed to exist in the surface of the subtle body of the living beings. They are called chakras and are said to be “force centers”. The fourth chakra, or Anahata, is the chakra of the heart. The heart chakra is the center of compassion.

For the Buddhists, the heart is recognized as being the physical support of the sense and consciousness. Is is also described as the seat of thought and feeling – the basis of mind. It is the seat of the divine intuition and of the Buddha-nature.

Chinese medicine believes that the heart “houses the mind” and is responsible for the circulation of blood and the health of the blood vessels. The well-being of the heart is also connected with consciousness and memory. Furthermore this tradition considers that the heart controls sweating and the health of the heart is reflected in facial expression. The heart is also connected to the uterus and is paired with the small intestine. In Chinese medicine, each of the organs is said to “open to an orifice”. The heart is said to open to the tongue. Although the state of all of the organs is reflected on the tongue, the heart has a particularly strong connection to the tongue. The condition of the heart also effects speech. When the heart is out of balance, a person may talk fast or laugh inappropriately. The Greek philosopher Aristotle says in his writings that the soul is located in the heart, which is in the middle of the body, or the center from which everything follows. In other words, the human capacity for imagination, which is the well-spring of our ability for symbolization, dialectics, and moral thinking, is attributed to the heart.

The heart held a central importance in the Hebraic tradition, as glimpsed primarily through the Old Testament of the Bible where it is named over a thousand times. It was defined as being the home of “. . . the innermost self, including conscience, memory, and volition.” In the classical Latin world, the word heart was cor, where we find the etymology of heart as core. In this civilization the heart was a symbol for thought, memory, mind, soul, and spirit, as well as for the seat of intelligence, volition, character, and the emotions. These meanings passed into the Christian world and the Romance languages.

For the alchemists, the heart was the image of the sun within man, just as gold was the image of the sun on earth. The importance of love in the mystic doctrine of unity explains how it is that love-symbolism came to be closely linked with heart-symbolism, for to love is only to experience a force which urges the lover towards a given center. In emblems the heart signifies love as the center of illumination and happiness, and this is why it is surmounted by flames, or a cross, or a crown.

The heart had its place in the Muslim world as well. The heart appears hundreds of times in The Quran, the central religious text of Islam. The heart is most often referred to as covered, hardened, or diseased and needing to be healed, in the sense of coming to believe in Allah. The mystical dimension of Islam, Sufism, is considered to be “a path of love”. The Sufi (also a Dervish) is a traveler on this path on the journey back to God through the mysteries of the heart. This is a quest into a secret chamber of the heart where lover and beloved can share the ecstasy in union. Love, they say, is the most powerful force in the universe and the heart is where it resides. Still love needs to be awakened and activated so it can come to know its primordial passion.

The heart as a metaphor had a strong presence and meaning throughout European Christian history. Among the early Christians, St. Augustine (354—430), centered his works around the heart. He believed that God himself was within the heart, the place where “truth is loved.” He named the heart as the location of one’s essential being, saying, “My heart is where I am whatever I am”. St. Augustine also intuited the lost heart, and the need to find it again, as a means of reuniting with the divine. For Augustine, the inner person and interior life were centered in the heart, understood in its biblical sense as the moral and spiritual core of the human being.

In the 6th century B.C., there was a breakthrough in understanding the biological role of the heart. The Roman Galen – one of the major contributors to medicine – wrote his work on the circulatory system. He was the first to recognize that there were distinct differences between venous (dark) and arterial (bright) blood. Although his many anatomical experiments on animal models led him to a more complete understanding of the circulatory system, nervous system, respiratory system and other structures, his work was not without scientific inaccuracies. Galen believed that the circulatory system consisted of two separate one-way systems of distribution, rather than a single unified system of circulation. His understanding was that venous blood was generated in the liver, from where it was distributed and consumed by all organs of the body. He posited that arterial blood originated in the heart, from where it was similarly distributed.

The Christian saints often had visions that included the heart. Christian sects manifested symbolic imagery that included the heart. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) experienced a vision of an angel piercing her heart with a flaming arrow. A heart with a crown of thorns is the emblem of the Jesuits and their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). The “sacred heart” was widely an object of devotion in the 17th century, when it became represented by a heart pierced by the nails of the cross and encircled with the crown of thorns. In contemporary usage, one of the primary symbolic meanings of heart is passion, either religious and spiritual, or profane and sexual. The second aspect emerged in the poetical works of the troubadours who appeared in the region of what is now southern France in the 12th century. In the work of these poets, the heart began to be thought of not only as a place of spiritual discovery, but as the place of erotic, romantic, idealized, secular love. This marked a return to classic themes, from the times of the Romans. Ovid, a pagan poet, in his book Amores (16 BC), wrote of the heart as the suffering place of passion.

