“make money to have candy”1
“They seemed to hold these almonds [cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.”
In the above quotation, Christopher Columbus’ son Ferdinand is remembering an encounter with a group of indigenous people from an island off the coast of what is now known as Honduras. The Spaniards seized one of their canoes, which was filled with local goods for trade. Columbus and his crew were ignorant of what these “almonds” actually were, let alone the fact that the cocoa beans were used as regional currency by local tribes. It wasn’t until decades later that Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez brought several chests full of these beans back to Spain and that this Aztec “currency” was recognized for its use value: the essential ingredient for the fabrication of chocolate.
Upon encountering Christine Donofrio’s photographic series Smarties the above incident came to mind. If it weren’t for the title of the work we would probably not know what these objects were or signify. The playful coating of chocolate by a coloured candy shell serves to disguise what lies within. A major factor in enjoying Smarties, especially at first bite, is the hidden surprise of chocolate. Blowing them up photographically and blemishing their surface renders them ambiguous. As commodity fetishes, products of anonymous mass production and mass consumption, they are rendered mysterious, their habitual purpose bankrupt.
The word fetish comes from the Portuguese feitico : it was first used to describe sorcery and then was adopted by 15 th century traders to describe the “cult” objects of West Africans. The colonial or anthropological term fetish came to mean any artifact possessing a supernatural quality or force. In the 17 th century Dutch merchants superseded the Portuguese in the gold and slave trades. This coincided roughly with the development of the Dutch still-life tradition. In an ideological pitch against Catholicism, the Dutch related African fetishes to Catholic sacred objects. Protestants of course claimed that no material object could be imbued with any supernatural quality. As Hal Foster claims: “In this religious point is hidden an economic agenda: to denounce as primitive and infantile the refusal to assess value rationally, to trade objects in a system of equivalence, that is of capitalist exchange.” Fetishism was considered a hindrance to market activity. As religious fetishism was suppressed, a commercial fetishism was unleashed. In the first volume of Capital , Marx describes what he calls the mystical character of the commodity fetish: “…its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” The loss off religious fetishism was compensated for in the commodity as it were.
The rise of a middle class, the cult of individualism, and the gradual democratization of taste not only created an expansion of “needs.” As a result of this overwhelming acceleration of rate of consumption and production of new goods, the very nature of art was to change from being a collective experience of a cult object to a more individualist, market-driven, representational one–an art for the eyes more than an art for the soul. At the height of industrial production of goods and the individualist projection of art, there emerged a mass of competing movements, both elitist and avant-garde reactions to the canons of traditional art and to the effects of mass culture.
Christine Donofrio’s work mirrors the dialectical trajectory of artistic transformation that was symptomatic of the 20 th century. In many ways her works highlight the contradictions that result from the sublimation of libidinal impulses under capital. While the beautiful hardedge circular forms hearken back to the figure-ground reductivism of ’60s art, they also taunt the viewer by the subtle variations of their flawed surfaces. One cannot take them in all at once, in one epiphanic optical moment. The reduced formal composition and cool commercial photographic aesthetic belie the problem of libidinal economy foundational to all art that the photographs tease out allegorically.
One of the first impressions one has of Smarties is of something painterly and ceramic-like. These cracked spheres look as if they have been dabbed with watercolour. Aesthetically and art historically, they play off many registers: abstract and representational, ornamental and formal, pop and conceptual. While obviously art-savvy, they also display traces of transformative play that is more in keeping with the hidden potential of a child-like perception (Benjamin). In play, as so often in art, objects are reanimated. In the process, slumbering memories of our past interactions with objects come back to life. Hidden deposits of desire, locked within the image of these inert objects, are released, giving birth to a stream of associations.
The priest blesses the unleavened circle of bread, places it in the communicant’s mouth where it is left to melt as one makes one’s way quietly back to the pew. Union with the body of Christ by love–a necessary oral fix to assure one’s ascension to life-everlasting–a spiritual repast of the soul. As a child brought up under the Catholic faith one is mesmerized by this mystery. The idea that the body of Christ was somehow encapsulated within this tasteless token of cardboard-bread was quite a stretch for the imagination, even for a child. And yet one was led to believe that such patriarchal laws went without saying. The sublime instance of this transformation of bread into body had a faint whiff of cannibalism about it.
In his essay “The Avant-Garde, Sublimation and the Patriarchy,” John Miller states that in Sigmund Freud’s theory of sublimation, libidinal drives are redirected “from immediate gratification to socially useful ends.” Sublimation does not deny pleasure, as in repression, but transforms gratification from a narcissistic type to a more socially acceptable one. In order for a group to live harmoniously within society one must not so much curb one’s libidinal drives, as sublimate them so as to be useful and non-threatening to others within society. In Totem and Taboo , Freud describes the transformation of the pre-civilized state of society–the primal horde. A rebellious brother clan was formed to kill the father figure and eat his corpse. This instance of cannibalism came to be known as the totem meal. The murder of the father signified the mythic primal scene of civilization. Miller states that in a sublimated existence “the influence of the dead father, objectified in the form of legal, religious, and social institutions comes to exert a more powerful influence than the living father ever could have.”
The ingestion of the sacrament could in some remote way be understood as a reenactment of the totem meal. One internalizes quite literally the law of the Father, not only displacing libidinal gratification but also eschewing the libidinal pleasures related to the excesses of sin.
The memory of placing this circle of unleavened Christ also came to mind when contemplating Donofrio’s photographs. As tainted images of desire/hope/ promise, these Smarties seem to embody the contradictions of a Catholic childhood ruled as much by the sensation of being ruled by the logic of capital as by that of a patriarchal almighty.
As a child you went to the store and were enticed by the pleasure promised by the rainbow colours displayed on the Smarties packaging. These small pill-like confections would be eaten in a given order, religiously, all of this somehow heightening the effect of pleasure–a kind of early game of aesthetics, of order, and consumption. As a consequence of not having any money, and yet having to have this candy at all costs, you stole the candy, furtively slipping it into your pocket after a quick look around to make sure no one was watching. But the guilt would be too much in the end, knowing that everywhere lurked a divine omnipotent eye. After the sweet flavour of candy subsided, images of hell came to haunt you. For months you lay in bed at night thinking about the fiery furnace of the future. And then one day, the story of Noah’s arc came along, with its coupled animals and apocalyptic flood, and you were left with the impression of the rainbow, of a promise of salvation. The ruthless patriarch revealed a soft spot.
These candies glow. They are near perfect circular orbs. They look like planets floating within a white void. One thinks of the extraordinariness of something coming out of nothing, of huge masses of matter suspended in the near emptiness of space. But something nonetheless disturbs the pristine order of the universe in Donofrio’s works. The presence of human tampering defiles the once perfect image of manufactured candy through the projection of an oral-erotic element onto the candy. The once seductive colour and even gloss are disturbed by some beastly trace. The faint froth of saliva glistening on a bright green candy, the cracked shellacked surface of a purple one, the pimply texture of a brown one, or the slight protuberance of a mushy brown substance escaping the crack of an orange one–these Smarties have become the object of perverse oral play rather than habitual consumption. Furthermore, these tainted candies betray the paucity of their once beguiling promise. By isolating, defiling, and blowing up these confections beyond recognition, the artist has transformed what was once a puerile fascination with a quick oral (and visual) fix into a desublimated instance of art.
Journal, Volume 4), New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992, pp. 6–19.
(First printed by the Helen Pitt Gallery in exhibition publication Strange Agencies)