Upon hearing the name Sonja Alhäuser, elaborate butter sculptures, fountains of wine, artistically prepared buffets and drawings (which are actually recipes) come to mind. Her sweet-smelling installation Transvolut, on exhibit in our Contemporary Food Lab gallery space until April, consists of giant chocolate pralines.
Her artworks don’t only address the transience of the earthly or the aesthetics of enjoyment. They also emphasize something that hardly gets any attention nowadays: rituals. We talked with Sonja about the relation of art, food, and rituals, and how the three work together to link the present moment with the tradition. Sonja deals mostly with moments and making the holy in them perceivable. What could be a better vehicle than food to create, celebrate, and make moments into something special? Her art is magic, and more and more we understand why.
CFL: How do you view the subject of wastefulness regarding art, your work?
Sonja: I use food for creating something new. For me as an artist the use of food is part of the message of my work. Seduction, ability, possibility, encroachments … that is what is important. Whether or not the chocolate balls are eaten doesn’t change anything regarding my work. Of course, the balls are made from a good material and it would be nice not to throw them away in the end. Also, I like the thought that art doesn’t only live on in the minds of the people but also in the stomach. People internalize the work with one more sense, that of taste. Everybody leaves and takes something home with them. One likes it while another doesn’t.
CFL: Your art is often interactive. It invites people to not only perceive, but brings them together. How did you come to this kind of art making?
Sonja: For me, the works are always part of a festive culture. As an artist, I am taking the role of a host. And I think that each artist is a host in their own way. We don’t make the art for ourselves but for the guests, who come and look. We want to be in dialogue with them. But especially in my case, this phenomenon is quite strong due to my background. At home with my family, there was always a lot of energy in the kitchen. It is this energy that I like so much, when I receive guests. And when I do preparations for an exhibition now, it is like doing the preparations for a festivity. Until the opening, when everything starts to smell, I enter this special flow of energy.
CFL: So your way of making art traced back to your childhood?
Sonja: Festivities were a big part of my childhood. I was witnessing loads and I always had to help. We were always producing tons of food – bowls of potato salad, boxes of pastries. For me as a child, this meant something between the land of milk and honey and a nightmare. After all, we were no bakery but just a private household! A normal household with two ovens, three refrigerators, two deep-freezers and a few extra rooms for food storage. I was growing up with that. And I think all of that came from my mother. Her family was expelled from their farm in Silesia and they had to stop their whole production. But my mother kept the family tradition alive in her way. She always told me stories of their self-made butter, of cows that had to be milked, mushrooms that had to be gathered, and thousands of ‘Knödel’ that had to be rolled. And somehow I also keep this tradition going, but in my way.
CFL: You are doing so by making art – an art form that is almost performance or theater, in which both artist and audience are actors.
Sonja: This is because I am always looking for something that is not easy to grasp. Quite early on, my aim was to create moments and to show sensitivities. Taste or an experience is hard to show, but you can create moments. It is also about rituals. I assume something like a longing for rituals exists. So what I am doing is handing things out in cycles that will be eaten. This will be repeated, and in the end, it’s a ritual.
Also my engagement in this subject stems from my childhood. Back then, people were working in a much more seasonal way than today. My parents were also quite religious and active in the parish. We prepared a lot of food for church festivities that took place every year. Making pastries for Christmas, rolling ‘Knödels’ for parish feasts, cooking marmalade for the summer – everything became an annual ritual.
CFL: What is a ritual for you? How does it differ from tradition?
Sonja: The link to tradition is a crucial point, but rituals are much more important for me than traditions. Traditions are wonderful but sometimes it is time to break them. Christmas, for example, is a tradition, but I can invent my own rituals for celebrating it. Also, I can invent my own rituals beyond any tradition. For me, rituals mean to fill a moment with energy and love. These moments are repeated, and you can always look forward to them. They set points and exclamation marks in this life, which is often so unstructured. I even liked to go to church sometimes when I was younger, only because this kind of repetition gave me a structure in my life. When for some reason this is omitted, you just create your own rituals. When I have guests at my place, for me this is a ritual, too. You can see it as a ritual if you want. Of course one have to care about making it a ritual.
