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Aspic Sculpture IV: Material Poetics
Monday, March 15, 2021 | Miles Rufelds

As a dish, the aspic’s practical development has passed through a dizzying range of material interestsaristocracy to royalty to industry to austerity to a kind of uncanny normalcy. All throughout, though, save a few modifications, the aspic’s function has remained consistent: ensconce, maintain, protect, and preserve. Across its many aesthetic manifestations, its migration across social classes, and its distinct pragmatic functions, the aspic’s very materiality has always been silently undergirded  with a material poetics of its own. Though it’s rarely acknowledged by the able-bodied, collagen, from which gelatin derives, is not a neutral substance to mammalian bodies, standing as one of the most primary and precious connective tissues holding joints, limbs, and appendages together. In gelatin, this material function is distilled, abstracted, transposed to unfamiliar shapes, but a basic nature remains. The aspic’s core preservative function, maintaining serviceable shape, forestalling decay and dissolution, is abetted by the very stuff that holds our animal selves together.



Vintage Jell-O ad, May 1959.



Imaginary, projective, proleptic, or fantastical, we must see the return of the aspic form, and the rise of the aspic genre by contemporary artists as expressing a similar desire. These artists are proposing, for themselves and for others, material visions in which their sets of objects (“particulate” objects, seemingly arranged at random) hang together in temporary balance. Taken individually, on formal or purely “artistic” terms, works in the aspic genre serve as clever material explorations; taken as inscriptions from the political unconscious, they stand as desperate utopian propositions, poignant re-imaginings of our material circumstance, in which the forces of dissolution that predate this historical moment are slowed or suspended, cast in collagen or resin or cement, protected from decay and collapse.

Unified as they might be by a concern for preservation, suspension, or containment, though, works in the aspic genre spin outward from the core and interweave these central concerns with an infinite number of localized themes. To return to Sharona Franklin’s work, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its momentary stifling at Gucci’s hands, Franklin’s practice creating gelatin cakes advances a subtle radicality beyond its palliative and healing work. Where 20th century gelatin aspics were prized for their pre-fabricated ease, she creates them with great care and toil; where aspics were once exclusively made through fully alienated labour, she insists on an intimate connection to the process and product. Franklin leverages aspics to antagonise history and class in her own right, transposing their superlative elegance from Royal banquet tables to public art galleries and communal gatherings, thereby reclaiming their ornament artistically and practically, . The material paradoxes implied in Daniel Griffin Hunt’s An Awkward Agepreservative or preparatory acts that render their objects inaccessible, elaborate scientific equilibria set up on a crumbling, indifferent material foundationplace the generic impulses I’ve sketched here in conversation with technocratic discourses of collecting and archiving. In a polyvalent reading, Griffin Hunt’s aspic works could be seen to channel a fantastical desire to suspend decay while simultaneously casting a sweeping doubt across the institutionalized, corporatized, and widely imperial efforts that appoint themselves to the task. Composed primarily, as it is, of material assemblages, it comes as no surprise that the aspic genre exists as one hybrid among many. 

Expanding out to the fringes of these generic lines sketched out above, there are manifold sculptural artists and works that could oscillate in and out of contention. Pulling loose threads from the thinly woven parameters we’ve seen throughout the past three essays, elements of the aspic genre can be seen across a wide range of artistic tendencies over the past half-century: Lynda Benglis’ melted latex; Paul Thek’s or Dieter Roth’s grotesque rotting abstractions; Robert Gober or Iris Haussler’s melted wax works; the bright, expanded mounds of fastened objects from Jessica Stockholder’s Kissing the Wall series. Contemporary instances of artists working around the genre’s edges abound as well: Sarah Sze’s entire body of assemblage work; Marie-Fauve Belanger’s molded and shaved plastic sculptures are both geological and culinary; the majority of Chloe Lum and Yannick Desranlau’s works betray a sympathy to the gelatinous; Laurie Kang’s resinous bowls are too sparse to be aspics, but offer strong comparisons, as their shimmering glazes often surround and contain individual objects; the examples go on. Even when they do not always congeal into singularly aspic works, the impulses are alive and well.



