In order to thrive, activated yeast needs warm-not-hot water and sugar to eat as it grows. Most doughs contain salt, but too much salt will kill the yeast. Looking at Isabelle McGuire’s frames made of what they have coined ‘dead dough‘, I imagine the yeast in this dough was once alive, because ‘dead’ implies its own opposite: in order to die, something has to live.
The pluralistic structure of McGuire’s exhibition, I’m a Cliche, at Prairie comes as a manifold stacking: three separate layers of activity accumulated one on top of another within the gallery. The base layer of the exhibition is a succinct installation of small-scale sculptural works made of organic matter, photographs, and hanging hardware. Slightly sagging sugar glass shelves hang on the walls with cast sugar glass bottles set on top, interspersed between four photographic constructions. A floor sculpture—also comprised of cast sugar glass bottles— shares its name with the sugar glass shelves: Untitled (I’m a Cliché). The floor sculpture has been degraded and cracked by pouring activated yeast onto and into the bottles in situ. Having eaten away the bottles’ inner and outer surfaces, the yeast remains present in the exhibition as a stain, having spilled onto the gallery floor. The cast glass works are something like a recycling bin version of a Morandi tableau. The bottles’ functional form and implied use, suggesting their capacity to be held and to hold liquid, serve as a bridge between the exhibition’s first layer of seemingly-static art objects and the subsequent performances.
The photographic works in the exhibition consist of images framed by bread and adorned with perfectly intact insect carcasses. The frames’ structures range from a simple ribbon of dough to more intricate designs, alternately baroque and skeletal. Of the latter ilk, There is always someone working harder than you. I am that someone, 2017, is comprised of three separate translucent scrims of shrink plastic, each inset into a separate branch of a spindly circuit of dead dough. The finishing touch is the June bug placed delicately on the surface of the bread’s crust with the bug’s underbelly presented vulnerably, facing the viewer. On the central sheet of shrink plastic, a printed photographic image has been manipulated and effaced to an almost illegible effect. Hidden behind scrawled hatch marks, a figure kneels with legs bending below the weight of an ambiguous, spherical object held overhead. Whether the object overhead is a boulder, or another body, or something else altogether, the burdened figure recalls something Sisyphean— especially when paired with the eponymous text embedded in the frame above and below the image: “There is always someone working harder than you” and “I am that someone.”
The shapes and forms of the dead dough show evidence of the material’s initial doughy softness and its inability to hold surface detail. The frames veer from smooth symmetry, shift away from measurement, toward confident gestures and direct construction. The small images of camouflaged figures are not identifiable as portraits, nor as documentation of a performance, but rather, the images appear to be posed and performed specifically for the camera. These images are consciously made, manipulated and constructed: disguised photographs that are embedded in mannered, baked frames of inedible, continuously drying bread.
McGuire’s use of organic materials, or ingredients, recalls the work of Dieter Roth, and his use of chocolate, seeds, bananas and other miscellaneous foodstuffs. Roth discovered his predilection for food as an art material in a moment of impulse.
“He had covered some >>dirty pictures<< that he had drawn with sour milk and was pleased: >>that they became very beautiful. Subsequently, I always wanted to pour sour milk over pictures that aren’t beautiful or that don’t work out. Sour milk is like the landscape, ever-changing. Works of art should be like that – they should change like man himself, grow old and die<<.” 1
Roth’s works involving food— blooming chocolate, molded cheese, rotten banana peel prints, dried sausage skins stuffed with macerated book-pages—baring marks of decay, exist today as though preserved on life support. The sculptures and prints are now held in climate controlled rooms, encased in frames or under vitrines. Though Roth invited the rot and decomposition, hoping to mirror his own mortality, institutions and collections are preserving his work by way of containment. McGuire’s work, however, is new, raw, and out in the open. The bread and sugar glass are only a few months old, at the very beginning stages of deterioration.
In the aftermath of the performance, between the exhibition’s second and third layer of activity, the evidence in the gallery space (absent of the audience, fresh bread, butter, and ginger-ale) is perplexing: a table with bread crumbs and a stray smear of butter; a ravaged set of instructions scrawled onto a piece of paper shoved into a broken sugar bottle; drops of fake blood and a prosthetic fake thumb; a water drawing on the floor of the Earth flocked with a dusting of flour. On top of the table, on a thick makeshift serving platter, is an image of a nude woman laying on a pool table, decapitated, surrounded by a swarm of flies. A text below the image reads:
‘i just only wanted to stretch my neck for seeing farther suddenly i heard a pop sound from the top of my neck, and then my head was gone but at the same time found that my vision was not limited anymore’.
In its imbrication of food, imagery, text, and sound, the experience of the exhibition elevates common rituals surrounding food, albeit in an absurdist fashion. The figurative photographs framed in bread initially suggest that the bodies pictured are offering themselves for consumption, visually or orally. The performance then proceeded to allow viewers to eat bread while looking at the bread frames hung on the surrounding walls, satiating their appetites, analogous to watching pornography while having sex. Ingesting bread while looking at artworks made of bread makes physical an otherwise entirely imaginative, visual experience. Yet, the inclusion of insect carcasses, placed onto the hand molded frames seem to serve as an interruption, issuing a mori warning to the consumer. Is the viewer made to feel like a fly, attracted and then shooed away? It seems to be less about repelling the viewer than it is a surreal allegorical questioning: why is a dragonfly beautiful, even when dead, when a fly only reminds us of shit and decay? Why is one body read as a dragonfly, and the next as a pesky fly?
What if McGuire’s dead dough is actually just a salt dough? This would mean there was never yeast in the ‘dead dough’ frames, just flour, salt, oil, and water. Salt dough is used as a way to create sculptures and crafts that will harden when baked but will not rise, melt, or move past predetermination. What begins with a controlled material, formed and baked, is just the starting point. The works will continue to change: the sugar glass softening and cracking; the bread hardening and cracking. Stiffened and brittle, will they rot? Will live insects find them and eat the leftovers?
- The exhibition opened with Act One on November 17th, 2017.
- A performance, Act Two, happened on December 8th, 2017. The artist served studio-made bread, butter, and lacto-fermented ginger ale.
- The exhibition ended on January 7th, after Act Three, featuring musical performances in the gallery space by Isabelle & Kira, Ratko Radojčić and Bloodhaver.
- Excerpt from introductory text by Dieter Roth for Paintings, Drawings and Multiples exhibition catalog, David Nolan Gallery, New York, 1989:
“Perhaps somebody comes and asks, what all this stuff was made for. Then I cannot say any-thing but: Me one cannot ask, since I have only so few words to say, like: I do not know!
Yes, but! somebody says at that moment, perhaps. But! somebody says, it does smell mock here, burny somehow, like as if some sugarbomb of the bigger kind or make has fallen explosion-wise to the walls and on the floor and ceiling. Look, smashed sugarcane everywhere! The bits and tids are hanging up and down all the walls, along the whole run. Sure, securely, somebody says to that, the same moment: I am sure, he says or she says, or, as we in big G. say, IT says: This must have been an all encompassing sugarbomb of the biggest width or size, with special chocopuss fillings, since otherwise it does not hang up or down like this in any way but Sugar-puss itself-Miss Neverdry or Mister Everwet. lt must have made a hell of a pressure on the walls and floors and on it’s maker, the sugarbomb maker’s mind. Or, if it should have been sugarload of a backfire grenade, then we should say: What a mammouth’s pressure under the maker’s heart, where the belly is! may I ask! somebody says, then, often,-why! somebody, then, often says or ask,-how come, it shmears like this and cries like hell?”