On the final day of its residency at Soho’s Pertwee, Anderson and Gold gallery, I witnessed a performance of sorts. The exhibition, entitled Memento Mori, housed an atmosphere of myth and mystery, comprising a collection of objects that were to remind the viewer that they would one day encounter death. Blood and guts are everywhere in the gallery, juxtaposed with smooth polished skulls and delicate butterflies, symbolizing a renewal or rebirth. Morbidity was a theme that surrounded the pieces, yet the event I saw was undeniably lighter.
Tasha Marks’ offering to the exhibition was a vanitas, a glass case containing a display of items somehow relating to one’s life, and simultaneously, death. Inside, there sat an 18th century style phrenology skull atop a crimson velvet cushion, accompanied by colourful flowers and nutshells. However, upon closer inspection and explanation, I was told that the skull was white chocolate, expertly recreated on an edible mound of marshmallow and a glazed fruit fabric pillow. The creation contained ambergris, an ancient ingredient usually associated with the finest Parisian parfums, which is found in the stomach waste of a sperm whale, only after it has exited its mouth. The skull was accompanied by a coconut replication of the mystical ‘suicide nut’ which is said to murder the consumer immediately.
The decadent and indulgent piece was perched on a jet black podium lit by a single spotlight; the skull stared as if judging. After carefully removing the trophy from its glass case, the artist, clad in all black, used tiny tools to break the fake bone, to cries and cheers from a small gathering of audience members. The physical act of smashing skull is a visual reminder of death, also calling to mind ancient trepanning rituals, which leads me to describe the act event as performance art, as an action was completed in front of an audience.
I wonder whether the destruction was cathartic, if the artist took great pleasure in spoiling her own work, or whether there was an degree of regret, given that this piece was hand crafted and on display in a gallery for a number of weeks. Often, to destroy one’s work is to give way to creation for another cause; elsewhere in the gallery an artist had physically erased the subjects of Victorian portraits. The theme of regeneration was prevalent in many of the works in this exhibition – rebirth from the damaging of another piece.
Nestled between Dr Viktor Schroeder’s vanitas cases, Marks’ Memento Mori fits perfectly with rest of gallery – it is difficult to pick the food from the art. It gives the appearance of a real skull, but is actually a representation of something much more fragile. There is an element of gothic horror in the way that decay can devour a piece, sparking ideas of rotting portraits in attics, although in the act which I witnessed, the artist did not simply wait for the chocolate to perish, but took a hammer to the bare bone and smashed it violently.
Edible art has seen its popularity rise recently, as more and more people buy into the idea of either luxury one-off food items, or art that intends to expire. Temporal art has its value in that the buyer owns something that will one day no longer look the same, or retain desirable qualities, or perhaps one day cause harm to the consumer if ingested. It is interesting to think of art as having a ‘best before’ date, ironically commenting on the way that in art, just as in fashion, work can shift on or off trend, depending on varying social and cultural factors. For example, presently in both the art and fashion worlds, skulls are very popular.
Eventually, the damaged piece had a renewal of its own, as visitors were invited to take away souvenirs in the form of chocolate and coconut pieces in pink striped Victorian paper sweet bags. In destroying her artwork, the artist , creates a by product which then takes on another use, much like the sperm whale and his precious vomit nugget.
- guest blogger, TOM IVIN