Ulla von Brandenburg recreates historic 1973 exhibition on European confectionery
‘Do not eat the sweets yet,’ German artist Ulla von Brandenburg commands, walkie-talkie in hand. After a few tense moments, each of the 100 schoolchildren she has recruited for her Sweet Feast project edge sheepishly in single file through the doors of London’s Whitechapel Gallery.
The camera rolls and the subjects (though with some hesitation) fall in line – unlike their counterparts in this exact spot in January 1973. Back then, to hail the UK’s entry into the European Common Market, more than 500 schoolchildren had been invited to sample a small selection of sweets to learn about ‘confectionery as an art form’.
There were contributions from members of the newly expanded European community, including Eiffel Tower shaped lollipops, German gummy mice, coffee-flavoured Hopjes from Holland, Italian marzipan fruits and salty Danish licorice. But events took a bittersweet turn when the overly zealous children succumbed to temptation, overwhelmed the gallery guard and devoured the entire exhibition.
Still from Sweet Feast, 2018, by Ulla von Brandenburg, Super 16mm film. © Whitechapel Gallery
In a multidisciplinary piece in partnership with Le Prix Marcel Duchamp, von Brandenburg has recreated this unexpected turn of events through performance and film, marrying the structure of theatre with the freedom of art. ‘This was all very frightening for me,’ she laughs, having previously worked on films and performances with an all-professional cast of actors, ‘this wasn’t rehearsed, it was more of a “happening”.’
Behind the scenes, a teacher mouths instructions frantically from the sidelines as the children – from local school Arnhem Wharf – meander around the sweet-stacked tables. A tambourine signals the completion of a scene and so far, all sweets are still miraculously intact. As the next scene develops at an accelerating pace, the distress of the guard (the only trained actor in the film) mounts, and the anarchic children dominate and eventually demolish the display.
Screened in the Whitechapel’s immersive second gallery, the film is accompanied by a geometric and vibrant seating structure, designed by the artist and upholstered in fabric by Nanna Ditzel for Danish textile experts Kvadrat. Viewers are invited to clamber onto the structure, as though a seamless extension to the film. ‘It’s important to make the barrier between the public and work as small as possible,’ von Brandenburg says.
Installation view of Sweet Feast, 2018, by Ulla von Brandenburg, at Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photography: Stephen White. © Whitechapel Gallery
Both playful and political, the work also explores the radical shift in attitudes towards sugar, which is rapidly becoming the forbidden fruit of our time. ‘There are a lot of obese kids, which is a big problem, so I didn’t want to handle a very difficult topic in a naïve way,’ the artist continues.
In her multilayered Sweet Feast, von Brandenburg combines the curiosity of childhood, the looming uncertainty of Brexit and skilfully refines the art of controlled chaos in the process. §