Art film
9:27 minutes, Berlin, Germany 2004
With Silja Saarepuu, Villu Plink, Gabriele Avanzinelli


Text by Sylvette Babin

Eating is an act of self-affirmation. What better example than Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who in choosing to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, declared their independence of God?  This mythical gesture, perhaps motivate simply by desire, hunger or gourmandise, stands as the symbol of a deliberate act, the act of choosing one’s destiny and rejecting the ignorance imposed by a higher power. The creation myth no longer holds us in thrall, of course, but another form of authority has sprung up in the global garden and it dictates many of our behaviours. In a way, the agri-food industry has become a new god from which citizens must proclaim their autonomy.

Eating is thus a deliberate act. It is no longer a mere reflex linked to bodily survival, but an action prompted by more or less conscious emotional, economic and political choices. While tastes may not be open to discussion, they entail consumer decisions that have repercussions on our environment. The provenance of foodstuffs and their methods of production (intensive or organic) and management (exploitation or fair trade) are political and nutritional options by which people manifest their social commitment and express their individuality.

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 the eating behaviours of our society. Obviously, not all artists who use edibles as material are political or environmental activists, but most have eating related experience or habits or attitudes that influence their every action. Food aversions, allergies, diets, special treats and childhood memories thus become food for thought in developing their art practices. Often prompted by a desire to blur the line between art and life, their performances resemble routine daily activities, such as cooking, eating, handling or sharing food. Some reveal a wish to retake possession of a body too often abandoned to the dictates of fashion and aesthetics; others, a determination to point up and alter social behaviours acquired over decades of industrialization.

Bread is one of the foods most widely used in performance art. A dietary staple in most cultures, a bodily symbol in Christianity, bread in performance inevitably leads to reflexion on the artist’s corporeality. The German artist BBB Johannes Deimling was born in Andernach, known as the City of the Baker’s Apprentices. He grew up in a family often children where meals were seen as opportunities for communication. For his mother, feeding a dozen people every day was somewhat like running a business with a complex financial and logistical system. Deimling’s work is largely influenced by childhood memories (his performances often draw on anecdotes), but it also relates the pleasure he takes in cooking, from shopping for ingredients to preparing the dishes. His love of food makes him acutely aware of the set of eating, and of the set of “not eating”. In 1998, appalled to learn that thousands of Somali children were subsisting on a tiny handful of rice a day while the United Nations was shipping hundreds of tons of rice to the region, he undertook a ten-day action (A Handful of Rice) during which his daily diet consisted of a handful of rice and water. At the end of the process he was exhausted and depressed, but no longer hungry.

Deimling associates food end performance because both are ephemeral, but also because he sees both as “social events”. And in fact growing, selling, preparing and eating food are all micro events that engage people in encounters and negotiations. These contexts reveal diverse human conditions and form the basis of his performances. In Sprachlos (Speechless), his body is covered with freshly cooked alphabet noodles that gradually fall off as they dry. The purpose is to denounce social situations that abound with talk but lead to no concrete action. For Blanc (White), he creates a series of tableaux vivants in which objects and people covered with a thick layer of f1our are posed in positions suggestive of accidents or human drama. In another performance, he spells out the word SUCCESS on the floor with crackers. Then, masking his face with a loaf of bread fitted with paper eyes and a cut-out smile, he dances over the crackers crushing them until the “success” is reduced to powder. Lastly, in Geradeaus (Straight ahead). Deimling goes to a bakery, buys two loaves of bread, puts them on his feet like shoes, walks around the city until the bread crumbles, then stops at another bakery end repeats the process, several times. In many of these brief actions, humour end absurdity is used as a vector to draw attention to aberrant situations. The food (chiefly bread or bread-based) is a pretext that supports the artist’s statement, rather than the main focus of his reflexions. Deimling’s actions evince the evocative power of food, so much so that one forgets its nutritional properties and sees only the proposed metaphors.

If the use of food somehow seems to bring art and life together, as many artists intend, it goes without saying that, when taken from its normal context and incorporated into a work of art. Food also acquires a new metaphorical dimension. In performance the body/food association unquestionably magnifies the intrinsic symbolic power of both components. Drawing on his food related experiences, BBB Johannes Deimling proposes diverse “rituals” that invite us to take a fresh look at our lifestyles and consumer habits, and to rethink the body in its connexions with food, in its relationship with others end with the environment. But he also invites us to open our eyes to other perceptions, including an awareness of the poetic dimension of food, which we may have overlooked.

BREAD or ALIVE was part of the exhition “Eating the universe”
Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany: 28.11.2009 – 28.2.2010
Galerie in Taxispalais, Insbruck, Austria: 24.4.2010 – 4.7.2010
Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart, Germany: 18.9.2010 – 9.1.2012