In Art as in Life, Excess Makes Strange Bedfellows
America is surely the most wasteful nation in the world. The over-abundance of nearly everything can lead to strange bedfellows, and in the case of food, excess has expanded waistlines and obesity for decades
For some Americans, though, this can lead to inspiration. Robin Asner, an American artist living in St. Louis, Missouri, has taken advantage of U.S. consumer excess to create art from tubs of creamy, white marsh-mellow fluff.
A small lecture room at Webster University Vienna, Austria was overflowing with art and media majors on the day Asner came to speak, fascinated, and curious to view a sampling of her work. The idea of fast food "on the go," is an idea that has developed in Europe only during the lifetimes of these students. And one student, from Kosovo, was genuinely bewildered by the strangeness of the food substance Asner was using in her art.
Asner’s medium was a staple of her childhood, adapted from her not-so-nutritional favorite snack of sandwiches made of peanut butter and marsh-mellow fluff.
"It’s an easy to make snack that children love," Asner explained with a grin.
Asner has never had to pay her models, as many are willing to volunteer for her photographs while she spreads tubs full of the sticky white marsh-mellow fluff onto their naked bodies.
"I’m so lucky" Asner muses "people see me in the store buying all the fluff and want to know what I’m doing with it."
"The fluff," as Asner calls her marsh-mellow medium, acts as another skin on her models that, while dripping off their bodies, creates the illusion of additional limbs, adding contours and new shapes to their forms. Even the cracking and flaking that occurs when "the fluff" dries, appears as chapped skin.
"The fluff" becomes an extension of the body.
Early in her career, Asner was inspired by artists such as John Coplan, the creator of Art Forum magazine, who took pictures of his naked aging body from different angles to reduce the human figure to a simple shape that occupies space. Later, she began to discover artists who applied food to the body, thereby altering the relationship from internal to external, from the dynamic of food as a nutrient to an additive of the body surface. Others have made parallel inquiries; this was a concept explored by conceptual artist Paul McCarthy in his film, "The Bossy Burger," in which he bathes his burger and himself in ketchup.
Asner finds some of her inspiration from news stories. She has an extensive collection of newspaper clippings about obesity in America, beginning with the 2004 discovery of a 600 pound women in Florida, who’s skin - as a result of not leaving her couch in over 6 years – had grafted to her furniture.
"She had transitioned from being an animate object to an inanimate one", Asner insists.
However, her sense of social responsibility does get the better of her sometimes, as she considers how she might be contributing to the world’s waste. She’s fascinated, for example, that she lives in a country where you can purchase seven different types of ketchup at the grocery store.
"There is the red traditional ketchup, magenta ketchup, green ketchup, yellow ketchup, and eve tie-dye ketchup!" Asner told the room of mostly European students. It seemed ironic, one student said afterwards, that her interest in the obesity problem, the symbols of gluttony and American excess was happening in parallel with world food shortages, citing a New York Times article that had appeared that morning by Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Ending Global Poverty," that we face "the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years."
The coincidence left the students uneasy, as discussion turned to the larger problem. With oil prices are at an all time high, reports of rising food prices were appearing almost daily, as well as shortages in countries like Haiti, India, and Indonesia. Students in a genocide class recited cases, like Darfur, where severe starvation was already common.
The "fluff" in Asner’s work felt like a bad joke, a symbol for a society of gluttons and her continued use it, in spite of her acknowledgment, an inexcusable example of US ingratitude. In this case, one man’s art was truly another man’s food.