The smell of gingerbread, at once spicy and sweet, conjures similarly pungent childhood memories: of gingerbread cookies and gingerbread houses, and also of one of the most gruesome tales by the Brothers Grimm in which such a house famously appears. These thoughts are occasioned after having visited Nayland Blake’s installation Feeder 2 and Corollary, the first impression of which was not visual but olfactory.
Since the late ‘80s, Blake’s sculptural installations and performances have revealed a wide range of interests, from popular culture to vanguard subversion; from Camp to the queer body in the age of AIDS; from Sadean and psychoanalytic texts to the toxic legacy of American racism. In 1995, he co-curated the landmark exhibition, In a Different Light, which simultaneously explored, expanded upon, and problematized fundamental assumptions regarding the relationship between queer identity and vanguard culture. Like so many American artists whose work has emerged during the past decade, Blake’s projects have often dealt with identity, which they envision as a compound process rather than a fait accompli. In his most recent multi-media installation, Blake gave poetic form to such concerns, which is to say that Feeder 2 and Corollary also managed to facilitate identification across lines of difference.
One aspect of the installation that encouraged such identification was the first to strike the viewer upon entering the gallery. The smell of gingerbread pervaded the space of the gallery that housed Blake’s exhibition, and it was only after following the scent that the startling source of the aroma became visible: Feeder 2, a lifesize (7 by 10 by 7-foot) cabin made entirely of gingerbread tiles over an armature of steel. Visitors circled the gingerbread house and ducked into its open doorway or windows to see what it was like inside. Some, their hunger awakened by the rich, tangy smell, took to nibbling on it.
This process of at first sensing and then discovering Feeder 2 effected a kind of bewitchment–precisely the kind of sensual enchantment that lured Hansel and Gretel into the lair of the wicked and hungry witch. It therefore made narrative sense–of a kind that Antonin Artaud as much as the Brothers Grimm would have appreciated–that the smaller adjoining gallery contained objects (the “corollary” noted in the installation’s title) that functioned as astringent correctives to the sentimental sense memories aroused by the first gallery’s gingerbread house. To be sure, it included a pair of distinctly innocuous white paintings (actually Iris prints on canvas) depicting a snowbound cozy cabin on opposing walls of the gallery, while a third wall (opposite the entrance to this modest space) contained a wall-mounted six-pack of “Brer Rabbit”-brand molasses–this last a reference to a key ingredient in recipes for gingerbread, to a key character in the racially tainted “Uncle Remus” tales of the “Old Plantation” by American author Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), and to many representations of bunnies that have so often and sometimes so cryptically dominated Blake’s art of the past several years. Notwithstanding these supplemental links to the first gallery’s gingerbread house, it was the hour-long video, Gorge, playing continuously on a monitor near the entrance to the second gallery, that decisively cut the sweetness to add a different kind of bite to the installation.
Gorge is in the tradition of the self-punishing, endurance spectacles that established the young Chris Burden as a significant American artist during the early 1970s. Blake’s video builds upon this tradition in such a way as to accommodate such issues as the social construction of identity and the latter’s personal and political consequences. Throughout Gorge, the artist–a decidedly large man–sits naked to the waist, facing the camera in a shallow, brightly lit studio space. Standing nearby is a similarly large and shirtless African-American man. For the better part of the hour, this man feeds Blake: first doughnuts, then pizza, then an enormous “hero” sandwich (which he holds, suggestively, at crotch level like a giant phallus); then watermelon, more pizza, then chocolates. Every so often, the attendant switches from solids to liquids: a half-litre of Perrier water, a quart of milk–all accompanied by the relentlessly upbeat-sounds of the “Bunny Hop,” a recording of which echoes somewhere in the background.