352 Cups of Jell-O | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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352 Cups of Jell-O

That was no wrestling match, that was art.

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Jell-O. It was the purest of comfort foods, cheerful and unthreatening, one of the major food groups of childhood. Not many of us are without some memory of its quivering, of carrot shavings dancing the tarantella in a lime- or rose-colored sea. Our mothers knew the power of this soothing primordial soup. They knew that when cooled and released from its circular cradle, it gave life to fruit cocktail. They knew its unlimited potential.

But they never mentioned it was right up there with sex and death. They never told us that taken out of its Tupperware context, it could become naughty and loaded with symbolism. Sports promoters were the first to discover this. They figured out that females wrestling with each other in vats of Jell-O could sell tickets.

It seems that Jell-O has now been given an even more existential meaning. For the opening of Randolph St. Gallery's "Sex, Death, & Jello" show two weeks ago, performance artist Susan Wexler and two friends faced off in a room lit only by black lights and began to wrestle in a tub containing approximately 352 cups of Day-Glo Jello-O.

For 45 minutes, they slithered around in the glowing green ooze, grunting and sliding over each other's Day-Glo painted bodies as if part of some primeval Esther Williams show. Their struggle yielded occasional applause--not from frenzied spectators screaming for blood but from polite art patrons, who now and then ducked to avoid flying chunks of Jell-O, which spattered on the floor.

"Gee, it looks just like the Milky Way," said one spectator.

"Nah, it looks nuclear," countered another voice in the dark.

"God, that looks disgusting," one woman muttered as she made her way into the next room to see the rest of "Sex, Death, & Jello." (However, an informal poll taken later revealed that women found the performance considerably more of a turn-on than men.)

"You have a sick wife but you'll probably have a long marriage," a friend reportedly told Wexler's husband after the match.

The show had been a perfect vehicle for dealing with Wexler's two favorite themes: sex and death. It was, after all, about objectifying everyday topics and turning them into fetishes, explained curator Tony Tasset. Jell-O was a great example of something mundane that could be transformed into a fetish--merely by altering its context.

"I like to do silly sex and death things," Wexler had admitted earlier. "But I also want people to see something macabre and serious in my performances. Glowing bodies engaged in a grim but silly struggle in glowing goo . . . like dinosaurs in some swamp. The purpose is to make things beautiful and weirdly radiant.

"Since I tend to do sex- and death-related pieces involving domestic things, Jell-O sounded perfect because I enjoy using forms taken from popular culture. Jell-O also transmits light and seemed like the ideal vehicle for achieving a look of glowing people operating in a glowing world."

To prepare for her performance, Wexler bought wrestling magazines; she wanted to attend a Jell-O wrestling match, but found out that "the sport is defunct from New Year's Eve to March." A few days before the performance, she rubbed Jell-O over her skin to test how it might react to the oil-based Day-Glo makeup she and her two friends, Sue Montoya and Louanne Ponder, would use for the big match. And she made Jell-O--352 cups of it along with Jello-O mold hats to wear into the arena of glowing Green Goddess glop.

For those familiar with Wexler's work, Jell-O wrestling wasn't a particularly extreme departure. Her other performances have included Lavanderia Stripper From Beyond the Grave, in which she played a skeleton performing a striptease with bones (also in the dark under black light); Condom Dance (from a larger piece called Hats-R-Us), in which a group of young men danced around wearing fake glow-in-the-dark penises attached to jockstraps; and Nighttime Noodles, a performance for which Wexler painted a giant beaver opposing a giant spaceship--"a joke about women against the war in space," she explains. The performance also included a video in which Wexler played a blond geisha with car trouble.

When Wexler isn't reading Ayn Rand or doing performances like The Fountain Heads (in which she danced outside a McDonald's wearing a lawn sprinkler on her head), she earns a regular living as a food stylist. "I make food photogenic," she quips. "Once I spent an entire week assembling a bowl filled with perfect grains of rice."

The connection between art and life doesn't escape her. Jell-O wrestling, she contends, probably represents "some sort of apocryphal food styling."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Van Eynde.

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