Friday, 5 April 2013

Linder Sterling: Food, Sex & the Domestic Grotesque

In the last 20 years or so the descriptions for make-up and cosmetics have started to sound more and more edible: "1,000 calorie" mascara, "Body Butter", caffeinated wake-up eye cream, rich, creamy, indulgent, delicious moisturiser. Our appetite for actual food has been sublimated into the "decadent", "naughty" "treat" of buying a face cream - against the epicurean pleasures of good cooking, rich and maybe even containing real cream. Private "indulgence" replaces the communal activity of preparing and sharing food with people - both something that we must do to live and also a ritual that brings us close to others. Instead of consuming foods that are delicious, we are encouraged to cover ourselves in deliciousness: to smell like almonds, coco, raspberries and cream or chocolate; to take our pleasure vicariously in the smell or idea of food. As Tori Amos says, "you'll never gain weight from a doughnut hole"; likewise, there's no calories in that "yummy" Body Shop body butter! Our bodies are allowed to be covered in products that express a form of appetite, but not show the signs of actually having one.

It would be wrong to deny that there is of course a great deal of pleasure in the processes of bodily "maintenance", in the rituals and routines of self care. But it seems particularly cruelly ironic that in our contemporary situation, when women's (and men's) eating habits are monitored and regulated to such anxiety-inducing pitch, we are encouraged to take our pleasure through the wallet and onto the body rather than through the mouth.

The idea of the body as itself a product, expressing (or smelling of) excessive appetites for objects symbolising pleasure, is evident in the British artist Linder Sterling's photomontages from the mid-seventies. Sterling was involved in the subculture of Manchester’s post-punk scene, as a visual artist, feminist, performance artist and musician. She was interested in the media dichotomy from the 1950s onwards that restricted women's media presence into two very separate and contradictory spheres. The first arena was that of domestic lifestyle and fashion magazines directed to an audience of housewives, mothers and young women to sell cosmetics and new kitchen appliances. The second, was (and is) the female body as pin-up in pornographic magazines for men’s eyes only. The dichotomy of the centrefold and the housewife, two such disparate images of femininity, expressed the persistent hypocritical expectations that society placed on women.
The excess of commercial culture as well as the objectification of the female body as commodity object are twinned themes in Sterling’s work. The body that does not eat is instead covered in displays of consumption. Cosmetics and food, diet food in particular, are also strongly sexualised: this "naughty but nice", "guilt-free" indulgence has the same resonance as the idea that sex is sinful - the pleasure/guilt of getting your end away, is now taken in the form of feeling dirty and decadent because you had a chocolate cake. The picture left is a food-pornotopia that links appetite and desire to excess, to the extent that, much like standard pornography, everything in the image becomes grotesque and oppressive. The background, a suburban kitchen in black and white is almost entirely obscured by the display of flesh and food. The pinkish orange flesh is almost the same colour as the assorted food. These visual similarities treat the women's body as something to be consumed. This brings us back to the use of food-like products on the body: everything is externalised, making the body an edible, consumable feast, for the eyes and nose if not literally for the belly.

This image is not in praise of the deliciousness of the feast of flesh or food: its sheer quantity perturbs the viewer as it spills out from the frame. Thus, the usually desirable contents of this collage become grotesque in their similarity to waste that repulses us. In her essay on the fear and fascination of the abject, Julia Kristeva writes that “food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection”. With her illustrations of excessive consumerism and hyper-sexualised female forms, Sterling is pointing out the grotesque nature of an over-saturated capitalist and misogynistic culture that force-feeds people negative imagery as inspirational desirability.
If we are so scared by our society's consumerist greediness, concerned that we have too much and are all too fat when half the world is starving etc, then what better way to give in guilt-free to our naughty cravings than by slathering on to our bodies that which we are too ashamed to eat? But one area in which fat, sugar and artificial sweetness is allowed into our lives is in the strange turn to nostalgia, seen in the perverse fetish for cupcakes, domestic tweeness and all thing 1950's. This is most vigorously promoted in the retro kitschy kitchenalia of Cath Kidston, that fiercely removes any trace of weirdness or "bad taste" from the designs (coz gosh, you don't want your kitchen to look like a tacky council flat now do you) and so sanitises the trash/junk in kitsch in favour of modest middle-class "good taste" over the strange and interesting patterns of the period being referenced.

Claude Lévi-Strauss quite rightly said "to eat is to fuck" - sex and food both deal with the sensual, with desires and appetite; both are messy and full of the abject that is perhaps both gross and sexy. I came across this book Carnal Appetites: Food Sex Identities by Elspeth Probyn, which I thought was going to be one thing, but unfortunately turned out to be another. Probyn discusses the "exciting and diverse" middle-class food culture in Sydney and gives anecdotes about "hip and trendy" bars linking food and sex in the most obvious and silly ways; phallic shaped cakes that one must "go down on" to eat, then there's the pink triangle shaped pudding that is large enough to "share". This literal linkage of foods that look like genitals doesn't actually say anything about the experiences and pleasures of either food or sex, other than that both are sometimes funny-shaped and awkward. This again speaks of the way both sex and food are disavowed in certain forms: they are normalised, kept in place, remodelled, repackage and sold in safe packages.

Back to Sterling. Her photomontages are about putting objects in the wrong place, putting the sexual into the domestic sphere and making the everyday pornographic and obscene, in order to disturb notions of time and place and acceptability. Placed together, out of context and normal proportion, consumer items take on a sinister grotesque presence: they become fetishised in the same way as the pornographic images. The giant heads in the image above distort the pin-ups' archetypal focus on the body as object of desire by putting the emphasis on the face in a challenging confrontation. The too-large red painted mouth and the giant shiny phallic lipstick in the corner of the composition speaks (pretty loudly) of genitals. The garishness and vulgarity of the sexualised lipstick tube and the sneering mouth express disgust at a domestic sphere that is just as much a gendered space as the newsagents that sells grot mags or lifestyle magazines.

Orgasm Addict, possibly the most famous of Sterling’s pieces, very simply subverts the female image as sex object by replacing the head with an iron, and the nipples with mouths. This object is now a monstrous being likened to the old clichés of the Medusa and the vagina dentata. Her arms lifted up above her head in an easily-accessible pose invite the viewer in, yet the smiling toothy grin of her mouth-nipples frighten and direct our gaze away, as does the sharp coldness of the iron head. This image was made for The Buzzcocks single Orgasm Addict, whose title carries connotations of threatening female sexuality; paired with the depicted monstrous physiognomy, the impression of a sex beast is foregrounded. It's interesting to note that this repackaging of commodity objects gone awry was itself then sold back to the public as a consumer object - a record for sale.

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