The first patent for gelatin production was issued in 1754, but gelatin’s industrial production began with the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century. With their ports blocked by English fleets, unable to receive properly varied food shipments, French scientists experimented with gelatin as a protein substitute. As we’ll see, this predilection to compensate for austere material conditions repeats as a pattern throughout the aspic’s history. Gelatin plants at this time were a second-order industry, often reliant on the scraps from other factories and processors that worked with animal bones, as well as butchers. While elaborate, molded aspics and jellied deserts were still only accessible to the upper classes, a consolidated research program inaugurated the first industrial-scale manufacture of gelatin, which, paired with the presiding circular economy, opened gelatin consumption to people of any economic class.
Like their culinary counterparts, contemporary aspic sculptures take such a range of forms that they defy simple or restrictive classifications. To start, we can best define them by general tendencies. Aspic sculptures are often brightly or oddly coloured; they can be wall-mounted, but often rest upon horizontal planes like tables or floors or stands. Aspics commonly evoke a confused vacillation of synthetic and organic substances, whether through direct representation or material guile. Aspics are often in the shape of cylinders, mounds, domes, or towers, and don’t necessarily need to take any discernible molded shape. Among these variegated tropes, however, there are two characteristics that stand as fundamental to the aspic genre. As a general formal pattern, they are always built up from, or at least contain, multitudes of smaller objects, which vary in every conceivable formal characteristic, from colour to shape to size—glitter, pencils, pieces of fabric, prints and documents, construction materials, consumer electronics, even (appropriately) atomized bits of food. These particulate mixtures also follow a kind of necessary eclecticism, appearing almost haphazard, cohering according to an inscrutable masterplan, or a kind of “whatever’s-on-hand” sense of urgency and haste. Most importantly, though, the aspic genre’s defining characteristic is the connective tissue that holds everything in place: a liquid adhesive, most often translucent in appearance (although as we’ll see other forms of glue, paste, concrete, or opaque plastic are also occasionally used) that runs between the sculpture’s particulate objects, hardens, and leaves them suspended in a solid mass like meats in gelatin or fossils in amber.
Because of their notorious taxonomic laxness, genres naturally exist in flux, representing enough fixity to “[impose] a preliminary principle of order on an immense and various field” of examples, and enough openness to remain “emerging and ephemeral, defined over again over again by new entries” which reshape its contours.1 These loose parameters suit the aspic’s tortuous aesthetic history well, as both foodstuffs and artworks. Framing aspic sculpture as an emergent kind of “genre” also mirrors Fredric Jameson’s definition, in The Political Unconscious, of genres as “institutions,” or “social contracts” tacitly agreed upon by particular cross-sections of creators and audiences, loosely articulating broad structures of cultural expectation.2 In the framework of the political unconscious, this change of scale, from individual artwork to genre, constitutes a profound shift, from individual to widespread fantasy. What Jameson calls the “social contract” of a genre traces something like a collective form of the political unconscious operation, a kind of aggregated index of a society’s prevailing fantasies or anxieties, emerging when a particular historical antagonism reaches critical mass, impressing itself sufficiently upon a wide enough collective of creators and audiences that particular forms of aesthetic expression become so regular that they condense into formal expectations.
The fluctuating assemblage of tropes that I’m calling the “aspic genre” first started to cohere to me as a distinct phenomenon in February 2019, when I saw American artist Kevin Beasley’s solo exhibition, A view of a landscape, at the Whitney Museum in New York. The exhibition resonated with the aspic genre in both form and content, singularly concerned with the nuances and tangles of historical thinking, interrogating the material implications of accountability, inheritance, perspective, memory and remembrance in the wake of world-historical travesties such as Chattel Slavery and the direct lineages of anti-Black oppression that have prevailed across the world ever since. And while the exhibition’s best-publicized work, a glass, steel, and foam sound-proof box containing a functioning 19th century cotton gin motor, addressed this point superbly, it was Beasley’s sculptures in the adjoining hallway that stood out most.
