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Sonja Alhäuser’s mise-en-place: Illustrated recipes, mapping performances.

Smart Museum Feb 2012 0627 Baja

Sonja Alhäuser. Flying Feast, 2012. 1

Images of food or the presentation of dishes are often referred to as a feast for the eyes. This phrase takes another meaning in Sonja Alhauser’s artworks where the depiction and consumption of food is the main focus of opulent neo-baroque feasts. Alhäuser (Germany, b. 1969) has been experimenting with food as a sculptural material since 1992, influenced by Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, and Daniel Spoerri’s Eat Art movement in the late 1960s.2 Known as the “artist who cooks, or the painter of recipes”, her practice focus on food as a multi-semiotic medium that highlights processes of transformation, decay, and destruction.3 Her practice centres on the temporality and ephemerality of sculptural installations where the destruction of the work by the public, who chew, lick and digest it, is implicit in its making.4 In inviting the public to deconstruct her sculptural pieces she gives them control over the artwork’s “aesthetic appearance,” endorsing a relational aesthetic approach in which the sharing of food becomes an artistic experience.5

Alhaüser’s installations are comprised of two different threads. On the one hand there is the physical feast, in which an array of butter and chocolate sculptures, canapés, and drinks are offered to the public. And on the other, drawings—watercolours—that are displayed alongside the interactive installations. The drawings present a graphic representation of the creative process and the construction of her food-based actions. But rather than being simply decorations or complementary elements to her performances, the drawings function as the artist’s mise-en-place.6 Displayed alongside the edible elements of her feasts the pictorial works are playful depictions of instructions, ingredients, and quantities involved in the cooking process that, simultaneously, present the different facets of the assembled installation. Secondly, Alhäuser’s drawings are the leftovers, so to speak, of the feast that the public consumes; they are the only element of the entire action that remains unchanged. These visual narratives withstand the process of destruction that Alhäuser poignantly emphasises, transforming them into an enduring element that aids in the documentation of her artistic practice.7

Gegenbaja2 Copy

Sonja Alhäuser Gegen Schwermut, 2002. 8

Using a comic-style narrative to show the purpose and process of the artwork Alhäuser’s drawings are pictorial self-explanatory culinary descriptions. The scene is depicted, as Roland Nachtingaller comments, “with a sketch-like realism” which ramifies into a chain of events, including the collection or origin of the selected ingredients themselves, the mise-en-place, the cooking process; and in some cases the digestive journey from the stomach to the intestines, a progression that ends with the excretion of faecal matter.9 The work Gegen Schwermut (2002), demonstrates just such a passage of digestion. The drawing depicts a man lying on the grass drinking a concoction of foraged wild mushrooms, frog legs, and liquor of some description. The scene appears as a sort of memento mori, making reference to the cyclical process of life, in which food becomes part of a pictorial narrative that addresses the process of evolution and decay. Alhäuser shows the transient ephemerality of organisms and their interrelationships, in Gegen Schwermut in particular, the drawing sheds light on the complexities of the act of eating, emphasising the transformation of organic matter and its reincorporation to the environment, allowing other species to nourish and grow. In other words, these drawings are an allegory of the life cycle, a neo-baroque vanitas, which reflects the intricacies of the food chain, but also, simultaneously reveal the ways in which Alhäuser conceives of her practice.10

There is a popular interest in appealing images of food. Seductive pictures of dishes are visible across a variety of media. This trend has resulted in the emergence of food stylists—experts in enhancing the appearance of food by manipulating the light, colours, sizes, and shape of dishes and ingredients. Combined with technological devices like smartphones and social media applications like Instagram, the everyday amateur cook or consumer can enhance images of food instantaneously, portraying them as mouth-watering objects. Such an interest in the alluring imagery of food has been referred to by Abigail Dennis11 as gastroporn the:

visual stimulation of food photography as art, accompanied by evocative and descriptive texts.

Drawings, illustrations, and photographs portray enhanced visual imagery in advertisements, food menus, cookbooks, and other visual media. Most of the time this portrayal is part of a strategy to decorate and to stimulate the appetite of viewers, and in some cases, as a marketing ploy to increase the profits of food industry businesses. Alhäuser’s drawings are, on the contrary, not merely decorations or visual aids to complement a written recipe, but rather they are the
recipes alone. Her drawings are instructional culinary narratives, scenes that may include cooking techniques like the butchering of a carcass, but also test out the final look of the dish or food sculptures presented in her performances.

