Marusya Bociurkiw writes about Susana Reisman’s “butter series” as part of our ongoing series “Critics Choice.”
Butter, Art, and Affect
by Marusya Bociurkiw
“Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.” That was what I heard a rather proper United Church lady said about a young rebellious boy.
I was a university student at the time, hired by the church to supervise the weekday feeding of breakfast to low-income children, in an otherwise well-heeled suburb. I had no idea what the lady’s comment meant, but the way she said it implied wrongful doing, or at least the potential for it. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the troubled boy pulled a knife on me. It was a dull kitchen knife; his hand shook as he held it. I gently pulled the bread knife out of his hand and then fed him some oatmeal. He went from angry aggression to meekness in a matter of minutes. Affect, fluid, irrational and changeable, can be like that (I never told the church lady about the incident).
Years later, I looked up the phrase. It’s meant to describe someone so cold they don’t even have the warmth to melt butter. I see now why I was confused. The boy was warm, hot, even: anger and confusion seethed through his veins. And butter, it seems to me, is almost always cold, shining with refrigerated gloss. But it can melt, too, just like the boy.
When I look at the series of photographs of sculptures featuring butter by Susana Reisman, I have a similar sense of contrasting temperatures. The careful arrangement of sticks and slices of butter references the work of artists like Carl Andre whose work, iconic of minimalism, attempted to remove all trace of affect from the process of making or viewing a work of art. No expression, no metaphor, no allusion. At a time, the 1960’s,when consumption and affect were becoming inextricably linked via advertising, stripping art to its bare elements could also be seen as a statement against capitalism in general and the art market specifically.
But affect is also of the body and those minimalist works did and do evoke feeling. Affect occurs in contact zones, between and among art works and bodies. A gallery, even an online one, is a contact zone, mediated by various presences. You can look at a work of art and feel many things: anger at not understanding what you think is meant to be understood; pleasure in regarding, perhaps even touching, smooth polished surfaces or rough distressed edges. You might feel pride in your own ability to appreciate a difficult work and that might sit against some secret, sticky shame – the bad reproductions hanging on your office wall, perhaps, or the ways in which your day job erodes your creative soul.
Butter may be cold initially, but there is a certain luxury to it, a sense of excess. I make my pie pastry only with butter – I use Joy of Cooking’s pâte brisée recipe, ignoring the call for 1/4 cup of shortening. Julia Child, that extreme butter enthusiast, provides us, in her infamous cookbook, with a multitude of uses for butter, from all manner of sauce to garnish (fill a pastry bag with butter and squeeze it out in fancy designs to adorn an appetizer plate). As I know from the experience of consuming my mother’s baking, there may be shame in consuming so much butter, but shame intersects with interest, a connection to other bodies and thus to the world. Eating mama’s torte links me to history, which is in part a history of domestic artistry, and a chain of affects that have shaped me both as a foodie and as an artist.
Reisman’s homage to Carl Andre, The Real Thing, is, like butter, temporary, fleeting, almost casual. It will melt. The use of domestic elements in art can be traced back through the history of painting but was foregrounded in both an ironic and political manner by the second wave feminist art movement. In this series, butter was pulled out of the fridge, mused upon, played with, in repetitive gestures evocative of domestic labour. I wonder: was the butter used up later in a sauce or a cake? Did it get slathered onto a thick slice of bread? I think about Su Richardson’s crocheted “Burnt Breakfast,” Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen.” Marina Abramovic eating an entire onion, weeping. Regret, anger, and a simulated sorrow.
I don’t know what I feel when I look at the butter series. I hear my mother’s voice, something about wastefulness. I hear the happy sound of butter sizzling in a pan. I feel pleasure at the domestic familiarity of the work and then I’m afraid that the work will not fulfill my desire, an unnamable, overarching hunger I always feel when I engage with art. Desire that can never really be satisfied; a work of art that is careful not to do so.
Like my young charge from years ago: sometimes, I just don’t know what to feel.
It’s good when a work of art can do that, engaging you in a slippery circuit of affects, constantly moving and transforming.
Marusya Bociurkiw is a media artist, writer, and assistant professor of media theory in the School of Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson University. Her videos and films have screened around the world. She is the author of four literary books, including, most recently, a food memoir, Comfort Food for Breakups: The Memoir of a Hungry Girl. Her monograph, Feeling Canadian: Nationalism and Affect on Canadian Television, is forthcoming in 2010 from Wilfred Laurier Press.
See more work by Susana Reisman: