By Anna Dilemna
One of the most popular animated children’s characters in Japan is a superhero named Anpanman (Mr. Sweet Bun), who is made entirely of bread. Together with his doughy cohorts (who have names such as Mr. White Bread Man and Mr. Curry Bun), Anpanman fights malnutrition by allowing hungry people to eat his head, which then conveniently grows back.
Unless we grew up with Anpanman and his baked sidekicks, however, the word “bread” isn’t likely to conjure up anything for us much more exciting than a piece of toast. Throughout history, however, there have been plenty of people who envision more than just a tasty receptacle for peanut butter and jelly when they think about bread. In Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece, for example, decorative bread baked in the forms of flowers, animals, angels, and various other symbols is traditionally made to celebrate religious holidays.
In addition to religious and folk art traditions, many visual artists have chosen to work with bread as an artistic medium. In 2004, designer Jean Paul Gaultier put together a retrospective of his work in Paris called “Pain Couture,” in which he showed several couture pieces made entirely from bread, including a brioche version of Madonna’s famous conical bra and a toasted dough Kelly bag. Gaultier explained that he chose to show his creations in bread rather than as a traditional retrospective due to the fact that he’s always seen his work more as a craft than an “art.” “We can live without clothes but not without bread!” he exclaimed.
Gaultier’s work emphasizes a connection between bread and the human body, which seems to be a common theme for contemporary artists who work with bread. Sharon Baker is a British artist who has often used bread as a sculptural material in creating different parts of the body; most notably, in 2006, she baked a life-sized bread version of herself and then invited an audience of onlookers to eat it while she watched. The same month, but on the other side of the world, Chilean artist Constanza Puente also created a bread statue of herself and then left it to sit on a park bench (where, apparently, it was very popular with pigeons). Both artists say they feel bread serves as the perfect metaphor for the fragility of the human body.
Perhaps most compelling (and creepy) of all is the work of Kittiwat Unarrom, a Thai artist who bakes astonishingly realistic body parts in his family’s bakery in a small village near Bangkok. Hands and feet are stacked on shelves or hanging from meat hooks, and heads sit in plastic-wrapped pie tins. Unarrom states that the concept behind his gruesome array of tasty products (apparently they are edible) is to make people wonder whether they are consuming food, or if the food is consuming them. Imagine the shock of the bewildered Thai farmers who must occasionally wander into the bakery wanting nothing more than a roll to go with that night’s Tom Kha Gai!
Not all artists who work with bread are bakers, though. Take Emily Berezin, who in 2008 created a statue of Wonder Woman made entirely out of Wonder Bread (11 loaves total, in case you’re wondering)! Berezin says that for her, the sculpture was both a celebration and a critique of the white, upper-middle class suburban mother, “the one who makes the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her child every day of the year. She’s a superhero, and she’s well preserved — but she’s also a little horrifying and a bit crusty, and if she’s not careful, she just might crumble.”
In the end, it’s clear from the work of these artists that bread has unexpected capabilities as a creative material. And while you may not be running out the door to purchase yeast for your next haute couture collection, or pushing life-sized dough versions of yourself into giant pizza ovens, perhaps you’ll feel a bit more inspired than usual when you bite into breakfast tomorrow morning.
About the Author:
Anna Dilemna is a writer and crafter who lives in Madrid, Spain. Her website is annadilemna.typepad.com.