That’s it: a slender arrow sticks fast in my heart,

And cruel Love lives there, in my conquered breast.

The medieval notion of the romantic heart, as it was first promoted by the troubadours, is the place of our greatest emotional sensitivity, our compassion transformed into the reverential devotion to another human being taken as the sacred on earth. As such, the beloved is worthy of the highest treatment. That exquisite emotional quality is the expression of the heart.

In the symbolism of the troubadours poets, the heart became interchangeable with the image of the beloved. The erotic object, the loved one, “resides” inwardly in the heart and gets projected onto the other. The difficulty of achieving intimacy with the idealized woman is a central theme of the poems of the troubadours. If the heart represents our ideal realization, and our distance from this is named having a lost heart, then the suffering of distance from the woman is symbolic of our difficulty in realizing our essence, or finding the heart. The inward possession of idealized love and the outward manifestation of intimacy with the other are mirror images of the realization of the heart, of being what we are meant to be, which is to embody an ultimate love.

Beginning with the 1400s, the practice of finding the heart spread from the monk, troubadour, and saint to the common person. The folk were encouraged to look to their own hearts for their source of spirituality. All of this suggested a movement toward the humanistic, that is, a looking within oneself, rather than to an outside authority, for the source of knowing.

In these years, people became inspired by the idea of a participation in the creative process of the universe. The doctrine of the individual as the microcosmic participant in the creative process of the macrocosm presented these philosophers with the possibility of this synthesis.

This place where the individual and universal merged is represented by the heart. This European world of the 17th century saw the ascendancy of empiricism. With the advent of such highly influential British empirical philosophers as John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776), the home of thinking and the center of our being was moved to the head, brain, and mind. The philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) struck a blow against the humanist view that the individual was the center of morality and goodness. Hobbes’ vision not only moved away from heart-centeredness, but toward a gloomy view of humanity.

However, the heart view continued to be asserted by an enlightened few. A central critic of the Enlightenment glorification of intellect and reason was the Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who pointed to the endless examples of a natural sympathy that humans feel for the suffering of others as a proof of their natural, intrinsic moral nature. He believed that the true philosophy of happiness was not to be found through a process of thinking, but came through listening with our heart, where our virtues were naturally engraved.

With the understanding of the circulation of the blood, discovered by William Harvey in 1628, the heart took another step toward losing its symbolic power. With the advent of science and technology, the metaphor of the heart changed. It was downgraded to a cardiac muscle, seen only as a spring or pump. Though there was a greater understanding of the material world, the heart has lost its central part and its symbol was reduced to a cliché of romantic novels.

The loss of the heart that emerged from the dehumanization process of the advance of modernity was taken up by the romantics. The revered German author, Goethe, who lived from 1749-1832, foretold this longing for the heart in his most profound work, Faust, considered to be one of the peaks of western civilization. The main character speaks, referring to the unity of self-knowledge, reason, and the energetic source of creation and essence, the heart:

When in our narrow cell the lamp

Once more sends out its friendly beams,

It grows brighter, here within the breast,

Within the heart that knows itself.

Reason once more begins to speak

And Hope once more begins to bloom.

We long, now, for the waters of life,

Ah, for the wellspring of our lives!

Eat Art

 

Eating is more than just nourishment. It is more than health. It is always a cultural communication. The conversation which cooking promotes has become one of the foundations of civilization. Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving. Food is the most important thing a mother gives a child; it is the substance of her own body, and in most parts of the world mother’s milk is still the only safe food for infants. Thus, food becomes not just a symbol of, but a manifestation of, love and security.

[“We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.” — Sherry Turkle, “The Flight from Conversation”]

Human instinct tends towards beauty, therefore having overcome the primary pleasure of calming hunger with something suitable, cookery always seeks to improve the edible beauty of the thing it transforms. It looks for goodness, harmony, the refinement of taste. There are even times when the aim of enjoyment comes before the principles of sustainability and healthy food in exceptional banquets that serve to celebrate, to have a party and also to create a communal spirit, just as the daily shared meal is good for the family.

Food is much more than a collection of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. We are what we eat and by eating we construct – reconstruct – ourselves every day. Physically, of course, but also symbolically. Individually, of course, but also in a group.

