LOS ANGELES — We are what we eat, the saying goes, but do the artificial components of the modern diet make us something other than human? The first in a series by curator Courtney Malick about natural and artificial bodies, In the Flesh Part I: Subliminal Substances at Martos Gallery presents works that question what is or isn’t natural, and what has the capacity to both kill and sustain us.
Preservatives and hormones make up a substantial part of our industrial food supply, while waste and plastics are reconstituted into food we regularly consume. Despite our heavy reliance on artificial substances, the stigma of the artificial persists. Synthetic materials like wax, silicone, and linoleum mimic the organic finish of fleshly organs and human skin in Ivana Basic’s sculptures resembling body parts produced in vitro. Nicolas Lobo’s video “Hongshuai Indoor Fountain” depicts rivulets of soy sauce dripping down impressions of aluminum cans and footprints — a reference to the recycling of human waste, in this case hair that was allegedly used by a Chinese company to create amino acid syrup for the production of soy sauce.
In “Display Unit, U-238,” Encyclopedia, Inc. traces a brief history of the use of radioactive materials in consumer goods. Examples of objects with trace amounts of uranium (an old glass figurine, ceramic mug, and dentures) comprise the wall display, while a vitrine containing bananas, carrots, brazil nuts, and lima beans is accompanied by text describing the foods as examples of the “most naturally radioactive.” The perceived safety and danger of domestic goods are further complicated by a video titled “Yellowcake,” which references the name of the powdered form of uranium and demonstrates the use of a consumer-grade cake mix.
The enduring popularity of “meal replacement” beverage Soylent suggests people can ostensibly meet their nutritional and caloric needs through liquid form, no matter how joyless or dystopian the idea might seem. Sean Raspet’s installation features a display of Soylent containers labeled “technical food” and “technical milk,” and invites gallery visitors to try out samples of five chemically flavored waters, the titles of which only reveal their specific chemical compounds. A survey asks visitors to describe their tastings, which range from the mildly pleasant (hints of cinnamon and vanilla) to the outright abhorrent (scents of rubber and plastic), turning the installation into a case study for the perception of “natural” and “artificial” flavors and the mimetic capabilities of taste and smell.
“Subliminal substances” contained or described in the artworks are characterized by the processes that make up the manufacturing supply chain and the chemicals that transform, enhance, or preserve our bodies in the same way they do to what we eat. In the Flesh gives us a glimpse into a future in which food insecurity and industrial production meet their high-water mark. While this future is not complete immiseration, it’s close, especially if there’s more Soylent and human hair soy sauce on the horizon.
In the Flesh Part I: Subliminal Substances continues at Martos Gallery (3315 West Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles) through December 5.