I am currently working on a large project which is centred on the idea of nature and man’s apparent divergence from his natural roots. The aim of the work is to show that humans have come so far from their origins through their ever-increasing ability to change themselves and their surroundings, while at the same time dissolving the illusion that there exists a coherent entity behind the term ‘nature’, and that in fact what we consider ‘natural’ or a part of nature has often been changed on some level by human intervention.
Taking these existing themes as a starting point and working within the constraints of a 10-euro budget I decided to produce a piece that for me in many ways epitomises the specific characteristics that separate man from the other animals, and enable him to be both highly creative and destructive at the same time.
Until very recently in evolutionary terms, eating has been an inseparable part of survival, but the currently proliferation of food in all its forms has enabled over 1.4 billion adults to become overweight,1 something which would have been impossible if it weren’t for the mechanisms of industrialisation and automation.
One of the many ways in which we subvert both our biology and psychology is via the creation of new foods which are completely unlike anything our ancestors would have found in their environment. We have an evolved preference for foods which are high in fat and sugar, as these contain more energy in the form of calories, which was and still is essential for survival. The issue is that an overconsumption of high-fat high-sugar foods leads to many health problems which are now prevalent in modern society as a direct result of the food industry’s ability to cater for our tastes, while omitting other elements that are essential for a healthy diet.
Sugar-laden drinks allow us to consume calories in liquid form, which means that we can increase our caloric intake without impacting our appetite, and high fat foods such as crisps and chocolate give us all the energy we need without any of the micronutrients that are present in naturally-occurring foods.
Now, not only is there a divide between eating for survival and eating for pleasure or out of habit, but there is a break in the link between the fundamental process of chewing and the consumption of calories and nutrients itself. The act of chewing gum represents a significant and symbolic divergence from a lifestyle shaped by activities needed to sustain life in order to reproduce, and a move towards activities which have little or sometimes no link to immediate or long-term survival.
The act of chewing gum not only requires energy, and thus calories, but the gum itself contains nothing of nutritional value, even if it were destined to be ingested. Therefore if you look at chewing gum from a purely functional and evolutionary point of view it is a waste of resources at every step of the process, from manufacture, to purchase and consumption. But annual chewing gum sales reach over $2 billion every year in the U.S alone 2, which serves to reflect on the huge surpluses available to modern human beings.
I look at art the same way I look at other human pastimes: that is, I see it as being fuelled by surplus on different levels. I believe art to be an activity for those who have an excess of time, money, and both physical and mental energy.
Even if you are the most creative person in the world you cannot do/make art if you are preoccupied with lower level activities such as hunting and gathering food, building shelter and keeping out of danger, as well as protecting your kin. This is as true now as it was back when the first cave paintings were made more than 40,000 years ago, only now we are more likely to be preoccupied with our jobs and our housework or simply maintaining the status quo of the social groups we wish to belong to and remain part of.
Art is as unnecessary as playing tennis, watching television or studying mathematics, but is something we can choose to do once we have our basic needs taken care of and are free to expend energy on things simply because we are inclined to for whatever reason, like chewing gum for fun or making sculptures as a form of expression.
The method of traditional energy intake in the form of eating food is one in which the bi-products or waste are characteristic of the processes and physical systems they have travelled through. Elements the body needs are extracted and the rest is ejected at the final stage. This is in contrast to the act of chewing a piece of gum, which is the sole determinant of its final shape, as it leaves the same way as it came in.
In terms of form, with this piece I wanted to mirror the sort of homogeneous product that is created by industrial processes that strive for similarity and consistency, while at the same time contrasting with more natural arrangements which are much more affected by random influences and events. The inertness of the chewing gum is manifested in the form of a cube which speaks not of nature and beautiful curved lines, or even the intricate crystalline structure of a snowflake, but of deliberate and one-dimensional manipulation in order to serve function alone with no thought for aesthetics. The cube shape is also a reference to other cubes which are made by compacting waste and recyclable materials such as plastics and metals.
With an abundance of time I was able to chew 165 pieces of gum, in an act that was symbolic of the surplus we live with, as well as the gap between our modern selves and our ancient ancestors.
The piece is also an example of man’s inability to stay in one place and content himself with what he has, both physically and metaphorically, because when given an abundance he will always find new activities to occupy his time and never rest contented. The physical effort behind the cube of chewing gum is also representative of my sense of value which stems not from intellectual work, but from manual labour and direct physical interactions with materials and the environment.