On the art scene, food is a subject / object that has fascinated and nourished numerous performers. In many cases their work goes far beyond the simple aesthetic event to address eating behaviors of our society. Food aversions, allergies, diets, special treats, and childhood memories thus become food for thought in developing their practices. Often prompted to blur the line between art and life, their performances correspond to routine daily activities, such as cooking, eating, handling or sharing food.

With the food as medium, the artist can convey emotions associated with death, as food certainly has a life; the decay of food shows the natural decomposition of the body, whether with disease or time. Food is also a strong symbol of consumption: consumed by emotion, disease or madness, to consume and be satisfied such as by the warm embrace of a requited love or by the fullness that a hardy meal provides. Food, because it is not permanent material, also conveys ideas of transience, change and variety. Food is a powerful symbol to express a sense of longing, an emotional hunger or sense of not being fulfilled.

Food allows the artists to include other sensations beside the visual into the experience of their works so that audiences can relate to memories of smell, taste, and texture. Food unites, creates places of communication. Using food for creating an art piece enables perception of space that directly integrates the viewer with all his senses. The works can be directly experienced through the means of touch and smell. The artwork in this sense becomes the interaction between the visitor’s bodies and the artwork.

In my research I have focused on artists who work with food as a material, but first I would like to briefly mention the Still life masters because back in the 16th century, the world of food provided an infinite source of artistic elaboration. This was followed in the second half of the century by Arcimboldo who worked at the Habsburg and whose principal subject was naturalia of all kinds. His paintings can be classified as fantasies. He used basic elements taken from the as-yet-unknown genre of still life – fruits, vegetables, animals and so on – to compose bizarre anthropomorphic images. These fantasies are almost like scientific illustrations.

With a quantum leap in time, I will point out three artists who have proven to be notably important in their dealings with the subject of food in the 20th century. Daniel Spoeri coined the term Eat Art with his assemblages. Honey and fat were continuously used by Joseph Beuys. The work of Dieter Roth now presents to museums, collectors and galleries the difficult challenge of how to preserve and exhibit his works.

Daniel Spoerri

In 1960 Daniel Spoerri (b. 1930), Swiss artist born in Romania, ex-dancer and part of Nouveau Réaliste (New Realism movement), pastes together the leftover breakfast of his girlfriend.

This work is the first manifestation of the term coined later by the artist, namely Eat Art. Spoerri’s idea would take shape in the next years, becoming richer and richer in experiments and ways of expression.

The artwork is followed by series of actions and objects called “Fallenbild” – the remains of finished or abandoned meals glued, fixed and preserved in order to create dimensional snapshots.

Spoerri decided to work with food because he wanted to explore the significance of nutrition in human existence. He tried to establish what was suitable for consumption and its connection with taste. These questions led him to invent experimental dishes such as mashed potato ice cream, and open the Palindromic Diner, where the appearance of the dishes suggests that the guests were starting their meal with coffee, but ingredients and preparation were adapted to the ironic reversal of a normal menu sequence, so that the espresso turned out to be soup. Spoerri, who owned a large collection of cookery books, also published numerous texts about food, including the culinary column “Gastronoptikum” (1970) and a gastronomical diary (“Gastronomical Diary. Itinerary for two people on an Aegean island along with anecdotes and other stuff, as well as a treatise on the meatball” 1967). In 1968, the artist opened the Restaurant Spoerri in Düsseldorf, and two years later, founded the Eat Art Gallery above the restaurant.

The art works shown there had to be edible or their materials derived from food-related activities.

For the exhibition at Modera Museet in Stockholm, Spoerri turned a room from Galerie Koepcke, in the center of the old town, into a small shop. He put all kinds of food, jars, cans and other objects on the shelves. Each object was marked with a round stamp on which it was written: “Attention/ouevre d’Art/Daniel Spoerri”, or the same text appeared in three languages, French, German and English, on other objects. The goods were sold at the same price as in the groceries in town, thus finding buyers quite soon.

Instead of printing catalogue for the same exhibition in Louisina Museum, Spoerri commissioned the royal bakery of Copenhagen to bake several fresh small breads, in which they put various remains, nails, glass, etc. The catalog was called ”Katalog Tabu”, and one bread was an issue of this “catalog”. In this way the artist and the gallery owner wished to draw the public’s attention to a contemporary phenomenon, namely “what happens with tons of bread every day: they are thrown to the garbage”.

