Use of Sweets as a Medium

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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Chocolate, a widely loved sweet with rich sensory engagement, is a potent medium for artists. Though not the first, the Swiss German artist Dieter Roth was a pioneer in exploring chocolate as a medium starting in the 1960s. Roth was intrigued with the organic properties of chocolate and its inevitable dissolution. In works like Chocolate Lion (Self-Portrait as a Lion) (1971) and, later, Schokoladeturm (Chocolate Tower) (1994/2013), Roth’s vertical assemblage of neatly arranged trays of self-portraits, sphinxes, and lion heads, all cast in chocolate, the artist foregrounded physical decay as an essential, natural element of life—a modern take on the vanitas. In an era when museums were mandated to preserve everything that entered the collection, Roth’s chocolate-based works were also subversive—they naturally attracted bugs and mold—and challenged museum-based notions of permanence. A decade later, the German artist Sonja Alhäuser invited museum viewers to become active participants in the process of destruction. For Exhibition Basics (2001), she fabricated sculptures and pedestals out of dark and white chocolate and marzipan, and instructed visitors to eat them, eventually erasing the work completely. Alhäuser called into question conventions of museum visitor behavior—do not touch, much less destroy, the art—and used sweets to conflate art with everyday acts of pleasurable food consumption. Alhäuser’s work formed an antipodal point to Ed Ruscha’s 1971 Chocolate Room, where visitors entered an enclosed space covered with sheets of paper coated with silky, fragrant chocolate. Viewers were enveloped by the rich, aromatic chocolate but could not consummate their desire to consume it.