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Ready to Eat? Modernist Food-Objects and the Sculptural Avant-Garde


Whatever else it may also be—a marker of aesthetic taste, class or culture, a momentary sensory delectation, a means of nourishment or survival, a mere prop for social engagement—an item of food is also necessarily an object. As is clear from recent discussions of object-agency and object-contingency within forms of materialist scholarship such as “thing theory” and material-ecological vitalism, the category of the object is vast and tendrilic, encompassing issues of subject-object relations and hierarchies, commodification and production, and the properties and potentialities of objects both as distinct entities and as they interact with the human body. However, such object-centered theories have infrequently attended to the specific material concerns of food-objects and food-adjacent objects (such as silverware), a particularly complex category of objects that heavily implicate the presence, actions, and experiences of the human body in a variety of ways both consumptive and non-consumptive, whilst prompting consideration of the act of food consumption as a practice that may unite—or at least mutually alter—object and (human) body.

Within the early twentieth century European and American art worlds, visual artists exhibited new forms of interest in the portrayal of food, often placing food-objects in central positions and reestablishing food-centered genres—such as that of the still life—as pivotal to artistic movements such as Cubism. Within the more avant-garde art movements of the period, such as Dada and Surrealism, this interest in food-objects often appeared in the form of small-scale sculptures within the overlapping categories of manufactured object, found object, and the Duchampian “readymade,” produced through techniques of assemblage. Salvador Dalí’s Retrospective Bust of a Woman (1933), for example, juxtaposes a baguette and an inkwell into a hat, and a zoetrope strip and brace of corn into a necklace. At least one version of Dalí’s Aphrodisiac Jacket (1936), a dinner jacket covered in crème de menthe-filled shot glasses, was displayed in a gallery that invited viewers to actually imbibe, thus courting responses in the participant’s body ranging from tactile play to actual intoxication.[1] This invitation to consumption potentially completes, as Janine Mileaf points out, Dalí’s professed “final” stage of the surrealist object; that of merging art object and human body via ingestion (Please Touch, 145). Such engagement interrogates the very nature and purpose of the food-object itself. This interrogation also parallels general modernist interest in “the everyday” and surface materiality, as well as the progression of industrialized and sanitized foodstuff development within the early twentieth century.

And yet scholarly theorization of such modernist sculptural food-objects through the lens(es) of food studies remains scant. This is unfortunate, given the ways in which focus upon the “foodishness” of these sculptural works exposes and re-figures deep anxieties about the production and categorization of food-objects and the bodily vulnerabilities inherent in the act of consumption. When considered in conjunction with elements of critical animal studies, it becomes possible to view these works as boundary-crossing—and perhaps monstrous—hybrid forms which simultaneously operate across multiple tiers of the traditional cultural “hierarchy of human-animal-vegetable-mineral,” thereby illuminating the “tenuousness” of the divisions between these categories.[2] This tenuousness is certainly theoretical, in terms of how we have come to define and value (or devalue) human vs. nonhuman forms of agency. And, as Jonathan Greenberg suggests in this cluster (drawing from Margot Norris), this “biocentric tradition” through which we are reminded of our own inescapable status as “embodied animal being[s]” has come to inform much contemporary scholarly work, particularly within the realms of food and animal studies. But this tenuousness is also material, in terms of the edibility, animality, and potential objecthood of the human body itself and the ways in which that body is continually “brushing against” those same material properties in its encounters with other humans, nonhuman animals, and food-/food-adjacent objects. And it is this sense of material encounter at the meeting-place of not only human and animal, but at the edible intersection of human, animal, and object, that consideration of sculptural food-objects may illuminate.

Readymade, to Eat?

The Dadaist and Surrealist small assemblage works I discuss here may be qualified as “assisted readymades,” or “readymade” objects which “imply a manipulation modifying the object” on the part of the artist rather than simply being displayed as they were purchased/found.[3] Through this artistic manipulation, this material juxtaposition and combination, each of these works stages a multisensory human encounter with the food-object that is based upon forms of acceptance (desire, ingestion) and/or refusal (disgust, non-consumption). More than this, however, these sculptural food-/food-adjacent objects by artists Marcel Duchamp and Méret Oppenheim do not include actual/edible food-objects, as do the Dalí sculptures mentioned above, but instead replace what “should” be an edible food-object with another, inedible, material. These playful material substitutions defamiliarize the everyday act of food consumption and our encounters with food-objects. At first glance, they present food-/food-adjacent objects that may appear to conform to commodity culture and/or early-twentieth-century ideals within consumer food culture: mass-produced or industrially processed, clean, elegantly displayed. And yet, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that these food-objects are not only inedible, they are actually fundamentally associated with the abject, the unclean, and that which threatens to erode comfortable categorical divisions between animal and human, food and consumer. These sculptural food-objects, then, debunk the commodification of the object, but they also begin to figure the vulnerability of the food-consuming body within its interactions with food-objects, while forcing an encounter with the food-object that is necessarily about more than food consumption.[4]