Up to the present time the planning and execution of large banquets is still part of Spoerri’s Eat Art concept. Küche der Armen der Welt (Kitchen of the World’s Poor, 1972) offered very simple, nutritious dishes (e.g., mashed peas with bacon, potatoes and dried cod). The director of the Kölner Werkschulen (Art school in Cologne) was actually called Karl Marx. In his honor, Spoerri organized a dinner with students from the art school, where only guests were invited with a prominent name: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Richard Wagner, Franz Schubert, etc. The dishes served had names like Bismarck, Hering, Mozartkugeln etc.

Palindromic Dinner (among others on the occasion of the Fluxus Exhibition of the Schnepel Collection at the Museum Neue Weserburg, Bremen or in 2002 at the Jeu de Paume, Paris) is a dinner that seems to run backwards: Visually, it starts with the coffee course, which is actually a consommé, that is served in coffee cups, etc.

Ever since the works of Daniel Spoerri, the term Eat Art indicates the ongoing interest of artists in the subject of food as an elementary substance. As a fundamental interface of art and life, food remains a central topic, especially in these times of issues such as affluence and hunger, the anti-consumerism and anti-globalization movements, modern dietetics and cooking shows, health crazes and fast food. Working with food confronts us with our own bodies and processes that are part of life in a very direct way. We are forced to think about our own decay, about death.

Joseph Beuys

Food was one of the important media for one of the most influential artists of the 20th century – Joseph Beuys (1921- 1986). Fat, in particular, in one form or another, is a recurring media within Beuys’ oeuvre. He has used pure fat, lard, pork drippings, butter and oil. Beuys often employed felt and honey as media as well, but fat was the most prevalent. The importance of these materials stems from an imaginary experience that the artist injected into his autobiography. During World War II Beuys enlisted to serve Nazi Germany as a pilot. After three years of service he was shot down over Crimea, then part of Russia. He survived the crash and was taken care by Tartans, a nomadic tribe living in this area. They rubbed Beuys with fat and then wrapped him in felt to warm him and then gave him honey. Although Beuys admitted years later that the story was fabricated, he incorporated felt, fat and honey throughout his oeuvre and these materials have become some of his main ingredients for expression.

The immediate recognition of edible materials was attractive to him, as food was a metaphorical image of art as the essence of human nourishment. He used foods that over time would metamorphose, and welcomed materials that were not fixed, but rather had the ability to go through chemical reactions, color changes, decay, and regeneration. Beuys also made use of the fact that specific foods had deep roots in certain religions or traditions, for example bread and fish, which carry symbolic meaning in the Christian faith, among others.

Honey, one of his most used materials, was first used by Beuys in 1965 in his action How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, in which he anointed his head with honey and gold. Honey not only has a connection with nourishment, but it also has a certain mystical quality. He also viewed the organization of bees as very similar to the principles of socialism in that an end product is made through principles of cooperation and brotherhood.

Later in Honigpumpe (Honey Pump, 1985) at Documenta, 1977, Beuys would install a pump driven by two strong motors to force 2 tons of honey through a 17 meter high pipe which was lubricated with over 200 pounds of margarine, into a distribution network, which traversed the rooms of the Museum Fridericianum. It was in action throughout the 100 days of the exhibition, and Beuys intended it to be seen as a metaphorical circulation system, absorbing and distributing the energy generated by the lectures, discussions, and seminars that were happening during the exhibition.

For some of his art works in the 1970s, Beuys would buy containers of oil, honey, rice, and other everyday comestibles and transform them into art pieces by scrawling his name on them or by adding the phrase “1 Wirtschaftswert,” meaning “one unit of economic value.” Others, a bottle of oil, for example, bear his own label, the Joseph Beuys brand.

In Beuys’ symbolic system, a substance like honey is charged with meaning. To quote from the essay Tanja Maka wrote for the exhibition Eat Art at Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard, USA, in 2001, “Honey is the product of a cooperative of bees, a small, well-ordered society working together to create life-giving nutrients. The activity of production itself creates warmth within the hive, helping to sustain life. This was a model for Beuys of how human society should function”.

As a student of the philosopher and social theorist Rudolf Steiner, Beuys strove to embody his mentor’s theories about energy flows in his artwork. One example is Capri Battery, created in 1985 – an electric socket holding a yellow light bulb is plugged into a lemon. The simple construction unites nature and culture and demonstrates that the latter is dependent on the former.

Fat, the material found in animal tissue composed of glycerides of fatty acids, was an ideal material for Beuys. It has the ability to exist as a physical example of two extremes: a flowing liquid when warm and a defined solid when cold. Beuys also believed that fat was psychologically effective, in that “people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings.”

