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.

Andy Warhol, The Phi­los­o­phy of Andy Warhol , San Diego/NY/London: HBJ Pub­lish­ers, 1975, p. 103.

http://www.exploratorium.edu/exploring/exploring_chocolate/choc_2.html

Hal Fos­ter, The Art of Fetishism” in Fetish ( The Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al

Jour­nal, Vol­ume 4), New York, NY: Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 1992, pp. 6–19.

Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal , vol. 1, Pen­guin, 1990l, p. 163.

John Miller, The Price Club: Select­ed Writ­ings (1977–1998), Geneva/Dijon: JRP Editions/Les Press­es du Réel, 2000, p. 126.

(First print­ed by the Helen Pitt Gallery in exhi­bi­tion pub­li­ca­tion Strange Agen­cies)