Laure Prouvost; Vois ce Bleu profond te Fondre; installation at the Venice Biennale, 2019; Credits: Simone
Padovani / Awakening / Contributor - Getty (info from article)



Contracting our inquiry to the aspic genre’s fibrous core, there are many other contemporary artists whose works could have easily constituted core studies of these essays. In Maria Simmons’ recent sculptural series The Urge to Suspend What Isn’t Kept, the fragmentary remains of mold, lichen, and plant matter originally used in the production of organic dyes are encased in small molded cylinders of murky plastic resin, alongside other small bits of artificial detritus. Tiziana La Melia’s work, Memory Soups Furry Breast Bomboniere (2015-2018), is composed of a protruding structure of grass, burs, clam shells, and molded resin, which traces a labyrinthine path throughout a floor-mounted dog bed. Laure Prouvost’s floor-based installation for the 2019 Venice Biennale consisted entirely of small objects suspended in a hardened resin substrate. From emerging Ontario artists to works featured at some of the largest artistic platforms in the world, the global reach of this preservational impulse is not just a coincidence.

As I noted in this series’ first essay, Sharona Franklin’s practice merging edible gelatin cooking and contemporary art stands among a growing pool of artists who consciously reckon with the aspic genre in one way or another, using gelatin in their work directly, rather than a stand-in resin. Canadian artist Meech Boakye started experimenting seriously with gelatin only recently, drawing from similar veins of inspiration as Franklin, but splitting their political emphases between bodily reparation, environmental remediation, and communal labour practices. Channeling influences that span bioplastic cookbooks, cyborgian critical theory, and mutual aid, Boakye’s enchanting gelatine works grapple with similar antagonisms as Griffin Hunt’s and Telford-Keogh’s: the perverse intrigue of our contemporary techno-capitalist material landscape, and the strangeness of producing art against the backdrop of the planet’s ineluctable deterioration. Boakye became intrigued by gelatin and aspics when they noticed an unusual uptick in gelatin-oriented images across the internet in recent years; their research threads led them to connect gelatin to its longer histories of labour, gender, preservation, and healing. Boakye’s works now mobilize gelatin as a kind of occult conduit, molding sheets and shapes that straddle the substance’s ambiguity and ambivalence, hold it up to the light, once again refract our historical moment through these resilient material poetics. In a recent exchange, Boakye relayed to me that one friend, upon interacting with one of these gelatin works, “remarked that it smelled both of sewage and (fondly) of their grandmother’s cooking.”  



Meech Boakye; Left Rotting in the Backyard; ‘ ; Accessed on January 25th, 2021



Enigmatic as the aspic genre may be, as Boakye noted, its impulses, and the aspics that give them shape, are spreading beyond the halls of contemporary art, all across the internet. An article appeared in The Guardian on October 17th, 2019, observing the growing prominence of gelatin creations in popular culture and artistic discourses, listing as evidence recent phenomena such as a Facebook meme group called Show Me Your Aspics (we come full circle, and I would note that this previous group is only one of a great many), a tendency for domed, jelly-inspired gowns in 2019 fashion shows, newly-famous culinary gelatin sculptors like Bompas and Parr, and Franklin’s predicament with Gucci. Another such article appeared in Salon in January 2020, mentioning the “aspic influencers” that have gained attention across Show Me Your Aspics and its inverse group, Aspics With Threatening Auras. Whether the material backdrop of our future history brightens or darkens, there can be no mistaking the anxiety that hangs in the air, that we are not sufficiently steeled, prepared, protected and that we lay ever-more exposed to the coming tides of decay, which are actually already here. Perhaps this rising tide of jelly serves as a countervailing impulsesymbolic at first, but creeping to life; bathed in connective tissue, we can imagine a protected front, stifling corruption and decay, cutting it off at its source. 

The above text is part four of a four part series of essays by Miles Rufelds. Across four essays, Rufelds examines a burgeoning genre in contemporary sculpture, cross-reading it with the 600-year culinary history of aspics, and considering the implications of seeing this tendency emerge in our current historical moment.

Editorial Support by Emily Doucet 

Rufelds is a Toronto-based artist and writer interested in the braided histories of technology, aesthetics, and political economy.