Three colossal rectangular slabs composed of atomized, piecemeal materials—alluring, grotesque, beguiling to the senses—were fastened together, coated in a sheen of plastic resin. Within their resin substrate, all three sculptures shared a common base material of raw cotton, sourced from a farm in Lynchburg, West Virginia, where Beasley’s family has resided for generations. Each structure’s “content” reflects different facets of the cotton’s fraught historical resonance, functioning as a sort of triptych. In the first slab, The Reunion (2018), Beasley collages soil, sticks, and other organic materials with patterned textiles and brightly-dyed swaths of cotton to assemble a pleasant, pastoral image of a country field, layered with thick underbrush, rising flowers, and a sunny sky. Campus (2018), the second slab, is double-sided, one face evoking a cartographic arrangement of farmland and lakes through green and blue dyed cotton rectangles, the other setting a mind map-like array of garments, book pages, and archival documents from Yale University (where Beasley did his MFA) balefully punctuated by several racialized jester masks, all set against a yellow-green backdrop. The objects hover queasily against the structure’s uncertain material solidity; the aspic’s suspended-animation format acts like an engineer’s “exploded view,” as Beasley takes stock of Yale’s institutional involvement in the US slave trade, and in anti-Black exploitation’s foothold in the highest rungs of material power. The third sculpture, The Acquisition (2018), is dyed in visceral hues of deep red and purple, its cotton base scattered with workers’ garments, a Yale hoodie, gloves, tools, earmuffs, a gas mask, and sound mixers. Here Beasley brings together the autobiographical threads running throughout the show, as these objects recall the gear he uses in his own artistic labour while at the same time signalling the working tools of countless invisibilized, racialized, and exploited labourers across the world, past and present.
The English expression to “set in aspic” denotes a tradition, metaphor, or belief that survives unchanged for a long stretch of time, or reappears in a time period that is not its own, for better or worse.
Understood within the oscillating boundaries of the aspic genre, Beasley’s sculptures splay across discursive fields, aesthetically mediating catastrophic material histories into political fantasies. According to the Jamesonian notions of genre I've advanced above, the aspic exists in just this register, but Beasley’s sculptures also represent another crucial axis of “genre” that we have not yet examined. If, in the political unconscious, Fredric Jameson attempted to introduce a mediating sense of psychological fantasy to orthodox Marxism’s material fatalism, philosopher Lauren Berlant has done commendable work mapping these Jamesonian figures onto an expanded notion of aesthetics, manifest in the emotional and “affective atmospheres” of everyday survival, rather than just artistic discourse. Berlant has summarized her work as “a materialist justification for affect theory,” and her writing has consistently looked at how the degraded, crumbling life-worlds of advanced capitalism’s “historical present” are mediated and channeled through the changing tropes of literary, cinematic, and aesthetic phenomena.3 “Genres,” she writes, “provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” Throughout much of her work, Berlant has expanded Jameson’s “social contract” understanding of genre to make sense of the everyday affective strategies by which people, ensconced in the lacerating conditions capitalism produces for lower classes, make sense of their worlds’ worsening conditions and spin them into proleptic understandings of the future. The bleak, exploitative, precarious social and economic structures that haunt Berlant’s subjects—blanketing austerity policies, slashed social safety nets and public funding, hollowed-out labour regulations, jingoistic foreign policies, ongoing imperialist dominion—preside over racialized and working-class peoples the world over, and in most cases only continue to intensify each year. In her 2011 book Cruel Optimism, one of the new affective genres she traces from the 21st century’s degrading conditions is a state in which the desire for any semblance of stability or continuity between present and future takes the form of hoping for, feeling “optimistic” that even a miserable condition will persist, so long as it doesn’t continue to get worse. With this vision of an embattled populace pressing towards a future whose warmest feasible offering has downgraded from the hope of salvation and betterment to a temporary forestalling of total collapse, Berlant offers an instructive picture of the background conditions from which these artworks emerge. With Berlant’s framing of genre as a normative framework that structures both cultural products and lived experience, moreover, we uncover a second face to what I’ve been calling the “aspic genre.”
