On an oven-hot afternoon this past Saturday, more than 250 people descended on an outdoor pavilion displaying 85 sculptures on tabletops in the Hudson Valley village of Tivoli, NY. They came first to view the sculptures--each one ingeniously made of food--and then eat them. After the viewing and before the eating, the press of drooling art-lovers clapped for those whom a team of judges wearing tri-cornered hats had lauded as the makers of the most striking and original creations. Because this was the Fourth Annual Edible Sculpture contest and contests must have winners.
The sculptures fell into roughly one of three categories: topical, conceptual and eternal. (Because how can you write about art without categories?) Each of the three co-winners illustrates one of them.
Topical. Mara Ranville and Farley Crawford depicted The Slow Food Movement, a new-old approach to eating that prizes the savoring of unprocessed ingredients, by using fruits and vegetables to create a stately parade of snails. Other topical entries included Jerk Chicken, which arrayed Jamaican-style pieces of poultry around a portrait of Mel Gibson, and several representations of the BP oil spill with molasses and mole standing in for the spreading ooze of Gulf-despoiling crude.
Conceptual. A good number of the participants in the Edible Sculpture Contest are artists or teach art at nearby Bard College. So they'd know about the recent Marina Abramović retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, at which the artist showed she was "present" by sitting silently across from any visitor who took the empty chair at her table. Hence Richard Press and Phillip Gefter's entry, Carmen Miranda Abramović: "The Fruit Salad is Present," that had one of the creators sitting placidly at a table with a riot of grapes and hibiscus, in the style of the Portuguese samba singer, balanced on his head.
Participants did, indeed, sit across from the enigmatic man with the braid of black hair and hoop earrings stabbing at the melon bits and strawberries on his plate. To be in on the gag meant adopting the pensive pose of a consumer of high art. Many tried, but more than one burst out laughing. Of course that was also the point.
Eternal. Most of the entries took the approach of using food to render an image so familiar that it seems to have always been with us. If you know only one thing about African art, it's probably the stylized profile of Yoruba statuary. Daniel Mason took one such piece--a foot-high woman carved of milky stone--and, using a scanner, 3D printer and complicated mold, produced the woman's twin in gourmet chocolate. Then placed the two side by side in an eerie dialectic, with one side being yummy.
Another example of the eternal approach was a Pointillistic representation of a "Deer Crossing" sign that made the image of a leaping deer out of black beans and the reflective yellow background out of corn kernels placed on a stabilizing bed of mashed potatoes. It won one of three Honorable Mentions, as did two realistic balls of yarn constructed of curved and artfully woven strips of colored pasta that sat daintily in a wicker basket with a pair of darning needles protruding suggestively--as if to say that, in the right hands, they could be wielded to whip up a fettuccine sweater.
There was also the self-explanatory Sconehenge.
Clearly, this was not your found Virgin Mother in the swirls of a toasted tortilla: a lot of work goes into making a comestible and commendable work of art.
The contest began four years ago as the brain-child of a pair of Bard professors: Tim Davis, a photographer, and his wife, Lisa Sanditz, a painter. Davis says, "It all came out of long walks and hikes where we'd be very hungry and we'd start imaging, if you could eat anything, what would you eat?" The couple, who used to live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, somehow combined that mental exercise with the making of sculpture and then placed the concept in service to the idea that, as Davis put it, "When you move to the country, you need to make your own fun."
This year's winners received hand-crafted medals depicting a ham on a rainbow, which is the title of one of Davis' favorite poems. They also gave brief speeches into a balky mic explaining how they'd crafted their concoctions. All spoke modestly while clutching the medal like it meant something.
A brass band played. Children, their mouths smeared with the remnants of manipulated victuals, ran underfoot. And in an unexplained development, local carpenter and chef Roland Butler led the crowd in chants of "roast pork / roast roast pork," and "because we like them younger / because they have more hair," before he did a robot walk and then, in the shadow of the spidery stilts that hold Tivoli's water tower, breathed fire. (See video.)
That seemed to be the signal to start eating, and eat the people did.