When I volunteered to help German artist Sonja Alhäuser make sculptures out of butter, I pictured something sensual. After all, don't you find, among the synonyms for butter, "lubricant"? Or, "lubricate." Alhäuser would be orchestrating a "catering performance" at the opening of an exhibition about shared meals as art practice called Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art at University of Chicago's Smart Museum in February of 2012. This exhibition, which included documents like Filippo Marinetti's 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, objects like Laura Letinsky's photographs of table-top aftermath, and a slew of events and performances including Michael Rakowitz's traveling Enemy Kitchen food truck, will travel, in adapted form, to the Blaffer Museum in Houston (August 31, 2013 — January 5, 2014) and SITE Santa Fe (February 2014 — May 2014), followed by other venues yet to be announced.
And look at the butter sculptures we'd be making, the reveling baroque creatures that Alhäuser has become known for in a decade of sculpture and performance with foodstuffs like marzipan and chocolate: Thigh-height (although propped on an overflowing banquet table, they'd look visitors in the eye), a bellowing fish-tailed sea god, spewing forth from a butter wave; a mounting turbine of entangled puti with messy ringlets, fat thighs askew; and as if the tablecloth were the surface of a pond, a naked woman, flesh dyed algae-green with watercress, emerging with just her tits buoyed up over the surface. Sorry, her breasts. It's hard to hold a classical vocabulary in your mind or your mouth when you're looking at forty pounds of Swedish Gold margarine. (Margarine holds its form better than butter, apologies to Jennifer Garner.)
There is surprising poetry at the heart of margarine: The French chemist Chevreul who first isolated fatty acids and noted their nacreous sheen pulled the name from Margarites, Greek for pearl. So the French invented it—an 1869 patent resulted from government-sponsored research sparked by anxiety about population growth and food shortage—but the real boom happened after WWII, partially the result of butter rationing. Germany was Europe's highest producer of margarine throughout the cold war (the Dutch a close second) and still was as of 2001.