Osvaldo Castellari’s latest commission is causing him to break into a nervous sweat. The gelato maker from the small commune of Mori, 15 miles southwest of Trento in northern Italy, is clearly an expert in frozen confectionaries: dressed in an immaculate lab coat as he measures fruit and milk into large stainless steel mixers, he looks like a scientist of taste. But, in Tim Etchells’ video Art Flavours (2008), he has been asked to step well beyond his comfort zone. The task is this: to produce a range of ice creams based on four popular art-world terms – ‘The Body’, ‘The Archive’, ‘The Spectacle’ and ‘Memory’ – for the opening party of Manifesta 7 in 2008. Rather than tourists, the gelato maker must now satisfy the palates of professional consumers and arbiters of cultural taste.
At first it seems as if the joke is on Castellari: is it even possible to translate such vaguely theoretical niceties into something as palpable as a flavour? Is the whole thing not simply an attempt to make an ordinary man look like a moron? Castellari is overwhelmed: ‘I can’t do it […] this is heavy stuff,’ he confesses, wringing his hands. In the end, however, he emerges triumphant, even if his solutions are somewhat unexpected: ‘The Body’ is translated into a vanilla-flavoured ice cream because, according to Castellari, it has all the ingredients a human body needs to survive. ‘The Spectacle’ is garnished with cookies, flakes of chocolate and a tricolour of edible spray ‘because we are Italian’. The 24-minute-long video culminates in a heart-warming moment as the gelato-king wades through the swarming crowds of Manifesta towards a custom-painted ‘Art Flavours’ trolley. He looks like a hero returning after a great adventure.
Etchells is known for creating unsettling situations by playing with the unwritten rules of social convention, routine and specialist areas of knowledge. Possibly best-known as a novelist, cultural theorist and artistic director of Sheffield’s frequently anarchic Forced Entertainment theatre group (which he helped found in 1984), he has also created an extensive body of art in the form of videos, public signage, text works and live events. These practices are unified by Etchells’ interest in the interplay between personal choice and the arbitrariness of rules-based activities, often mixed with a dash of urban paranoia and romantic yearning. For example, his novel The Broken World (2008) is a love story written in the form of a guide to a fictional computer game. Etchells’ artistic practice dallies with similar relational schemes: one of my favourite works of his, Insults & Praises (2003), is a mesmerising collaborative video (made with Vlatka Horvat) in which the two performers face the camera and patiently take turns professing their love, admiration, annoyance and hatred of each other.
This combination of constraining rules and the freedom of witty ripostes is also the key to City Changes (2008), a series of 20 framed pages of text describing different fictional cities. Each text is a mutation of the adjacent one, and is inspired in part by the ‘track changes’ function in Microsoft Word, which is widely used by writers and editors to follow the various amendments that go into any print-ready text. The first of these begins: ‘There was once a city in which nothing ever changed,’ and ends: ‘life in that place was like watching paint dry’; the second text begins: ‘There was once a city in which things changed constantly,’ and ends: ‘life there was like watching 500 TVs all tuned to a different channel’. Things get progressively surreal as we read on: the 13th text describes a city, ‘that never changed for the simple reason that everything there had turned to stone’. Life, in the city described in the 14th text, is ‘what science fiction books call weird’, and life in the city described by the 20th and final text ‘was what some people call random or hard to describe’.
This was Etchells’ first significantly sized solo exhibition in the UK, so it was disappointing to find the works here were largely recycled from other shows. Both Art Flavours and City Changes were presented at Manifesta 7 (though another work here, a photographic image a non-operational clock Stopped Watch, was produced this year). Nevertheless, it was good to see the work here in the UK. Thankfully, Etchells did not dodge the real-world aspect of Art Flavours. At a one-day event at Gasworks in March, local families were invited to create a selection of smoothies related to recent exhibitions at the gallery: there was, for instance, a British Empire smoothie (a nod to Olivia Plender’s 2009 show) and a Black Panther smoothie – a reference to artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre’s project ‘Do You Remember Olive Morris?’ earlier this year (Morris was a London-based Black Panther activist who died in 1979). Though I missed this family-oriented event, I’m told that it was packed to bursting-point. It was, I like to imagine, a first taste of activism for local youngsters – a flavour of things to come.