In the flux of post-industrial capital, liquid is the currency that counts. Market analysts monitor its ebb and flow as obsessively as Mad Max’s Immorten Joe, who had the foresight to traffic in its many forms, from mountain spring and fossil fuel to mother’s milk. Sean Raspet recognizes the power of the liquid as well and since 2012 has pivoted his practice to engage almost exclusively with its many vicissitudes. To date, this has yielded a series of radical engagements that expand and reconfigure the parameters of contemporary sculptural thinking.
Take, for instance, 2014’s New Flavors and Fragrances, a solo exhibition of colorless or nearly-colorless fluids composed from the common compounds used by the flavor and fragrance industries. Displayed neatly in grids of 5-liter plastic jugs, this body of work retains the idea of ‘plastic form’ only as a heuristic device—or better yet, a containment strategy for an alchemy that unfolds, unseen, on the molecular level. As Raspet describes it, this is an extreme type of reduction: “a paradigm of working with materials in which arbitrary, spatial considerations such as form and compositional arrangement are screened out in favor of underlying structural relationships.” The artist’s gesture is thus subsumed by procedure and formulation, a careful distilling of exact ratios of molecular compounds into synthetic formulations that appeal to the ‘chemical senses’ (namely taste and smell).
The resulting variants achieve various material effects. One strand posits the concentrated form of what we’ve been trained to perceive as ‘fruit flavoring’ (Fruity, 2014), which becomes poisonous in its purest form; another yields a negative cola—the molecular mirror image of the readily available commercial product which boasts negligible flavor variations; yet another, produces a fragrance which aims to activate the sensation of a phone buzzing in one’s pocket (Phantom Ringtone, 2013- 2014), the synesthetic byproduct of our tech-regulated existences.
Tackling key issues of global sustainability and redrawing our basic metabolic functions
At once abstract and hyper-concrete, these substances exist as polymorphous states of matter. Unlimited and available in any quantity, they are discontinuous and non-discrete—their volume adjustable to the demands of any economy. Archived as patented or defined chemical formulas, they are often contractual in nature and can be acquired for reproduction by a third party. In their intended use, they are also delivery systems that invade bodies, modifying them to shifting conditions, environmental and otherwise. For Raspet, each of these avenues opens onto resonant discourses, from the legacy of Conceptual Art and changing parameters of objects and entities to questions of utility, space and storage, which might very well be the defining concerns of our not-so-distant future.
This line of thinking, in particular, has found its latest iteration in an ongoing collaboration with the Silicon Valley based company, Soylent, which has pioneered a meal replacement beverage that is available in both liquid and powdered forms. Meeting all nutritional requirements for an average adult, the formula is faultless—save for what some describe as a nondescript blandness. Working together with the company’s labs, Raspet has focused on developing specific flavors that are both mimetic and non-mimetic in nature. These additives seek to replicate the sensorial experience of food that we crave, while slowly conditioning our palettes to a newfound source of nourishment.
Neither dystopic nor utopian, Raspet’s collaboration with Soylent engages the exigencies of the present, tackling some of the fundamental issues of global sustainability, among these, dwindling natural resources, access to food and the ability of future bodies to adapt to alternate sources of caloric intake. This is artwork both prescient and present that seeps into porous systems where it gestates and slowly redraws our most basic metabolic functions.
(American, b. 1981)
is an artist who lives and works in
He is represented by
Société, Berlin, and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San
Raspet features in “Fear of Content,” the digital platform of the 9th Berlin Biennale, on view through 18 September.
Franklin Melendez is an independent curator and writer based in New York.
Image: Sean Raspet feat. Soylent feat. Nhu Duong. at Frieze NY 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Société, Berlin
Photo credit: Robert Kulisek . Clothing: Nhu Duong, Styling: Jon Wang, Models: Eliot Glass and Yulu Serao