Duchampian Sugar

The thermometer, small porcelain dish, and cuttlefish bone within the white-painted birdcage of Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? (1921) may be read as references to the body and processes of food cooking or consumption.[5] The 152 cubes of white marble cut to resemble sugar cubes exist between several planes of ingestive (un)desirability. Sugar, once a “preciosity” given its relative scarcity and the universal animal preference for sweet foods was transformed into an everyday staple via the rise of mass production and the concomitant shift in eating habits within Europe and the United States.[6] The white color and cubic form imitate the industrial aesthetics of refined and packaged sugar. However, in Why Not Sneeze?, these “sugar” cubes litter the bottom of the birdcage like refuse. Not only is the marble an inedible substance to begin with, but this placement also associates the sugar with animality and excrement. The commodity has here lost its use-value, but, more than this, the food-object and its interactions with the body are called into question; food-objects, it seems, even those carefully machine-processed and controlled, are ever at risk of becoming unclean.[7] Or, rather, the food consumer is ever at risk of recognizing the inherent “contamination” of the food-object with the visible evidence of “sweat and soil” that industrial refining processes are meant to remove, along with “all physical and imaginative connections between producers and consumers.”[8] Further, the placement of the marble sugar cubes within the birdcage emphasizes that processes of food consumption throughout the human/animal body are never far from abjection; the consumed food-object will always, before long, become excreta.

“Apropos of Marcel Duchamp 1887/1987” Exhibition, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987. Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? (1921) is on the right. Image courtesy Artstor.
Fig. 1. “Apropos of Marcel Duchamp 1887/1987” Exhibition, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987. Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? (1921) is on the right. Image courtesy Artstor.

Duchamp’s replacement of the sugar with marble both (obviously) subverts its potential edibility and cites another fungible material, the stone itself. Marble is associated with auratic traditions of classical and Renaissance sculpture. Instead of polishing the rock into a grand sculptural work, Duchamp has here machine-cut it into tiny, even squares that are indistinguishable from one another, and, from a distance, indistinguishable from a less valuable and more ephemeral substance (sugar). The shared properties of cubed marble and sugar privilege the visual in this piece, but the differences—and the “joke” of the substitution of one material for the other, the inedible for its edible visual twin—ultimately require a different kind of sensuous body intervention: that of touch. Through touch, as Duchamp explained, one might experience both “the marble with its coldness,” and the weight that belies the true materiality of the crystalline cubes.[9] Arthur Danto has written of the potential “discoverable distances” between art-objects and “real” objects in the context of Andy Warhol’s plywood replicas of Brillo boxes (a series of works inevitably indebted to Duchamp), and we might consider the ways in which such distances remain teasingly undiscoverable for anyone who encounters Why Not Sneeze? within a contemporary museum setting.[10]

The Fur Teacup

Most critical discussions of Méret Oppenheim’s most (in)famous work, Object (1936), a porcelain teacup, saucer, and spoon set purchased at a French department store and covered in the pale tan pelt of a Chinese gazelle, have focused upon its potential sexual connotations and/or its engagement with twentieth century debates regarding the intersection of nature and culture.[11] This has limited more materially-centered discussion of the piece as both food-object and commodity; for example, the ways in which Object sets up echoes of provenance and economic value through its engagement with globally-traded “natural” objects such as “Chinese” gazelle pelts and the (here absent) tea leaves, as well as with the man-made cultural commodity of the teacup, an object created through nature-transforming techniques (which also originate in China). The very materials of Oppenheim’s piece encompass both human predation and control of natural elements and the structures of commerce that allow food-/food-adjacent objects to be appropriated, valued, and traded for use among bodies.

