Food & Art Through The Ages


Food. Drink. Art. Knowledge. Can there be a better way to while away the hours of a Monday afternoon, than a lecture led by food historian and -artist Tasha Marks? One of the new generation of Grey Goose’s Iconoclasts of Taste project, Tasha’s hour-long talk at the V&A was filled with wisdom on the topic of food (especially dessert) as an art form over the last thousand years, punctuated with a bag of edible representations from her own company, AVM Curiosities.

Transcribed directly from our Moleskine, here were our notes for those who couldn’t make it:

1. The foundation of dessert is based in the 1100s, in the Medieval Void – the period where sweets were eaten standing while the central dining/entertaining room would have been cleared for the evening’s festivities.

2. Right through to the 17th Century, honey was the main carrier of sweetness, and Mead was key to its consumption and spread (implying, I note, the centrality of alcohol to forming our cultural sweet tooth).

3. Sucrose didn’t come into play until the dark days of sugar cane plantations and production (note again, with the Rum Triangle, the role of booze in all this!). Note too the function of class: sugar was made by slaves, but eaten by the privileged.

4. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” quoth Mary Poppins. Sugar’s role in medicinal consumption is interesting, where it sat among spices rather than as a sweetening additive. (If you think of the medicinal origins of many alcohols – bitters, eaux de vie – there’s yet another parallel here.)

5. In the 16th Century, we see grand kitchens preparing jelly cards, sugar swans, their own sugar refinement processes. Sugar was a status symbol. “The spectacle of the dessert table.” There were even whole buildings made specifically to house desserts and their consumption. (Installation art?)

6. “Sugar wasn’t just a confectionary; it was a medium of artistic expression… There were even politically-motivated sugar sculptures.”

7. And then, in the 18th Century, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery brought cooking and specific to this dessert recipes to the (upper middle class) masses. “Sugar was a rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, a virtual necessity by 1850.” Something Tasha calls sugar’s “shift from the high throne to the high chair.” (cf. Sidney Wilfred Mince, Sweetness and Power)

8. Following the Art History practice of finding different ways of looking at things, the kitchen becomes more than just a place to make dinner (Note: so too the cocktail bar?)

9. Moving to modern food art practices, questions arise: with the natural decay of food (“the transience makes it of its time”) how do you collect it? (A similar problem to that surrounding Performance Art). Shelley Miller’s piece, The Wealth of Some and the Ruin of Others, celebrates this decay. While Janine Antoni looked to try to slow down this decay to her chocolate sculptures by decreasing the cocoa solids.

10. 3D printing is in its nascent stages, but has amazing potential for the food artist – but only as another tool rather than a reason unto itself. (cf. The Sugar Lab!) However: “Food is special because it is a uniquely social experience. You can’t download a sandwich. Yet…”

11. Related to this, see Minsu Kim’s Living Plates (below), which transcend food art and synthetic biology. But would you want to eat this pulsating, ‘living’ mass? “The Uncanny Valley” – the hypothesis that objects which are too realistic, too human, will lead to reflexive disgust rather than enjoyment; they are too real.

12. We live in an era of instantaneous consumption. Food has become a cultural extra: a thing to be consumed at the same time as something else (popcorn at the cinema, for example) where once it was a focal point on its own. (“Art on borrowed time.” And cf. Roland Barthes).

13. Food also brings its own unique aspects: “The aura of art with the documentary of food … gives you a new avenue of enjoyment. The tension between ‘Do I eat it?’ or ‘Do I keep it?’ adds something to savour. And having the option is very exciting as an artist.” Example: AVM Curiosities Vanitas collaboration with The Curious Confectioner (main image, top) was hung for two months, after which Tasha smashed it to pieces with a hammer and invited the gallery guests to devour it with her.

And of course, there were her own histo-artistic bites (including the perfectly cast sweet sweet tooth), delivered in a candy bag for guests:

And these were some of the food artist references she showed during the talk, to whet your aesthetic appetites: