At times, the uglier aspects of ascendant foodie culture appear as a desperate desire to plug up a vast emptiness. Reflected in the thrusting knives and grimacing one-upmanship of competitive cooking shows, or the self-righteous castigation of a local co-op member over another’s choice of cheese, culinary acumen can often seem more a weapon than a means of sustenance or simple enjoyment.
While its ambitions might constitute a significant first step toward a Philosophy of the Kitchen (and Grocery, and Farm), much of the beauty contained in the spring edition of Flaherty NYC rests with its insistence on never forgetting that food is something integral to communal experience and, well, fun. EAT!, a six part, bi-weekly program which began on January 20 and was organized by filmmaker Jason Fox, features a stunning lineup of works by Mark Lewis, Barbara Hammer, Stan VanDerBeek, and Theresa Duncan, as well as newer works by Stefani Bardin, Wichanon Somumjarn, and Michael Gitlin and Jackie Goss, and, extending on out into the waste stream, a brilliant collaboration by Pawel Wojtasik, Toby Lee, and Ernst Karel (who were interviewed about their piece in these pages last October). Topping things off are rarities by Chris Marker and Mario Ruspoli, Jean Rouch and Jacques d’Arthuys, and Alan Raymond. The essay below concentrates on another series highlight, a 2007 film entitled Monument of Sugar: how to use artistic means to avoid barriers by the Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, which will screen at Anthology Film Archives on February 3rd.
As one of the most sought-after of New World commodities, sugar—like gold—has been marked from the start by its ties to misappropriation of both the land and bodies of others. At least that’s the oft-repeated narrative, not inaccurate, but a long way from being complete. Finer-grained investigation, however, opens up another, lesser-known trade route of at one time significant but now diminishing consequence; its continuing existence reveals too how certain political and economic debates regarding globalization are of an earlier origin than most contemporary commentators know or care to admit.
Several years ago, the Dutch artist team of Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan began their research into another source of the world’s sugar supply, originating mostly in the cool weather regions of Europe and Russia. The white mangold-wurzel, also known as the sugar beet, was first discovered to be a ready source of sucrose back in the mid-18th century. But it wasn’t until Napoleon glimpsed its utility in circumventing English trade blockades that an effort was undertaken to cultivate and process it as a cane sugar substitute. So far, so good; but one inevitably asks why something so easily produced locally—historically, or even today—would ever have to compete against a comparable product from thousands of miles away.
The search for an answer leads one to see just how deeply world-historical factors drove the wild oscillation of sugar prices for the last 250-odd years while trade competition between nations intensified. With the initial importation of sugarcane to South America, slavery followed close behind, spurred on by Portuguese traders joined in collusion with a Yoruba king to open a slave market at the port of Lagos. In the middle of the 19th century, abolition swept through the Americas, tipping the balance for a time in beet sugar’s favor. New methods of labor exploitation and eventual mechanization—two factors working hand in hand—eventually restored dominance to Caribbean-American cane on the world market. What was once a luxury exclusive to the rich became over time a staple crossing class divides. According to records cited by the anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, English rural families had over the course of the 18th century gone from near-zero sugar consumption up to an estimated one hundred pounds per year.
Upon learning that most of Europe’s beet sugar today is consumed outside its borders, the artists devised a plan that began with purchase of that same sugar at a fraction of its domestic price. From there, they set out for Nigeria, a nation which, despite a climate wholly conducive to sugarcane cultivation, was said to be the largest importer of European sugar. Van Brummelen and de Haan’s idea was to transform that raw material into art and reimport it for an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum.
In order to achieve this, the artists would depend on a Dutch legal code exempting artworks from commodity import restrictions, but their scheme proved anything but simple: finding bulk sugar for purchase took weeks. After a succession of dead-end leads, navigating backalleys and warehouses around Lagos harbor, they were finally told there was no European beet sugar available, and that Brazil was now Nigeria’s primary source. Once the purchase was made and the studio set up, Murphy’s Law came down full force. The vitamin A additive used by Nigerian processors compromised the sugar’s binding properties. Stifling humidity was followed by a spell of heavy rains and caused the roof to leak. Insects drawn by the lights got stuck on the sugar’s surface. The final result looked nothing like the crisp white blocks they had envisioned.
