If someone said “food historian” to you, you might think of an old lady researching a recipe for ye olde mutton pye. You probably wouldn’t think of a 28-year old Londoner, with a penchant for poisonous 19th century sweets unless you’ve previously met Tasha Marks, who will have told you about the Victorian trend for adding lead oxide to sweets to make them more colourful, albeit a tad lethal.
Marks founded AVM Curiosities (Animal Vegetable Mineral) in 2011, a year after graduating from Sussex University with an Art History degree, specialising in food history. “Working in the arts, I think there are a lot of people who are facilitators of the arts, and I decided quite early on that I wanted to be a maker as well as a facilitator. Food was the perfect avenue to do that. It is very democratic and breaks down a lot of boundaries that maybe fine arts people can feel a bit intimidated by”, she explains. “AVM is about bridging the gaps between the art and the food worlds – there’s that kind of lineage with food history where in the 15th century, confectioners were treated as artists.”
Previous projects have included making sweets from ambergris (a rock-like substance made of squid beaks vomited by sperm whales yet prized by perfumiers for its smell) and making chocolate replicas of Leonardo’s Last Supper that were infused with gold, frankincense and myrrh. “I wanted to look at a religious icon in a way that is both trivial and cerebral in equal measure”, she laughs.
In 2014, she created “This Sea of Sugar Knows No Shore” – a one-metre-squared Turkish carpet made from sugar for the Istanbul Design Biennial. One of the bonuses of the commission was being able to visit the city beforehand to research Turkish sweets, meet rose water experts (the room which housed the installation was rose-scented), and meet the inventor of popping candy. Marks explains the concept: “The design transforms from 15th century English design into contemporary Turkish patterns and it’s made using a 17th century sugar paste recipe and a 15th century technique of mould making. I drew the designs when I was out there and got a Turkish craftsman to carve them into wood, which I then used to make imprints in the sugar. It was about using different techniques – old and new ways of thinking.”
In recent years, Marks’ work has moved into some of London’s biggest museums and galleries. As part of the Alexander McQueen Friday Late at the V&A, Marks wanted to channel the darkness of McQueen’s designs and created edible black bubbles. “This was my first venture into matching a soundtrack (by Gazelle Twin) to an experience,” she explains. “The interactive installation took a murky black liquid, and transformed it into beautiful orbs of light. The tension between beauty and the grotesque was explored as the black bubbles floated freely around the space only to be ravenously consumed by the viewer. The piece was both silly and cerebral: a comment on the dark undercurrents of his life and work, and yet also, more poignantly, a proclamation of creativity, nostalgia and fun.”
In 2015, she began to explore cross-modalism, which is when you have interactions between two or more different sensory modalities, such as sight and smell. This led to her “Aromatic Art” exhibition at the Southbank Centre which was about the materiality of spices and “The Poetry of Toast” at the Barbican which was about “the ritual and behaviour around food, expressly about taking something everyday and drawing it out in the ‘alien’ space of the art gallery into something performative.”
After that was the Georgian Ice Cream Parlour at Kensington Palace – which she is re-running this year on the 18-21 August with Ruby Violet as her new ice cream partner, as well as creating a Day of the Dead edible sculpture at the British Museum, a Goya-themed tasting menu and an aphrodisiac tasting menu at the National Gallery, and a “Lickable Leighton” experience at Leighton House where she matched each dish with a different room or painting.
As someone who likes to keep busy, it comes as no surprise that Marks has a number of projects in the pipeline for the rest of the year. She is creating three scent-chambers in the newly opened kitchens of the Sir John Soane’s Museum for an exhibition called ’Below Stairs’ which opens in September, she has a project coming up at the V&A which is still under wraps, another event at the National Gallery in October to tie in with its Caravaggio exhibition, and she will also be cooking at a supperclub at Yinka Shonibare’s studio Guest Projects, which will be themed around the American artist Kara Walker.
Ultimately, Marks sees her work as a way of bringing people together through combining the senses and releasing memories: “That’s why I was drawn to confectionery most of all. It has a lot of stories, there’s the history. There’s also the nostalgic element and the storytelling and the familiarity. We all have a sweet tooth, so you’re already starting on a platform that people already enjoy and can engage with.”
Image credit goes to:
- Tasha Marks – Ash Kingston
- Edible Black Bubbles – Paul Singer
- Lickable Leighton – Chloe Rivers courtesy of AVM Curiosities