Sugar Books: Kirsten Hudson's 'Artificial Sweetness' and Johannes Goransson's Cutter's Feminism

by on Jan.14, 2013

Every once in a while you stumble on an artist who is articulating (or disarticulating) a set of ideas, materials, genres and media in a way so viscerally perfect for your needs that the experience is pharmaceutical and you want to turn your friends on to it immediately. Well friends, I would like to share the work of Australian artist Kirsten Hudson.

Hudson’s work, by her own description, is a series of works in “video, print, and sugar”. Sugar’s status as an imperial commodity historically derived from slave labor, and, in its artificial form, a carcinogenic corporate product of mandatory consumption; its sickliness, sharpness and stickiness; its coding for women, children, and vapidity;  its power to radically denature the body’s metabolism; and its quite mutable and distinct physical states, make it an excellent and dismaying medium for Hudson to work with in her various sculptures, prints and installations (brilliantly, her website, Artificial Sweetness, seems to generate houseflies, death’s attendants, and the shoddy housewife’s, as well– and also plays the ‘Nutcracker”s celeste motif, a sonic manifestation of sugar.) The pieces themselves manifest (and destroy, possibly digest) sugar in different ways, until it seems as if the  body has been turned inside out– sugar is used against hte body, and the body is used against sugar:

In these two performance stills, a cotton candy gown is eaten away, registering violence against the female body who performs the dress, and now appears to be a mass of ravaged tissue, while in fact performing its own demise. Other works in this series include lumps of sugar entitled ‘lump: my autobiography” and a pink chandelier made of fondant equalling the excess weight Hudson carried since losing her stillborn baby.

Hudson’s ‘repulsive‘ interest in the multisensory pathways of sugar derives from the philosophical mission of her work. In the essay, “Taste My Sorrow”, she writes

As an example of art-making that embraces a fully fleshy empathic imagination, […] Taste My Sorrow -my ongoing series of video, print and sugar-based works– […] seeks to trigger a pre-discursive, pre-cognitive, pre-language affectthat momentarily allows the viewer to be amidst rather than stand before the “otherness” of a body in/of trauma. By proposing the possibility of “being amidst”, I do not pretend that it is desirable or even possible to reduce the “Other’s” trauma to one’s own singular subjective understanding or experience of trauma. Instead I use the possibility of “being amidst” as a sensorial alternativeto the primacy of vision. So rather than enacting a totalising panoramic “knowing” gaze that classifies and segregates the traumatised “other” (Levinas1989), I propose an empathic imagination as a way of “being with” thetraumatised “Other” that accepts the ambiguity, ambivalence and “unknowability” of what has led to, or resulted in, a body in/of trauma.”

Kirsten Hudson’s work, in addition to its own ‘botched’ fertility, provides set of images and concepts which helps me think about Johannes Goransson’s entire work, basically, including his upcoming work, Sugar Book. All his work is made of spectacular, debriding series in which each part burns up and provides a wound we can poke our attention through to see the next installment in the series. Not only do his work host incredible (well, actually, credible) violence, but they do a kind of cutter’s violence to themselves, cutting away the thin white wrist skin of the paper to get at the infection that runs underneath as busy as a freeway in a city that shits movies:

I am supposed to find a killer but I am feverish in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles tastes like iron in my mouth.

Maybe I’m dying of a disease brought home to me from my daughters. They are conduits of contagion. They bring the outside into the inside and the inside into the outside. They stand by the stairs and stare at me. They have dark dark hair and blue eyes. Their dresses look clean but their mouths are soiled.

We live inside The Meadow. That’s not its true name of the hotel but that’s what I call it because of the lamb masks.

Infection: white cells. White skin. Black masks. Irony is a crowbar in the teeth. Sugar races in the streets, metabolism burns the strip mall down. Race, gender, violence– the mouth of the poem is stuffed with girls, and the girls in the poem are stuffed with contagion. The face of the poem is stuffed with mask, and the masks are stuffed with race. The poem destroys itself by being read. The Sugar Book  must be consumed, cuts and degrades the teeth, hygiene is deplorable in this abbatoir-cum-motel, a space where the ‘gender wars’ deploy themselves in an ominbody, city, book, family, cuttering, dilation and cutterage, & montage & frottage, decapitation, reanimation. The Internet tells me

“Sugar Melting Point Varies Because Sugar Doesn’t Melt; It Decomposes”

This is what makes Johannes a feminist.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    “This discovery is important to food scientists and candy lovers because it will give them yummier caramel flavors and more tantalizing textures. It even gives the pharmaceutical industry a way to improve excipients, the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps your medicine go down,” said Shelly J. Schmidt, a University of Illinois professor of food chemistry.

    (from the link)

  2. James Pate

    Really interesting post. Reminds me, for all sorts of reasons, of the sugar skulls that you see around the time of the Day of the Dead. I’ve always liked that juxtaposition: the uber-sweet with the unsettling, the sugar being the skull grin and vice versa. Also, the sweetness of the soundtracks in David Lynch films, especially twin peaks, and how disconcerting it is…how sweetness can, in a certain context, be very menacing. It doesn’t melt nicely and disappear but breaks down and pollutes, just as the link suggests.


  3. James Pate

    One other thought: many years ago, a friend of mine used to say reading Jean Genet was like eating too much super-rich candy. She would have the same feeling. The over-muchness, the sugary after-effects. And when I watched “Normal Love” for the first at around three in the morning on a sweltering Chicago night, I had the same reaction. All those candy-like colors, and that pink cake in the field at the end! But there too, there’s a sinister element. All those B-film creatures, and that crazy guy going after everyone around the cake.

    And there’s something very much against “good taste” in this.


  4. jt

    “Instead I use the possibility of “being amidst” as a sensorial alternativeto the primacy of vision. So rather than enacting a totalising panoramic “knowing” gaze that classifies and segregates the traumatised “other” (Levinas1989), I propose an empathic imagination as a way of “being with” thetraumatised “Other” that accepts the ambiguity, ambivalence and “unknowability” of what has led to, or resulted in, a body in/of trauma.”

    I love, love, LUVVVVVV this. I’ve been thinking about this “being amidst” category as it relates to performance work– how do performer and spectator co-locate a performance space? how are they brought into collusion by the destabilization of the “knowing gaze” ? performance is a sticky agent in the way it creates a globular-center for attention that exists outside and between bodies.

  5. Carina

    you know, I never really gave a lot of thought to the post-colonial/slave labor angle on sugar, but it seems like it pervades sugar-based work regardless of whether or not its a consideration. there’s also the sort of S&M resonance between addiction and being enslaved, how sugar is consumed and consumed even though it rots you inside&out and you know it while it’s happening; literally, can feel it. When I consume large quantities of sugar, which is semi-often, I can literally feel it eroding my body in a way that I can’t help loving. It’s like smoking Nat Sherman Fantasias, which is something I do with about as much regularity as I consume large amounts of sugar — it’s not a chemical addiction, it’s an aesthetic one. There’s something so compelling about a gold and pastel pink stick that glamorously chuffs you off towards death.

  6. Johannes

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how in Romanticism – which is really where our modern idea of beauty comes from – the beauty or at least the inspiration is often from somewhere else (spices, silk, wine), often colonies or the Orient. For example of Opium in Coleridge, Keats. I’m thinking about this on one hand in a large political angle, but also on a very physical angle, like the one you mention. It might be that our experience of beauty is based on our experience of sugar…. Jack Smith called himself an “exotic consultant” and clad his actors and actresses in Arabian Nights outfits. /Johannes