Alhäuser’s pictorial recipes stimulate the appetite of the viewer giving an anticipatory thrill of the food to come. Most importantly, these recipes move from the private and domestic setting into the public domain. They are work-in-progress, expressions of artistic and culinary artistry, reflecting social and cultural practices of commensality that change and evolve by adapting and adopting culinary traditions. It is undeniable that the depiction of food is a powerful medium to communicate how a dish is created, rather than the usual stand- alone written recipe. In Alhäuser’s drawings, however, the use of written text is completely obliterated. The recipe’s narrative is transformed solely into visual imagery that communicates the procedures and techniques usually found in written recipe form. This is clearly evident in the work Flying Feast (2012) a performance presented during the opening night of the exhibition ‘Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art’ in the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago. The performance was presented as a ‘landscape of food,’ offering the public the opportunity to indulge in eating art.12

In the watercolour Alhäuser uses a lightly tinted vanilla-coloured canvas as her mise-en-place, mirroring the kitchen countertop over which she organises the entire plan for the exhibition, gradually adding elements that get modified and changed in conjunction with the preparation of goats cheese, pork and salmon canapés; fruit and marzipan skewers; chicken and pepper skewers; and Neptune’s seafood platter. (All of which were prepared in collaboration with art fine students at the University of Chicago). Each of the scenes, in both the watercolour and the physical installation, are carefully structured, depicting the ingredients and quantities of each. The desired cuts, shapes and process of each culinary dish are portrayed. For example, Alhäuser shows red peppers cut into a heart shape with cookie cutters. Most importantly, she shows the amount needed of each ingredient inside small drawn squares that function as her checklist, in case any of the elements in the feast go missing. It is worth noting, that in this work, the instructions are not only for her but also for the team preparing the canapés. In the drawn scenes Alhäuser further gives special emphasis on how to prepare the margarine sculptures. The sculptures function as the central element of the feast from which the main ingredients of the canapés issue forth. The individual figurines are brought—flown—directly to the public. These sculptures, in similarity to the pictorial recipes, are exhibited throughout the entire exhibition. However, due to their construction in butter their display in enclosed vitrines differs greatly to the watercolours.

Smart Museum Feb 2012 0551 Baja

Sonja Alhäuser. Flying Feast, 2012. Margarine sculptures, installation view. 13

Viewing Flying Feast it becomes clear that Alhäuser’s recipes follow a cyclical narrative guiding the viewer to gradually concentrate on a sequence of different situations in order to decipher the main scene. A technique which, at first glance, may appear chaotic, rests upon several mini scenes interplaying with each other. Using iconography similar to comic strips or storyboards the multiple scenes of cooking instructions, create a visual pathway. The comic-like symbols give a non-linear grammatical arrangement that emphasise the individual scenes as a chain of events rather than isolated images, all of which relate to a Alhäuser’s creative process: cooking a recipe and mapping a performance.14 These pictorial recipes are food for thought using an intricate visual language compressed in a single panel, “potentially carrying syntax of a phrasal level or higher.”15 In other words, they are pieces of an action or event all at once. The public both eats food and consumes the visual imagery. Alhäuser’s recipe constitutes a ‘feast for the eyes’ as well as for other the senses, stimulating smells, tastes and triggering memories associated with each dish whilst satisfying the gut.

In Caipirinha für Zwei (2009), for example, Alhäuser presents the recipe of a caipirinha, using cachaça a traditional Brazilian distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice. The first scene on the upper left hand corner of the canvas shows an ice tray from which heart-shaped ice cubes float towards a manual ice crusher. Swirling red arrows signal turning the handle to crush the ice which is then poured into two glasses containing a green mix prepared in another of the mini-scenes. The multiplicity of glasses in the image leads the gaze to an adjacent mini-sequence where Alhäuser meticulously instructs the viewer to cut limes into wedges, following the zigzag pattern made by a knife. Then, red lines indicate the limes continue their way into the glasses, joined by two spoonfuls of caster sugar. These paths of lines are often a device used in comic strips to depict “unseen aspects” and trajectories of a moving object, or the fictional representation of the path of air, including the direction of smells.16 These kinds of lines appear throughout Alhäuser’s entire canvas depicting the movements of objects and signalling actions performed by subjects - emphasising the movement of hands.