In Beasley’s selection of sculptural proxies, the historical grotesqueries of the Middle Passage convalesce as pictures without genre, where representational codes overheat and break down, and even cruel optimism might come as gentle relief. His sculptures also speak of the ways that these poisoned legacies have continued to metastasize and spread outwards, fusing a virulent anti-Black racism with the historical core of capitalist exploitation, and harden over time into the conditions that surrounded these works’ creation in the 21st century. An unprecedented wealth gap between ultrarich and the world’s exploited labourers, mediated more and more each year by an increasingly granular and expansive techno-power, bolstered by an ideologically poisoned legion of right-fascist supporters, towering against a horizon of promised climate collapse—what stabilizing generic projections, normalized expectations of promised deliverance or future wellbeing, can those most scorned by the legacies of injustice see reflected in such a predicament? In a 2018 essay for the affect-studies journal, Capacious, Lauren Berlant coined the term “genre-flailing” to describe, to a fine point, a novel form of affective, cultural, and artistic thinking that has begun to appear in late 2010s production. “Genre flailing,” she writes, “is a mode of crisis management that arises after our object, or object-world, becomes disturbed in a way that intrudes on one’s confidence about how to move in it.”4 In the everyday, in politics, and in art, genre-flailing manifests through mismatches, cascading lists, and frantically cycling or unplaceable affects such as admonitions, prohibitions, imperatives. It consists of “throwing language and gesture and policy and interpretations at a thing to make it slow or make it stop… we see it in the first gasps of shock or disbelief, and the last gasps of exhausted analogy.” Bluntly, she summarizes: in a state where “crisis is ordinary,” “we genre flail so that we don’t fall through the cracks of heightened affective noise into despair.” The parameters of genre flailing are, predictably, defined even more softly than the fluid borders of traditional categories, yet I am confident that we know the genre flail quite instinctually. I believe genre-flailing perfectly summarizes the modality of the aspic genre.
Beasley’s sculptures flail with the perfect ambivalence of a genre (as aesthetic and lived expectation) that is at once over-determined and threatening collapse, in both form and content, aesthetically and politically. Each structure is composed of a massive list of materials, from pieces of raw cotton to wooden sticks to bureaucratic documents to electronic devices, each one of which pulls the sculpture’s broader significations in wildly divergent directions. A kind of tug-of-war between part and whole is endemic to the aspic as a food and as a genre, but even within these generic lines the material “particulates” that make up Beasley’s aspics call unusually distinct attention to themselves as unique objects—the documents and branded clothes clearly sport their Yale watermarks, the aesthetic and historical readings of the overall cotton base are impossible to overlook, the tools, electronics, and miscellaneous objects all reference clear uses that. And yet each object forcefully recedes into its encompassing list, at once frantic and contained, hypervisible and typological. These material poetics mirror a fundamental strategic confusion which has beset many stripes of political conversation at present: part-whole antagonisms between individual desire and collective will, between temporal instant and historical continuum, and between incremental shift and revolutionary upheaval.
As these sculptures gesture pointedly and wildly towards issues of economic, racial, and ecological exploitation from within the same unceasing crisis that prevailed when Eli Whitney (after whose descendents the Whitney Museum is named) refined the motorized cotton gin and supercharged the slave-powered economy in the late 18th century, the symbolic resolution Beasley’s works effect seems less focused on closure than stasis or suspension. The English expression to “set in aspic” denotes a tradition, metaphor, or belief that survives unchanged for a long stretch of time, or reappears in a time period that is not its own, for better or worse. Though the core systems of exploitation and racism with whose legacies Beasley reckons have persisted uninterrupted since their primal scenes, we do currently see certain tendencies re-emerging from the proverbial “aspic,” as an increasingly public and organized international white supremacist movement swells with a desire to revise and retrench hundreds of years of hard-fought (if still grossly inadequate) progress. Mirroring the ambivalence of the expression, a mixture of intentional preservation and anxious, atavistic resilience is inscribed in both the form and content of Beasley’s aspic sculptures. The connective plastic resin that holds each of them together takes on an appropriately conflicted or multifarious meaning: holding the innumerable objects in uncanny stasis, framing the causes and effects of this historical-materialist drama of racism and resilience side by side; suspending their frantic energy enough to assess their untimely relations for just a moment; performing a kind of suffocation rite, forcing the buried parasites to the surface; keeping these poisoned histories and memories encased and intact, shrink-wrapped and set in plainview within the context of a ravaging capitalist and white supremacist paradigm that thrives on a denial or erasure of history.