Laura Gascoigne: Is Art (Finally) Toast? – May 2019

Laura Gascoigne
May/June 2019

In 2014 the Harvard-based science magazine Annals of Improbable Research presented its Ig Nobel prize for neuroscience to a team of researchers from China and Canada who demonstrated that seeing the face of Christ in a slice of burnt toast is perfectly OK. (That year’s Ig Nobel prize for economics went to the Italian government for factoring illegal earnings from prostitution, drugs and smuggling into the nation’s GDP, so you can see that these Harvard science dudes aren’t messing around.) 

The neuroscientists’ conclusion will have been good news to the assorted idlers, dreamers and general crackpots who not only see things in toast, but profit from their visions. Because there’s money to be made from this stuff. In 2004 Florida housewife Diana Duyser sold a 10-year-old toasted cheese sandwich with an image of the Virgin Mary on eBay for $28,000 to the Golden Palace internet casino, which proclaimed the sacred sarnie “part of pop culture” and used it to raise money for charity. The fact that it had stood on her bedside table for 10 years without rotting was, Duyser declared, a miracle.

Laugh, but seeing stuff in toast is a recognised phenomenon with a fancy name: pareidolia. I have this on the authority of Susan Hiller, who in 2012 designed a Christmas screensaver for the Guardian featuring a grid of 15 images of Turin Toasts. On the back of her 2011 retrospective at Tate Britain, Hiller’s collection of found pareidolia will, one imagines, have scored higher with connoisseurs of art crostini than the marmite-on-toast celebrity portraits that propelled young Ebbw Vale artist Nathan Wyburn into the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent that same year. “It’s so hard for an artist to get recognition,” he would later lament. No offers were forthcoming from the Tate, though Wyburn did make the front page of the Guardian in 2012 with a composite portrait of Rupert Murdoch incorporating 5000 photographs of hacking victims.

By now those of you with long memories will have a feeling we’ve been here before, and it’s true, we have. We touched on the topic of toast in 2010. But in the art world what goes around comes around in ever-tighter circles, and one has to keep up. So here, instead of Observer Food Monthly, we give you Jackdaw Toast Decennially (give or take a year).

I knew it was time to revisit the subject when Martin Creed chose Toast as the title of his recent Hauser and Wirth exhibition, promoted with a publicity shot of the great eejit holding a toasted slice of holed ciabatta in front of his face like a carnival mask. (Swizz, isn’t it, how with ciabatta you pay for the holes. Perhaps they factor them into the Italian economy.) Like most of Creed’s ideas, this one wasn’t new – Los Angeles-based artist Matt Johnson got there before him at the 2004 Frieze Art Fair with a Breadface in cast and painted plastic. But Johnson didn’t have the savvy or the dosh to cast a slice of toast in patinated bronze and butter it in gold as Creed did for his Savile Row exhibition, timed to open in December when the oligarchs were out shopping for stocking-fillers. This from the ersatz master of the ephemeral, whose progression from blu-tack to gold-plated bronze is more stomach-turning than a rack-full of celebrity portraits in marmite.

It won’t have gone down well with RA Schools student Tania Blanco down the road, whose contribution to this year’s Premiums exhibition featured a shelf stacked with packs of Medium Sliced White titled Emergency with accompanying text quoting Kropotkin’s declaration in The Conquest of Bread: “The social revolution must guarantee daily bread for all. After bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim…” Leisure presumably not supposed to be spent in Mayfair galleries salivating over slices of bronze toast buttered in gold.

As it happens, there’s a long and honourable tradition of bread art associated with artists in reduced or confined circumstances. Hans Prinzhorn’s collection of art of the mentally ill included sculptures made by asylum inmate Karl Brendel from chewed bread. Egon Schiele kneaded a thumbnail portrait of a fellow prisoner from bread while banged up in Sankt Pölten penitentiary in 1912 on charges of kidnapping and rape. (For those who can’t afford Creed’s gold-buttered, Ronald S Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York is currently offering a bronze version of Schiele’s portrait in an edition of 200 at $250 each.) German-Jewish artist internee Pamina Liebert-Mahrenholz sculpted with her bread ration while incarcerated in Holloway Prison in 1939, and Kurt Schwitters, interned in Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man, saved leftover breakfast porridge to make sculptures. They filled his attic studio with a stink of mould that made the atmosphere very unpleasant for fellow enemy aliens who sat for portraits at £5 a pop. (A snip at the price, to judge from the examples currently on show in the exhibition Refuge at Abbot Hall, Kendal. Unfortunately the sculptures biodegraded before opportunistic gallerists could have them cast in bronze.)

There are good reasons for making art from cereals, and there are bad ones. Confinement and boredom are legitimate mothers of invention:  The Minories, Colchester’s 2015 exhibition The First World War in Biscuits demonstrated from 100-year-old examples what an inventive soldier in the trenches could do with a Huntley & Palmer’s No.4 standard whole wheat ration biscuit – baked so hard it had to be dunked but, unlike Schwitters’s soggy porridge, built to last. For creative purposes biscuits have a structural advantage over bread or toast, with the potential for large-scale projects such as the 12ft installation Eating the City created by Chinese multimedia artist Song Dong in the basement of Selfridges in 2006 from 72,000 McVitie’s biscuits. The starchitect of previous biscuit cities in Beijing and Shanghai, Dong was disparaging about the range of materials on offer – China apparently has a wider biscuit selection. Bad workmen blame their tools. Dong’s pre-fab biscuit city was as nothing to the 4ft replica of St Paul’s Cathedral – perfect in every detail, outside and in – built over three years by retired Willesden mechanic George D’Aubney from home-baked fruitcake and unveiled the following year.

Whether you have to be a fruitcake to make cathedrals from fruitcake is a question for the neuroscientists for another year. But there is a distinguished art historical precedent for D’Aubney’s creation in Andrea del Sarto’s mixed media model of an octagonal baptistery, described for us by Vasari in mouth-watering detail: “The pavement was a vast plate of jelly, with a pattern of mosaic in various colours; the columns, which had the appearance of porphyry, were sausages, long and thick; the socles and capitals were of Parmesan cheese, the cornices of sugar, and the tribune was made of sections of marzipan.”

All well and good, you’re thinking, but is it art? I refer you to the wisdom of nonagenarian collector Stefan Edlis who, in conversation with filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn for his art world documentary The Price of Everything, mentioned Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s timber-framed house made from bread, exhibited at the Milan Triennial in 2015. “Ask me if it’s art,” he told Kahn and Kahn, like a good comedy straight man, obliged. “Is it art?” he asked. “Well it’s not food,” said Edlis.