It was time now to ship out, but not before discovery that an export permit—intended as protection for the nation’s own cultural patrimony—was required. After lengthy negotiation, the permit was arranged and a shipper hired that fit their budget. And here, what the artists refer to as their “drifting studio practice” took an all-too-literal turn: despite promises of a foolproof tracking system, the ship disappeared en route to Amsterdam. After weeks at sea, the shipment finally arrived, wet, eroded, and smelling of mildew. The artists were able to salvage the work enough to appear in the Stedelijk’s aptly-titled exhibition Just in Time; the film was made while the sculpture traveled on to Paris, Brussels, and Argos.
Silent, with alternating sequences of color footage and scrolling text, the film itself is of block-like construction. Adopting some of the strategies and sensibility of early conceptual art, it’s one part of an ensemble—together with the sugar sculpture and a book—that diverges from its conceptualist antecedents. This is perhaps best seen through comparison to a work by Lawrence Weiner reproduced in the book. Weiner’s piece, titled “No. 051”, is shown with an unidentified man in front of it; it consists simply of the phrase “1000 GERMAN MARKS WORTH MEDIUM BULK MATERIAL TRANSFERRED FROM ONE COUNTRY TO ANOTHER,” with its Dutch language translation below it. A key figure of early conceptualism, Weiner has produced, alongside his familiar text pieces, numerous books and films. He is a master of language in the service of small yet deeply resonant gestures, and was well aware of how that piece might allude to the movement of wartime materiel, at a time when its memory had been suppressed. Was “No. 051” an inspiration for Monument, or just a coincidence discovered after the fact? Regardless, Van Brummelen and de Haan seem by contrast to favor a more concrete use of language, allowing their materials the allusive role instead.
In its intricate matrix of social, material, and monetary relations, the piece—sculpture, book, and film—is a veritable playground for structuralists. Never intended as “trade” in the ordinary, commodity sense, Monument of Sugar nonetheless takes us through its paces to disclose an endless string of contradictions. For some it might veer toward a critique of protectionist tariffs, exposing frictions within the free flow of capital. But the film complicates such readings when it notes that sugar beet fields produce four times the oxygen as forests of comparable size. With that knowledge, and an awareness of the domestic agricultural jobs it provides, one sees a difference between the wisdom of measuring immediate results and the honest assessment of long-term, hidden benefits.
The world, the film seems to say, is not like the internet: a space of abstraction, all code and no atoms, the only gravity being the speed of your web connection. Monument grounds us back within the material realm, not merely as the scene of thwarted desire bogged down by gravity, geography, and capricious bureaucrats, but as the staging ground for an endless dialogue betweenthings. Much of its power derives from direct focus not just on relationships there before us, but those of a vestigial nature. Sugar is linked to other New World commodities whose kinship in common history is played out in our everyday lives: tobacco, whose addictive powers it often resembles; corn, from which the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) replacing it in processed foods is derived; gold, whose tiny precious castings have filled the cavities created by its corrosive effect.
And along with relationships between materials, there are correspondences of sculptural form: to gold bullion in a guarded vault; to the shipping containers the film shows stacked high in the port of Lagos; to the minimalist forms of Carl Andre and Walter DeMaria (or perhaps their pastiche, by way of Allan McCollum). Installed in the gallery, unitary and inert, Van Brummelen and de Haan’s sculpture refuses to perform the duties it’s been assigned by its lookalikes. Another resemblance—and one that encourages a reading quite different from those associated with classical minimalism—is found in the sugar sculptures of early modern Europe. Fashioned from a kind of confectionary “clay” (a precursor to the marzipan of today), these “subtleties,” as they were known in England, were part of a tradition originating in Egypt and northern Africa, and were shaped, as Mintz has described, “in the form of animals, objects, buildings, … message-bearing objects that could be used to make a special point.”
There’s an anthropological undercurrent to the work as well, if we consider that its primary objective has been to record a cultural practice before it disappears. What is it that’s endangered here? With the popularity of artificial sweeteners amongst consumers and HFCS in manufacturing, total consumption has shifted significantly; sugar’s potential as a biofuel source only heightens the uncertainty of what’s to come. And of course there’s the possible extinction of present agricultural subsidies under EU austerity. If and when they go, so go the trade routes as currently traveled. Van Brummelen and de Haan’s “message-bearing objects” have yet to yield their future secrets.
2014 Winter/Spring Flaherty N.Y.C. Series, “EAT: A 60th Anniversary Feast,” screens every other Monday at 7pm through March 31st at Anthology Film Archives. For further details visit flahertyseminar.org/flaherty-nyc or anthologyfilmarchives.org.
JIM SUPANICK is a videomaker and writer based in Brooklyn. Other essays of his can be accessed at As a Chimney Draws, supanickblog.blogspot.com.