Caipirinha For Two Baja

Sonja Alhäuser. Caipirinha für Zwei, 2009. 17

Within the work a mini scene that shows a hand holding a muddler18 twisting and crushing limes is presented as the key element in the composition. The scene is placed in the centre of the frame and is surrounded by a starred-bubble, which denotes its relevance in comparison to the other depicted objects. In so doing Alhäuser remarks that the central or most vital action in the recipe is the crushing of limes and sugar, as all the juice and flavour is preserved inside the glasses without losing anything when it is transferred from one container to another. The path of red arrows suggest that the muddling of limes and sugar is energetically repeated in both glasses. Later, the lime-crushing and ice-crushing scenes join together when the crushed ice is poured into the glasses, and almost immediately the cachaça is poured from a bottle depicted in the upper centre portion of the canvas.

Alhaüser’s visual narratives use symbols and images that hold encoded messages requiring the viewer to undertake a thorough examination of the work. This is particularly the case with the cachaça bottle in Caipirinha für Zwei whose label has an image of a shrimp. The depiction of the crustacean seems somewhat odd if the viewer is unfamiliar with the origin and production of the caipirinha cocktail. The shrimp references the logo of “Pitú,” a famous brand of cachaça produced in the region of Pernambuco, Brasil. Pitú is at the same time, the name of a rare species of freshwater shrimp found near the river close to the factory where this brand is made.19 In this sense, without knowing the story behind this particular brand, or even recognising it as such, the public has no other reference to understand that the spirit is in fact cachaça. In her selective depiction of ingredients Alhäuser gives importance to a visual language over written text, with the cachaça in particular she suggests that neither the brand or the ingredient’s names are important. It is the logo of the shrimp that holds the most resonance. As such Alhäuser assumes that the public knows and recognises the spirit only by viewing the shrimp. Alhäuser further visually emphasises the alcoholic content of the cachaça: as the bottle in the scene gradually inclines to a horizontal plane, a blurry image reading “40%” fades progressively, giving the impression of the ethereal alcoholic content of the spirit slowly evaporating as it is poured into the glasses. The caipirinha is ready to drink after two straws are thrown into the glasses from the top of the canvas. Once again, Alhäuser uses a path of arrow like lines to give a visual impression of movement, from one scene to the next; further serving to highlight the temporal and spatial relationships between the objects and the subjects depicted in the scenes.

Alhäuser’s pictorial recipes present more than simply a visual manifestation of ingredients and processes. In Caipirinha für Zwei, the viewer follows the pathway of caipirinha inside the body of the subjects, all the way through the digestive tract. As the green drink enters the mouth, the viewer reads the image differently; the recipe suddenly transforms into an image that emphasises the interior of the body, an invisible part of the consumption process. In the scene, Alhäuser depicts the stomach and the intestines, depicting them in a cartoonist style: the caipirinha flows down into the oesophagi and splashes inside the round-shaped stomach. The narrative develops as a series of events in which individuals and objects connect within each of the mini-scenes. By the time the caipirinha reaches the small intestine, the duodenum, the organ extends around the entire periphery of the canvas, framing and containing all of the other mini scenes. The intestine seems to bond more than just the individual scenes, in the lower part of the canvas the intestines of two figures interweave; suggesting that drinking caipirinha induces a physical bond with those with whom it is shared, an embodied connection.
In Caipirinha für Zwei the arrangement of individual scenes follows a circular narrative, compressing scenes and actions in a single narrative whole, “recognising relationships [taking place] across sequences.”19 The viewer is guided through these relationships by the entire sequence of visual symbols and arrow lines, giving structure and meaning to the entire canvas. They are not merely decorative resources, but key elements that suggest where to focus one’s attention, explaining what and who intervenes at different points in the recipe.  Alhäuser uses a process of abstraction whereby pictorial elements take part in sequential and logical relationships which give meaning to a culinary text, one that can be easier to remember. Caipirinha für Zwei presents a single image containing a complex idea. The recipe is depicted carefully and with enough information to achieve a successful step-by-step preparation.

