Spring 2004

Ingestion / The Shelf-Life of Liquefying Objects

Jamer Hunt

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Beauty shall be edible or nothing.
—Salvador Dali1

Food rots. It becomes waste matter. Its shelf-life is momentary. The act of eating is hardly grandiose. It is a common ritual practice—ordinary, domestic, sensual, and repetitive. It engages taste and waste, the senses and the body, but also the digestive system, elimination, and then, ultimately, even more food. We take food in, consume it, and it becomes us. Then we repeat. Each meal is an act of production and consumption, creation and destruction. A subject’s relation to the object of desire is unmediated—or almost literal. It is a corporeal act mostly, a cerebral one only occasionally.

Buildings, on the other hand, are made to last. They can mark a landscape for years, decades, or centuries; they outlast generations. For this reason the practice of architecture inspires visions of immortality and transcendence. Architectural monuments are time-preservers pregnant with symbolism. They are bulwarks against decay and the processes of memory loss. Monuments congeal the present into (semi-) permanent physical form.

This uneasy dialectic—quivering between the enduring and the evanescent—is, as Henri Lefebvre would later point out, the mark of the everyday. That is, it illustrates two competing temporal vectors: on the one hand, the cyclical, which ties us back to more traditional repetitions (birth and death, seasons, day and night); on the other hand, the modern, which is linear, productive, and transformative (business, fashion, news). Into the slippery gap between rot and intransience—between food and architecture—slides Salvador Dali.

Despite his later descent into facile mediocrity and commercialism, Salvador Dali’s essays from the 1930s still provoke and gleefully disorient the reader. In these, his spastic, incontinent prose rarely coheres into anything digestible, yet it lingers, like dyspepsia. The early Dali belongs to a kind of outsider Modernist lineage not only because of his interest in penetrating and disrupting placid bourgeois ritual, but through his predilection for the ordinary forces of expenditure and decay. These themes emerge most brilliantly in a delirious essay entitled, “The Terrifying and Comestible Beauty of Modern Style Architecture,” in which Dali de-bones monuments and liquefies caked-on urban infrastructure with the base materials of bodily subsistence. Originally published in Minotaure2—the lavishly illustrated and influential arts journal produced in Paris between 1933 and 1939—his essay gnaws away at the reigning conceits of the two early 20th-century architectural orthodoxies—the neo-classical tradition, which claimed an unimpeachable formalist vocabulary, and International Style, which presumed a coolly universalist, atemporal geometry. Both movements inclined towards architectural monumentalism, grounding themselves in transcendental values.

Dali, on the other hand, juxtaposes to all this a base and inglorious act—eating—and in the process throws into high relief the former’s puffed-up attempts to trump time. In a perhaps apocryphal anecdote, he recounts an exchange with that model of proper Modernism, Le Corbusier.

When I was barely twenty-one years old, I happened to be having lunch one day ... in the company of the masochistic and Protestant architect Le Corbusier who, as everyone knows, is the inventor of the architecture of self-punishment. Le Corbusier asked me if I had any ideas on the future of his art. Yes, I had. I have ideas on everything, as a matter of fact. I answered him that architecture would become “soft and hairy.” ... In listening to me, Le Corbusier had the expression of one swallowing gall.3

Yearning for a revolution in daily life, and not just in salon culture, Surrealists like Dali envisioned themselves laying waste to hide-bound, traditional values. Food, then (or more precisely the consumption of food) assumes a critical role that belies its usual modesty. That is, eating emerges as an ordinary practice ripe with the potential for altering our perceptions of everyday life and politics.

What Dali referred to by the classification “Modern Style architecture” in his essay’s title was actually the Art Nouveau style of architectural design that seemed to be sprouting up from and overgrowing—literally—the streets of Paris. Hector Guimard, its principal purveyor, incorporated plant, animal, and insect motifs into the detailing of building facades, subway entrances, and street lamps. Tendrils and shoots spread out over a building’s curvaceous, undulating surface, giving it a hybrid appearance somewhere between animal, vegetable, and mineral. While eventually disparaged by the design cognoscenti, and especially the emerging Modernists, Art Nouveau provided for Dali the opportunity to exercise his voracious imagination.

“I believe that I was the first ... to consider the delirious Modern Style architecture as the most original and the most extraordinary phenomenon in the history of art, and I did so without a shadow of humor.”4 It is necessary to pause momentarily upon his rationale for celebrating this specific architectural vogue. Art Nouveau, with its obsessive decorativism, was for Dali an approach that surpassed strict functionalism. As a hodgepodge of historical quotations and technical borrowings, Art Nouveau espoused nothing useful: “Everything that was the most naturally utilitarian and functional in the known architectures of the past suddenly ceases, in Modern Style, to serve any purpose whatever.” Folding together narrative ornament with surface treatment, Art Nouveau pushed toward the layered realm of dreamwork—or, as Dali describes it, “that frightful impurity that has no other equivalent or equal than the immaculate purity of oniric [sic] intertwinings.” “Modern Style” is a condenser then, in the Freudian sense, that blends together opposing, unrelated elements into an over-determined but highly charged whole: “Gothic becomes metamorphosed in Hellenic, into Far-Eastern and, should it occur to one—into Renaissance ... all in the feeble time and space of a single window.”5

But it is misleading to imply that Dali saw absolutely no usefulness in the vegetal motifs of Art Nouveau. They do act as the material objectifications of desire. Dali was arguably the most resolute Freudian of all the Surrealists—and an unvarnished neurotic. His work throughout this period and the narratives he employed to explain it veer little from the Freudian straight and narrow. So it is of little surprise that he attributes the origins of his fixation on these peculiar stylings to the functioning of his pulsating drives. All architectural details serve only one purpose, “the ‘functioning of desires,’ these being, moreover, of the most turbid, disqualified and unavowable kind.”6 Dali then escalates into a hyperbolic mode that only he is capable of sustaining:

