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Conceptual Art

Janine Antoni’s ‘Gnaw’

By Conceptual Art, Installations, Talking art
Gnaw Janine Antoni with Lynne Hanley eating chocolate

Janine Antoni, Gnaw, 1992, installed at Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York

Random person eating chocolate is NOT part of the work!

When I first heard about ‘Gnaw’ Janine Antoni’s 1993 installation I have to confess that I thought she had basically eaten as much chocolate as she could and whacked the remaining (huge) block of it on a marble pedestal.

I was so wrong!

Gnaw began life as a pair of large cubes, one of chocolate, one of lard, each weighing in at 600 pounds. Antoni literally then gnawed away at each but, and this disappointed me slightly when I realised, she didn’t actually eat the bits that she’d managed to extract with her teeth (I was in awe of her eating lard and perhaps a little jealous of the huge block of chocolate). The finished work comprises of the two tooth and face marked blocks, now elevated on marble pedestals, and 27 heart-shaped packages of chocolate made from the chocolate removed and chewed from the cube and 130 lipsticks made with pigment, beeswax, and the lard removed and chewed from that cube. These are displayed in cabinets near the sculptures. This part of the display is called Lipstick/Phenethylamine Display.

What is phenethylamine and how do you pronounce it? Phenethylamine is a stimulant found in chocolate and is also produced in the body when we fall in love. Don’t listen to the corresponding Elevenses with Lynne to find out how to pronounce it though!!

So it’s clear that Antoni has a message here, and to me she’s asking questions about what it means to be a woman both with desires and who is, and wants to be, desired.

Janine Antoni, Lipstick/Phenethylamine Display, 1992, detail

The little by-products are either desirable (the empty chocolate box – so desirable all the chocolates have ‘gone’!) and a red lipstick that might aid in desirability, but there is a distinctly undesirable element to the way that they have been produced, unless perhaps you happen to be Antoni’s lover. Would you want to put something chewed by a stranger in or near your mouth? Perhaps not?!

But think about babies! They want to put everything in their mouths because it’s a way of discovering the world. That one bite of the apple was what got Eve and womankind into all manner of trouble but it also gave knowledge. The desire to know. What is the relationship between seduction, desire and knowledge? I’m not sure the work promises answers but it definitely asks questions.

It also rather marvellously references and then somewhat trashes the distinction between two hitherto disparate art movements from the 60s and 70s. Works by artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris were all about the cube. Minimalist, machine cut, intellectual in tone and above all, clean, they had no relationship to the messy, visceral performance art that was generally the domain of female artists often with a feminist agenda. Until Antoni came along and started taking chunks out of those perfect cubes with her teeth.

If you wanted something to ponder once you have the pronunciation of phenethylamine perfected, ‘Gnaw’ is definitely food for thought.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Hard Candy

By Conceptual Art, Elevenses, Installations, Talking art

Today we are talking candy as the Americans would say. Hard candy, actually. I’m not American so I’m going for sweeties. Art made of sweets. Sweets in art.

I might be breaking new Elevenses ground here by going for an installation crossed with conceptual art. The truth is that when I think of sweets there are two works that immediately come to mind and both are installations. I’m posting about one today and the other will find its way into a post at the start of June.

I remember hearing about this particular work 30 years ago and when spoken about it always came accompanied by a huge eye-roll. ‘What makes it art?’ people cried. ‘I could have done that – look I’ll do a little version of it now’ they said as they emptied a packet of glacier mints into the corner of the room (where, frankly they could stay in my opinion; not my favourite by a long shot).

The installation that I’m talking about is this one, or one like it, by Felix Gonzales Torres, a gay Cuban born American artist who did a series of works (19 in total) in 1990 /1991 using wrapped sweets. He would put a pile of them in a corner of a gallery AND you were allowed to eat them. As many as you wanted. And then you could go back the next day or the next week and eat some more. That is the part of the artwork that, unsurprisingly, I remember the most!!

Felix Gonzales Torres Candy Spill

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Candy Spill or Portrait of Ross in L.A., 1991, Art Institute Chicago

This work relies on people like me wanting to eat the sweets. Gonzalez Torres was quoted as saying that he needed the public to complete the work. The installation depicted here, consisting of a pile of sweets placed in the corner of a gallery, is called ‘Candy Spill’ or more poignantly ‘Portrait of Ross’. They represent his lover who died of an AIDS related illness. The weight of the installation should ideally be 175 pounds or 12.5 stone, Ross’s ideal weight. The shrinking pile of course represented Ross’s own weight loss as he lost his life to the disease. The audience is therefore acting as the AIDS virus as they deplete the pile.

There’s more.

One of the conditions of a gallery displaying the work is that they are obliged to replenish the pile every day. If we stay with the metaphor of the sweets representing Ross’s body, the fact that it was forever replenished grants him everlasting life which in turn raises the notion of transubstantiation. This was absolutely something that was in Gonzales Torres’s mind when he created the work. He said:

‘You put it in your mouth and you suck on someone else’s body, and in this way my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies. For just a few seconds, I have put something sweet in someone’s mouth, and that is very sexy.’

Add all that to the layer of meaning that comes in when you consider how often we give sweets as gifts, all those boxes of chocolates as declarations of love, and you get a very poignant and rather elegant work.

Felix Gonzales Torres also succumbed to AIDS at just 38 years old in 1996.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.