While the erotics of Object may easily be said to include the sensual, they also include the sensuous aspects of a general sort of tactile pleasure—that of stroking something soft. But the sensory appeal of fur is not necessarily limited to the experience of the human who strokes an(other) animal. Instead of enclosing space, as would a “normal” empty teacup, Object extends out into space, albeit in miniscule fashion; it is everted rather than inverted, with hundreds of individual hairs extending into the air. Were this fur attached to an animal, the roots of each hair would culminate in sense receptors beneath the skin, registering the touch of the tea-drinker’s fingers and lips; thus, the teacup would then feel the drinker, rather than the drinker simply feeling the teacup. This possibility, though ultimately foreclosed upon by the removal of the fur/skin from the feeling animal, encourages some uncertainty regarding the agency of this object. The relationship between human beings and this bodiliness of hair/fur is both complex and uneasy, as hair/fur exists at a liminal threshold of the body, simultaneously both inside the body and “erupting . . . into the social space beyond” and has thus been subject to a rich history of cultural regulation.[12] Part of the tension of Object, then, is that the hair follicles of the pelted teacup appear to be growing from the object, away from its own “body,” but also seem to be growing toward the human body, threatening to reverse this “erupt[ion] from the body” and to insert themselves back into a body (in this case, the human body), via the consuming mouth (Turner, “The Social Skin,” 85). Such concern about bodily invasion, of course, has its place in any act of food ingestion. Anything we consume breaches the boundaries of the body, and even if we find ourselves fortunate enough to control what we consume, we ultimately lack control regarding the effects that these ingestibles will have upon our bodies. Instead, as Jane Bennett indicates, ingestibles and bodies are co-actants, with food working both “inside and alongside” the human body within the act of consumption.[13]

André Breton famously remarked that one goal of Surrealism was “to hound the mad beast of function” and, indeed, the addition of fur to Object’s teacup renders it in some way dysfunctional, or perhaps afunctional.[14] The prospect of drinking liquid from this cup becomes one “in which intake is merged with repulsion” as well as with strange multi-sensory appeal, thus representing an exaggerated version of any common act of consumption, thoroughly ensnared as such an act will inevitably be within the web of the human sensorium (Mileaf, Please Touch, 146). If this teacup cannot fulfill its purpose as a vessel from which to (comfortably) drink, its place within the traditional human-centered subject-object dichotomy is called into question, its materiality no longer in service to its usage as teacup. However, by virtue of Object’s placement in a museum as “art-object,” our actual sensory experience of the object is foreclosed.

Bound and Roasted

In another of Oppenheim’s 1936 sculptural food-objects, My Nurse (Ma Gouvernante), a pair of worn high-heeled shoes trussed like roasted poultry are presented upon a shining silver platter, the tips of their heels topped with the frilled paper caps that may be used to decorate the exposed bone-tips of a cooked bird or cut of meat. The inclusion of these caps provides an echo with the heels themselves—both white (as would be the exposed bone the caps are meant to cover), both meant to “decorate” the end of a leg, both a denial of potential animality and an unnatural imposition of cultural propriety upon the body. This imposition is, in each case, meant to trick the eye. High heels replace the shape of existing parts of the human body with more culturally “desirable” shapes, altering not only the lines of the feet they may conceal, but, as one walks in these shoes, shifting musculature and postural form throughout the body. The paper caps conceal the absence of body parts of the animal that no longer exist, replacing this absence with ornamentation that softens the consumer’s initial encounter with a part of an animal “meant” to remain inside the body; a part of the animal which may be, therefore, distasteful. An exposed bone suggests abjection, as it crosses a boundary that is not meant to be crossed, thus calling attention to physiologic similarities between the food-object and its consumer—both are, after all, an interplay of flesh and bone as they interact upon the dinner table. Ma Gouvernante has been most commonly considered through the lens of gender and sexuality, particularly patriarchal control, with the shoes as a synecdochic bodily object readied for consumption specifically through bondage.[15] The trussing of this body-turned-object does suggest the ways in which the preparation and consumption of food may be about control—control of the food-/food-adjacent objects, and control of one’s own body in moments of hunger and ingestion.

The shoes of Ma Gouvernante are noticeably not new; the positioning of the shoes—their soles turned toward the viewer—calls attention to these soles, which are dirty and scuffed, and this “worn” quality associates the shoes, and thus this piece, with their absent owner. These shoes have previously been incorporated into someone’s body image and closely associated with the physical body of their (unknown) wearer, and they carry vestiges of that wearer’s body, as well as that body’s interactions within the world.[16] Further, these “used” shoes are contaminated not only by the scuff marks on their soles, but by association with the feet, body parts that are, though often eroticized, typically considered to be less than clean. The shoe-leather, “itself a product of a cow, situated within the realm of western consumption” encourages consideration of different forms of consumption and the processes by which objects are readied for such consumption: preparation of food and processes of curing, tanning, dyeing (Catalano, “Distasteful,” 74). The replacement of the expected edible food-object on this platter with the inedible (or at least unpalatable) shoe(s)-object also underscores the interplay between edible and inedible present in any food-object. Edibility, after all, is dependent upon a panoply of factors including methods of preparation and the specifics of the food encounter, and edible matter is almost always bound up with inedible matter—bones, seeds, garnishes, packaging—forcing the food consumer to negotiate between the edible and the inedible with each bite.