Grandiose columns and medium columns, inclined, incapable of holding themselves up, like the tired necks of heavy hydrocephalic heads, emerge for the first time in the world of hard undulations of water sculptured with a photographic scrupulousness of instantaneity until then unknown. They rise in waves from the polychrome reliefs, whose immaterial ornamentation congeals the convulsive transition of the feeble materializations of the most fugitive metamorphoses of smoke, as well as aquatic vegetations and the hair of those new women, even more “appetizing” than the slight thirst caused by the imaginative temperatures of the life of the floral ecstasies into which they vanish. These columns of feverish flesh (37.5˚ C) are destined to support nothing more than the famous dragon-fly with an abdomen soft and heavy as the block of massive lead out of which it has been carved in a subtle and ethereal fashion ... [It] cannot fail to appear to us as the true “masochistic column” having solely the function of “letting itself be devoured by desire,” like the actual first column built and cut out of that real desired meat toward which Napoleon, as we know, is always moving at the head of all real and true imperialisms which, as we are in the habit of repeating, are nothing but the immense “cannibalisms of history” often represented by the concrete, grilled and tasty lamb-chop that the wonderful philosophy of dialectical materialism, like a new William Tell, has placed on the very head of politics.7

It is hard to stop. The imagery builds to an orgiastic height that only seems to keep mounting. Yet it is hardly random. Throughout the passage above, for example, tropes oscillate meticulously between the hard and the soft, the formed and the formless (columns become tired necks; sculptures become water; materializations become fugitive metamorphoses of smoke; and lead becomes soft). Dali was determined to liquefy the membranes of the material object—to melt that subject/object barrier—but in this case the merger is not so much physical as it is psychic. Desire is a connective tissue entwining the subject and the object. The innervated object is never free from the tendrils of desire that envelop it and produce it as desired. The only means of satisfaction then is to incorporate fully the object of desire, to fuse subject with object so that they are forever indistinguishable. Thus the “fugitive” and “feeble” materializations that Dali writes of in relation to architectural ornamentation do have a use: they incite desire, they whet appetite.

Hans Poelzig’s Grosses Schauspielhaus (“theater of five thousand”), remodeled from a Berlin circus building in 1918. Later demolished.

Dali recognized that desire does not distinguish. That is to say, there is no perceptible difference between the registers of representation of a desired thing. In that endless play of substitutions that Freud called fetishism, the drives displace themselves onto whomever or whatever is available to the psyche. The goal for the subject, however, is always the same: to incorporate completely the object of desire. Dali effectively sexes-up building details as just the latest “feeble materialization” of his own ardent appetite:

Thus in my view it is precisely (I cannot emphasize this point too strongly) the wholly ideal Modern Style architecture that incarnates the most tangible and delirious aspiration of hyper-materialism. An illustration of this apparent paradox will be found in a current comparison, made disparagingly it is true, yet so lucid, which consists of assimilating a Modern Style house to a cake, to a pastry-cook’s exhibitionistic and ornamental tart. ... The nutritive and edible character of this kind of house is thus alluded to without any euphemism, these houses being nothing other than the first edible houses, the first and only erotizable buildings, whose existence verifies that urgent “function,” so necessary to the amorous imagination: to be able quite really to eat the object of desire.8

In this “new Surrealist age of the ‘cannibalism of objects,’” buildings must be edible because they do not differ in any substantial way from any other kind of object of desire. They are like the Kleinian part object, a rematerialization of a severed lost part that, through its subsequent intro- jection, or incorporation, completes the subject wholly. The subject absorbs the building just as the building consumes its inhabitants.

Consumption is not representational or symbolic. It does not stand for anything beyond the moment. Instead it only ties us more tightly to the humbling effects of pleasure, rot, and decay. Whereas the Futurists conceived of solid matter as just the illusion of permanence in a world of light, energy, and motion, Dali’s dematerializations are tied more tightly to the psyche. He perceives the landscape and objects around him bending and twisting under desire’s distorting pressures. Rock-hard pilasters and buttresses are simply momentary consolidations of matter in space and time. Desire moves in pulsating cycles and ebbs and flows. Like the “pointillist iridescences” on Gaudi’s rubbery buildings, time moves “in an asymmetrical and dynamic- instantaneous succession of reliefs, broken, syncopated, entwined.”9 Time and matter contort under the same force and with the same vicissitudes. They swell to afford the full measure of a satisfaction (nearly) experienced. They throb and detumesce along with the erratic appetite of the drives. Consumption unites. It is common, repetitive, destructive, and regenerative. Time bends like a soft watch. Monuments go limp.

  1. Salvador Dali, Dali on Modern Art: The Cuckolds of Antiquated Modern Art (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1996), p. 45. This edition reprints the English translation from the bilingual edition published by the Dial Press in 1957.
  2. The article was first published as “De la beauté terrifiante et comestible, de l’architecture Modern style” in Minotaure 3–4 (Paris: Editions Albert Skira, 1933). The full body of the essay appears in translation in Dali on Modern Art (note 1 above). All subsequent citations will refer to page numbers from that Dover edition.
  3. Dali, pp. 29-31.
  4. Dali, p. 33.
  5. Dali, p. 37.
  6. Dali, p. 37.
  7. Dali, pp. 37-9.
  8. Dali, p. 41.
  9. Dali, pp. 43-5.

Jamer Hunt is associate professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is director of the Master’s Program in Industrial Design—a graduate laboratory for postindustrial design.