CFL: And you have to repeat it?
Sonja: Exactly! I also give the people the possibility to repeat the rituals by themselves. For example, I developed this little box for making figures from ice. At home, I use it to put little figures into my friend’s champagne glasses. They melt away in the drink and the man is drinking the little woman and the other way around. So when I give this box as a present, I also give the possibility to perform a ritual.
Of course there are also rituals that are executed only one time. For example, marriage. Although even this one can happen repeatedly. The most important thing, however, is to really believe in it in the moment of the ritual. Otherwise, rituals make no sense.
CFL: So, do humans need rituals? Do they need repetition?
Sonja: Yes, these repetitions give a kind of security, a home. If everything is constantly new, you have to invent yourself again and again. But if you have rituals, you can always ascertain what makes you feel comfortable, what you actually like. This is also very important, when you want to create your own rituals. You develop them out of your own experiences and preferences. They are entirely invented with bonds to what you already know. You add those things, because you like them. It is very important to reflect: which moments do I really want to celebrate and concentrate on and live more consciously?
CFL: Is there maybe a need for redefinition? You also mentioned church rituals. Do rituals eventually emerge from a lack or a critique of religious structure?
Sonja: Yes, I think so. What comes from tradition often works symbolically and doesn’t come from the inside. It is already predetermined how it should look. I know many sacred rituals because I went to a convent school. I learned to value these rituals and don’t intend to discard them all. But in the case of most of them, I am simply missing the fun. For my own rituals, this is very important – joie de vivre, sex appeal. I was missing that at some points. So yes, rituals are definitely the search for something, maybe even for concentration. Before executing a ritual there is always this moment of silence, of concentrating on the moment, of perceiving yourself. This is almost sacred. When I put the little figures into my friend’s champagne glasses, I almost feel like a priestess – a funny priestess! But of course, something like that emerges from a deficit, from a searching.
CFL: Maybe all of that is a recognition of the importance of rituals and at the same time a questioning of tradition. Hence it is also an emancipation of dogmas? Are we living in a time in which we create a new world and rearrange old structures?
Sonja: Yes, and there lies a big chance in exactly this. But the question is: What are we doing with this free space? It could also happen that it will be filled again with old things. But at this point, artists are needed! Especially nowadays they have so many possibilities and niches. These niches need to be filled. And we need good ideas. Artistic thinking can be crucial here because it is, let’s say, orientated towards needs and not towards markets.
CFL: What do you think about the community aspect of rituals? Especially in the case of rituals that have already been established as rules or traditions, where community looms large.
Sonja: The community creating side of rituals is actually the most beautiful aspect of it! This is also one of the only things I still like about the church. If 100 people sing together, this has a huge power – for the good and the bad, if you look for example at mass situations. Sometimes you can just enjoy that you don’t feel only like an individual but also as part of a community. It is all about sensation. Indeed, it feels different when you sense within a community, when you are happy together with all the others. For me as an artist, this is especially beautiful. Artists are very free and individual, we do whatever we like. But sometimes this can become quite lonely. That is probably why I love big dinners, most of all, when everybody eats the same. When there is one roast for everybody and you share it. From the idea of common eating I once developed a work of mine: tables that only function when people sit together around them and eat olives together. Everybody has to put the stones at certain places on the table. This is like a game and games can also be rituals sometimes. But even if you are only in two you can share – the spiciness of a peperoni for example. I once did a drawing about this: two people do the same thing and they feel the same effect. In the end you could say that my works are instructions for rituals. And some of them are simply reminders that rituals exist.
CFL: So, what are you? A prophet, which reminds people of the freedom of setting their own rituals, or maybe the next big founder of a religion?
Sonja: (laughs) Oh god! I don’t want to found a religion, but I like the first idea. To think about: what is a ritual for me and where can I let other people let take part? And then repeat everything. By the way, people can use my rituals. I think they are quite good already.Interview: Ludwig Cramer-Klett