The signage used by Alhäuser gives an emphasis to movement and temporality, it designates a logical sequence to the objects and subjects that appear across the picture frame, enabling the viewer to follow the recipe from preparation to concoction, consumption and ingestion.20 These symbolia, using American cartoonist Mort Walker’s terminology, focuses the attention of the public on specific actions, objects, or figures that will make the work and the processes contained within it it easier to understand.21 According to Alhäuser, the context and relevance of the depicted feast or recipe becomes clearly delineated avoiding any misinterpretations. The audience distinguishes the multiple mini scenes separately, moving their gaze through the frame, and transferring their attention from one scene to the other. It is worth noting that the drawings in which Alhäuser shows more elaborate recipes, the iconography is more detailed. Each of the lines and symbols have a specific purpose; sometimes constituting the artist’s culinary language. Alhäuser mentions that her love for symbols is clearly emphasised in her drawings and sculptures, inviting the public to,

enter this world of symbols,

A world which constitutes the artist’s “own language”.22 She recognises that when the public sees these icons and symbols for the first time, they are unable to “understand everything,”23  especially when she embeds detailed equivalences to icons such as the shrimp on the bottle of cachaça. For example, when Alhäuser signals the use of flour in a recipe she uses the image of an ear of wheat which, depending on how many grains are depicted, relates to the amount of flour needed—every grain of wheat has the equivalence of fifty grams.24 A similar approach is shown when she depicts temperatures and time frames especially for baking or cooking in an oven. Nonetheless, these symbols and equivalences are only accurate and clear for the artist, their meaning is not shared as a common language with the public.

As has been noted, Alhäuser’s pictorial recipes are different “from those of normal catering.”25 The public understands the image as a whole coherent text, but it takes longer to partially decipher each individual pictographic element. What is important to consider is that these drawings have two functions: they act as both pictorial recipes, but also constitute Alhäuser’s ‘performance plans’ and the documentation of her artistic work.26 These illustrations or pictorial recipes are not mere decorations, but a structured depiction of culinary language; they act in a similar manner to a cookbook, keeping a record of food memories and the artistic performances that she shares with the public, emphasising in this sense her interest to interact and form a dialogue with them that extends beyond the immediate consumption of her baroque style feasts.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Flying Feast, 2012. Ink and gouache on paper with metal grommets. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist and VG Bildkunst, Bonn.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Tanja Maka and Busch-Reisinger Museum, Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhäuser. Harvard: Harvard University Art Museums Series, 2001; Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Innsbruck, Austria: Galerie im Taxispalais, 2009, and Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Eating the Universe: Vom Essen in Der Kunst Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2009; Stephanie Smith, ed., Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art. Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 2013; Mariana Meneses Romero, ‘Sonja Alhäuser: La Degustación Del Arte’, Discurso Visual, CENIDIAP, Enero-Abril 2011/16 (2011) [accessed 5 January 2011].

Go to footnote reference 3.

Roland Nachtigäller, ‘Introduction’, in Sonja Alhäuser: Immerzu. Köln: Walther König, 2007, p.9.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Alhäuser has referred that she prefers working with chocolate, even if she also uses other sweets like marzipan, cake, gingerbread and sugar, which are mixed in her sculptures to give different textures and flavours. Sonja Alhäuser, 2008.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Catherine Dupree, ‘Sonja Alhäuser´s Sweet Installations’, Gastronomica: Journal of Food and Culture, Winter 2003 (2003), p.13; Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Collection Documents Sur L’art, 2002.

Go to footnote reference 6.

The French term means ‘putting in place’ or ‘everything in its place,’ is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients that a cook will require for the menu. It also refers to the set up required before cooking. See Senén Pérez, ‘Mise-en-place’, Diccionario Gastronómico. México: Trillas, 2003, p.80.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Alhäuser uses different techniques and materials like lithography and acrylics, however, she prefers to use watercolours because they allow her to translate, easily and dynamically, what she wants to communicate. Although this technique presents the challenge of using a full range of colours, as she commented in an interview. Thus for example the white colour she applies to depict flour, sugar, or salt, necessitates the background colour, that of the paper, to be of a different colour; in this case Alhäuser uses a vanilla-coloured paper.

Go to footnote reference 8.

Gegen Schwermut, 2002. Watercolour, acrylic white, and pencil over paper. Image courtesy of the artist and VG Bildkunst, Bonn.

Go to footnote reference 9.

Nachtigäller, ‘Introduction’, p.90

Go to footnote reference 10.