By presenting food-objects that are immediately legible as being “ready” for human consumption—“sugar” refined and cubed for appeal and convenience, a teacup, saucer, and spoon laid out as if at afternoon tea, a “roast” neatly bound, decorated, and presented upon a platter, these sculptural works posit a potential encounter with a consuming human body, rather than simply a museum-going spectatorial body. And yet, not only does their display as art-objects prevent any possibility of actual consumption, but the material substitutions at the heart of these works make them unavailable for our gustation, and unassimilable into the body itself. These sculptural food-/food-adjacent objects, then, figure a version of the food-object that is not—that cannot be—only about desirability and edibility. Such works ultimately imply the ways in which an experience of modernist food, or at least the version of “modernist” food figured by the avant-garde, may operate across historical periods by attending to the act of food consumption as a complicated—and category-blurring—pleasure, while simultaneously gesturing beyond this act of consumption to our encounters with food as objects, and as matter.[17]


[1] See Janine Mileaf, Please Touch: Dada and Surrealist Objects After the Readymade (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010), 8. However, it is worth noting that each shot glass belonging to this piece also contained a dead fly, which neutralizes—or at least firmly complicates—the participatory “edibility” of this piece.

[2] For discussion of this “tenuous hierarchy,” see Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 98.

[3] Thierry de Duve, “Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism,” in The Duchamp Effect: Essays, Interviews, Roundtable, ed. Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 93–130, 99.

[4] They “debunk” the commodification of the object just as “readymade” sculptures themselves call into question the distance between consumer objects and “high art” objects and their respective forms of commodification.

[5] The cuttlebone is a non-food object that is not precisely an inedible one, given that cuttlebones are traditionally given to birds as calcium supplements.

[6] For sugar as “preciosity,” see Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985), 147. For more on the universal animal preference for sweet foods, see Pasi Falk, The Consuming Body (London: Sage Publications, 1994), 73.

[7] This loss of use-value, at least according to “thing theory,” potentially allows the commodity to become more thing than object.

[8] April Merleaux, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 24.

[9] Quoted in Arturo Schwartz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Delano Greenidge Reprint Editions, 2001), 487.

[10] For more on such “discoverable distances,” see Arthur C. Danto, What Art Is (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 145.

[11] Object was later renamed Le Déjeuner en fourrure by André Breton, presumably a titular play upon both Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Vénus á la fourrure. Readings of Object that emphasize its potential sexual connotations include Philip Nel, The Avant-garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002); Jack J. Spector, Surrealist Art and Writing, 1919–1939: The Gold of Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). For a reading of Object that emphasizes the work’s engagement with nature/culture, see Thomas McEvilley, “Basic Dichotomies in Meret Oppenheim’s Work,” in Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup, ed. Jacqueline Burckhardt and Bice Curiger (New York: Independent Curators International, 1997), 45–53.

[12] Terence S. Turner, “The Social Skin,” in Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life, ed. Margaret Lock and Judith Farquhar (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 83–103, 85.

[13] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 39.

[14] Andre Breton originally quoted in Cahiers d’Art, noted by Josef Helfenstein, “Against the Intolerability of Fame: Meret Oppenheim and Surrealism” in Meret Oppenheim, 23–34, 29.

[15] Readings of the piece emphasizing gender and sexuality include Janine Catalano’s “Distasteful: An Investigation of Food’s Subversive Function in René Magritte’s The Portrait and Meret Oppenheim’s Ma Gouvernante—My Nurse—Mein Kindermädchen,” Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture 14 (2013): 63–81, 72. Reading the shoes as shoes as a synecdochic bodily object readied for consumption specifically through bondage seems particularly appropriate, given the association of high-heeled shoes with fetish acts, a phenomenon discussed in Valerie Steele, Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[16] The dirty and scuffed nature of the soles of the shoes is noted in Catalano, “Distasteful,” 74. As Elizabeth Grosz has suggested, “Anything that comes into contact with surface of the body and remains there long enough will be incorporated into the body image—clothing, jewelry, other bodies, objects” (Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994], 80).

[17] And, indeed, I would suggest that the recent interest in molecular gastronomic food preparation practices and “modernist” food within contemporary food culture foregrounds the “objecthood” of the food-object, as well as its material properties via strong points of focus on process and experimentation.