Fat, a nurturing, life-sustaining substance, is essential for nourishment and fuel. Beuys began using fat in the 1960s with the installations Fat Corners (1960, 1962) and a sculpture entitled Fat Chair (1964). According to him, these pieces started “an almost chemical process among people that would have been impossible if I had only spoken theoretically.”

Beeswax, the tallow-like substance secreted by bees and used for building honeycombs, is another substance that Beuys used, often as the antithetical property of liquid honey. Beuys’ interest in this sculptural material is closest to the complex relationships between natural structures described by Rudolf Steiner in his nine lectures “On Bees” in 1923. Steiner likened the bees’ process of forming solid geometric honeycombs to the changes that continuously take place in the human body and in the earth itself. Occasionally, Beuys would also use wax earplugs during performances to shut himself off from outside sounds and emphasize the necessity of “inner listening.”

Dieter Roth

A painter, graphic designer, sculptor, publisher, musician, filmmaker, as well as a poet, Dieter Roth’s (1930-1998) extremely varied oeuvre presents museums with a difficult task when it comes to the preservation of his works. Beyond his ironic and contradictory statements, this is due to the nature of the works themselves: complex installation art; monumental objects and sculptures made from edible substances, such as chocolate, sugar, yoghurt, cheese, bread, mince and spices, which beetles and micro-organisms then transform. Dieter Roth was extremely interested in the structure of decay – its form, play of colors, the variations of putrefaction and mould, and their ornamental aspects, the natural mutation of things – and felt that chance, as a shaping element, was a part of the creation process. He wanted his artworks to live and die like humans. He chose organic materials because the museum cannot preserve them. This undermined and led towards dysfunction the mission of the museum.

Dieter Roth began to make drawings, oil paintings and prints in various media. He became a graphic design apprentice in Bern in 1947-51, then in 1954 started to make experimental works, including his first Gebackene Plastik (”baked sculpture”) – a spiral made out of bread dough for a competition of the Graphic Artists’ Association.

In 1961 Roth came up with a new book object: the Literaturwurst (Literature sausage). He literally destroyed books that he did not like or that were written by authors whose success he envied. One of the first novels to be stuffed was Gunter Grass’s novel Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963). To process the book, Roth first cut it up into confetti-sized bits and then mixed it with real-life ingredients listed in the original sausage recipe, the only modification being that he used the minced novel instead of meat. Throughout his life Roth made more than 50 of the Literature sausages.

Roth’s first one-man show was mounted by the Museum College of Art in Philadelphia in September 1964. He then began working with chocolate and continued using organic materials, for instance in his mildew pictures, so-called “Zerfallobjekten and Bilder” (”Decay objects and pictures”) and “Gewürzbildern” (”Spice pictures”). Roth then taught for some years at institutions in the US, Britain and Germany.

In the mid-1960s, Roth revolutionized traditional the printing craft by rolling out chocolate to make drypoint engravings. These experiments ushered in the “pressings” and “squashings” Roth undertook in the following year, using sausages, cheese, milk, fruit juice, and other perishables.

Roth expanded the usually positive connotations of chocolate to the opposite effect. He allowed it to stand for naive childlike delight, but also treated it as a symbol of human excrement. He liked chocolate because it smelled good and could easily be processed, but also because its constantly changing surface expressively demonstrates transience. Roth’s signature chocolate piece is his self portrait P.O.TH. A. A. VFB. of 1968. The title, an acronym for “Portrait of the Artist as Vogelfutterbüste” (bird seed bust), alludes to James Joyce’s famous novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, which Roth dismissed as kitsch. Roth’s opinion of the novel which he held at the age of thirty-eight led him to design a bust of himself as an old man. He had thirty copies cast in chocolate mixed with bird seeds. Placed on a landing board mounted on a broomstick, the bust was to be set up in a garden and gradually devoured by birds.

In one of his most controversial exhibitions, Roth filled the Eugenia Buttler Gallery in Los Angeles with stacks of suitcases stuffed with cheese. As the exhibition progressed, the cheese began to putrefy, attracting hordes of flies to the gallery and driving away all the human visitors. The concept of the show was derived from a German slang expression, “Who’s left his suitcase here?”, a comment made when someone has farted. Roth’s display was a definite challenge to the “good taste” of the bourgeois art world and, more specifically, to the marked mechanisms that underlie it.

Many of Roth’s artworks present his belief that museums are “funeral homes implying that once art was in a museum, it was on its way to burial in the archives of history.” This idea of the museum as funeral home is physically enacted in Roth’s artworks, as they deteriorate and eventually die.

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