To this regard Alhäuser further commented: I use anatomy to show where you are and where you are going after. It has to do with the process, I am also interested in this process too. […] That's why I show bones […] Eating is an idea of the Baroque as well, these still-lifes, —vanitas— with these skulls and fresh fruits. […] I think I'm very neobarroca. […] It's like a reminder: `Hi, this is the big time, now you're with your friend and you eat chocolate ice cream, but look here are the bones!´ It's more about […] the value of this time." Alhäuser, 2008. [Transcript by the author from the recorded the interview with Alhäuser.]

Go to footnote reference 11.

Abigail Dennis, ‘From Apicius to Gastroporn: Form, Function, and Ideology in the History of Cookery Books’, Studies in Popular Culture, 31/1 (2008), p.11.

Go to footnote reference 12.

Smith, Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, p.156.

Go to footnote reference 13.

Flying Feast, 2012. Margarine sculptures, installation view. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist and VG Bildkunst, Bonn.

Go to footnote reference 14.

Mort Walker, The Lexicon of Comicana. United States of America: iUniverse, 1980. In this text, American cartoonist Mort Walker proposes an international set of symbols (symbolia) which he compiled after researching cartoons and comic strips from around the world. He names lines and figures according to their use, for example, he terms Emanate to the lines drawn around the head of a character to indicate shock or surprise; or grawlixes, to refer to the typographical symbols standing for profanities, appearing in dialogue balloons in place of actual dialogue.

Go to footnote reference 15.

Neil Cohn, ‘A Visual Lexicon’, Public Journal of Semiotics, 1/1 (2007), p.43[accessed 18 July 2016].

Go to footnote reference 16.

Cohn, ‘A Visual Lexicon’, p.48.

Go to footnote reference 17.

Caipirinha für Zwei, 2009. Watercolour, acrylic, and pencil over paper. Image courtesy of the artist and VG Bildkunst, Bonn.

Go to footnote reference 18.

A muddler is a stick used to stir, mash, and mix ingredients in cocktails. Otherwise known as a bartender’s pestle. See Oxford Dictionaries, ‘Muddler’, Oxford Dictionaries http://www.oxforddictionaries....[accessed 14 August 2016] ; Colleen Graham, ‘How to Muddle Cocktails’, About Food, 2016[accessed 14 August 2016].

Go to footnote reference 19.

Cachaça Pitú, ‘The Pitú Cachaça’, Cachaça Pitú, 2010 [accessed 7 December 2013]

Go to footnote reference 20.

Cohn, ‘A Visual Lexicon’, p.39.

Go to footnote reference 21.

The effect of constant movement resembles to those in futuristic paintings which, as Mario de Micheli explains, “tried to capture reality in its unitary multiplicity, in his ceaseless movement.” See Mario De Micheli, Las vanguardias artísticas del siglo XX. España: Grupo Anaya Comercial, 2002, p. 219. [My own translation]

Go to footnote reference 22.

In the book The Lexicon of Comicana, Walker explains a series of international set of symbols after researching cartoons around the world. Each of them used for a different purpose.  His book intended to be a common language amongst cartoonists. See Walker, The Lexicon of Comicana.

Go to footnote reference 23.

Alhäuser, 2008.

Go to footnote reference 24.


Go to footnote reference 25.

Alhäuser. However the artist has developed her own iconographic measurement and equivalence system, it is worth reminding that from the Bronze Age and until the Renaissance, grains of wheat or barley were used to measure volumes and weights. See Ronald E. Zupko, British Weights & Measures: A History Form Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

Go to footnote reference 26.

Smart Museum of Art, Sonja Alhäuser: Flying Buffet. Chicago, 2012. › Smart Museum of Art › Videos [accessed 8 January 2012].

Go to footnote reference 27.

Alhäuser, 2008.

Mariana Meneses Romero

Mariana Meneses Romero is a doctoral candidate in Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths University of London. Her research – supported by the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology and by Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo – focuses on the relationship between food and contemporary art as a critical discourse of hospitality. Mariana was UK Research Associate for the Delfina Foundation residency program “The Politics of Food” (2014). She previously taught B.A. courses at Goldsmiths and at CESSA Universidad. She has also worked as freelance curator, and her research interests include food studies, bioart, philosophy, and feminism