Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhäuser

William V. Ganis
5 October – 15 December 2001

Though this exhibition’s surface theme is food used in art-making, the underlying cohesiveness of these three disparate artists – Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth and Sonja Alhäuser – is distilled from the paradigm-breaking Düsseldorf Academy community.

A concise history of the ‘de-definition of art’ and its markets through abject materials is presented in this exhibition. Generational commentary comes into play: Beuys gives readymades new spiritual functions; through his Shit Hare (1975), Roth debases Beuys’ mythopoesis; and Alhäuser addresses both Beuys and Roth, showing that her predecessors’ concepts are no longer visible through the institutional aura these works have acquired. The limits of Beuys’ and Roth’s objects becomes apparent in this exhibition. Beuys may have extended his endeavours into the political, but his relics bespeak a certain impotence outside of academia; and Theodor Adorno’s predictions about radical art’s co-option remain true. By taking objects out of their historic markets, Beuys has managed in his Economic Values pieces, produced between 1977 and 1982, only to make überware-super commodities. Otherwise, Beuys’ pieces ostensibly demonstrating economic or spiritual values are cherished for a political potential, accessible only through the aesthetics of conceptual gymnastics.

Although curatorially juxtaposed with Germans of notable repute, newcomer Sonja Alhäuser steals this show. Alhäuser’s Exhibition Basics (2001) is a subversive and effective institutional critique, functioning especially well in the venerable Harvard Museums. Her work’s premise, like the exhibition’s theme, is deceptively simple; her art is to be eaten by museum visitors and ultimately destroyed. Her sculptures are not bite-sized, however, but scaled to the gallery space. The ‘exhibition basics’ Alhäuser creates in chocolate, marzipan, caramel and popcorn are those parergonic museum objects: vitrines, bases, title cards and exhibition pamphlets intrinsic to museum presentation strategies.

Her work points to the desire evidenced by so many aspects of the museum-going experience – art object consumption through admission, experience and the purchase of reproductions or tchochkes. Her literal museum pieces are especially germane in our time when museum structures, like those designed by Gehry and Libeskind, have become artworks in their own right. Eating the ‘basics’ is eating the museum itself in this transubstantial Eucharistic ritual – the religion of aesthetics. The work’s destruction leads to id fulfilment – we can view, smell, break, handle, and ingest the ‘exhibition’. Of course, Alhäuser’s work, like Roth’s and Beuys’, is about undermining the art object’s preciousness and permanence. Alhäuser is most radical in this regard; especially juxtaposed with Roth’s Chocolate Lion (1971), and sausage Small Sunsets (1972), and Beuys’ Friday Object (1970) fishbones that have their institutional rot neutralised by curatorial care.

Alhäuser leaves documents of her process – her only capitulation to commodification. These documentary works are not evidential photographs à la Christo or Andy Goldsworthy, but compelling Rube Goldbergian watercolours deemed ‘recipe paintings’, implying that the work can be made again according to her visual instructions. Her installation’s intrinsic value, however, lies in its destruction which Alhäuser does not make into substitutional documentary works. In this facet, Alhäuser transcends her Eat Art predecessors, achieving immediate embodiment rather than deferred consumption.

Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhäuser was at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Boston.