James Ostrer's sweet tooth gets him into sticky situations

Sculpting the dark side to sugar addiction in a new show that will leave your tastebuds tingling for all the wrong reasons

Photography Lightbox
19 EF 137.62
Wotsit All About James Ostrer

The art world's food fetish is nothing new, triggering equal parts salivation and repulsion we gorge on so-called 'food porn' every day, saturating our screens with sugar. But beneath that candy-cane filter there's a darker side to our fetishisation of all-things sweet. With their Twix noses, salami decolletage and strawberry laces spewing from donut-shaped carverns, James Ostrer's saccharine-warped creations are delectably disturbing. Born out of a textbook childhood junk addiction, his new series Wotsit All About takes sugar worship to the extreme, sculpting mutated, larger-than-life candy characters from truck-loads of pick 'n' mix favourites. Pushing his sitters to the extreme he smothers them in cream cheese, frazzles and ice-cream cones, the food masks leaving a claustrophic, bitter-sweet taste on the tongue.

We caught up with James to talk mashed potato burns, the Pygmalion worship of his Frazzle-adorned creatures and the cathartic release he found while making them. 

This looks like it was such a fun project to make but with a darker message at its heart – where did the idea first come from?

It's definitely been fun but also tapped into all other emotions on my spectrum. My work is often like a constantly evolving self-help course where I am the therapist as well as the client. The specific intent with the start of this project was to expose myself to such extreme levels of junk food that I would no longer want to eat it again. I hoped to change my response to the mass of synthetic and saturated colour in shops, that hums and draws me in like a fly to a zapper. I wanted to convert those feelings into something new and beautiful.

There’s a strong tribal theme running through as well – did you use any tribal photography as a set template?

I wanted to create a new tribe based on what we now eat and how far removed it is from nature. The distance between what comes out of the ground and what we then open from a packet. I see it as an anthropological reflection of our slavery to sugar addiction. I didn't use any specific references other than my general knowledge. 

How did you create these tableaus of candy? Which was your favorite food to work with here in terms of texture and colour?

I often do my shopping in mammoth wholesale warehouses where the scale of them makes me feel the size of a child again and I just let myself go into an unregulated frenzy. I then start to create palettes of colour and textures back in my studio the same way you would mix oil paint. I can’t say I like working with one ingredient in particular as they all do different things to me and have their place. I remember stepping back after sticking the final frazzle on a model's head and thinking I had fallen in love with this creature I was making. In the same way some Japanese people do with anime cartoons.

The series is all about sugar-worshipping icons – who would you say is the biggest ‘offender’? And is each portrait based on a different icon? 

I think you can describe the breakfast cartoon characters as the street dealers of sugar and the major corporations behind them as the cartels. In 2007 Tony the Tiger was banned from television advertising due to the sugar content in Frosties so he is definitely an offender that is now effectively in jail. All the portraits are an amalgamation of every kind of iconography that I have been exposed to. Whether it is the statue of a Hindu goddess i have seen in the Himalayas or Kim Kardashian rolling around in the sand on her instagram.

“Eventually I could see refined sugar being viewed in the same way as smoking is. The only difference is no one in fashion or film ever regarded being fat as cool.” – James Ostrer

I found the portraits quite surreal – they seem irreverent and whimsical at first but when you look closer they are actually quite disturbing and grotesque. Was this what you were going for?

I love the fact that you feel both these opposing emotions as I feel that's exactly what great advertising and packaging can do. It pulls you in with all these promises of beauty, happiness and joy then you're left feeling empty and disturbed by wanting something different than yourself. I aimed to achieve the oscillation of these extremes. The works are also channeling some kind of unplanned emotion on the day that builds in an increasing arc with the crescendo moment of the final shot. 

While these excitations are therapeutic to me they have often been cathartic to the people that sit for me as well. One example would be where I was asked if I could source a specific brand of sweets from the country the person was brought up in. They had binged on these to an extremely unhealthy level in the past and the following day they called to say being completely submerged in them had provoked a deeply emotional reflection about their unhappiness all those years ago.

You like to pick apart ‘the discomfort that underlines Western culture’ – what is it about sugar worship that makes us uncomfortable?

I tend to reflect on the darker aspects of human nature and the starting point I work from is often me. To simmer it down to its most basic reduction I think as a species it all started going wrong when we moved from being hunter-gathers to aspiring to gathering way too much. This has led to developed world civilizations appearing to have a sense of control but in reality feeling powerless.

There are interesting changes. Look at the tobacco industries Malboro cowboy and how he was banned as is smoking in most environments now. Eventually I could see refined sugar being viewed in the same way as smoking is. The only difference is no one in fashion or film ever regarded being fat as cool.

You seem to like testing the body’s limits and playing a very active role in front of the camera as well as behind it – did you enjoy slathering yourself in all that sugar or was it just plain gross?

I absolutely love my job even if I land out stinking of sugary cream cheese for a few days. The early ones were with dyed mash potato and I burnt my face on the first attempt because I was so excited I didn’t wait for it to cool down. I have to say there were moments at these experimental stages of my work where I think the context of making art was the only thing separating me from an inmate in a cell doing a fecal smearing for emotional release.

Finally, what’s your favorite candy or have you been thoroughly put off now?

I definitely thought I was but I still seem to love an old school jammy dodger. Which would be ok if I didn't have to eat the whole packet then feel shit.

Wotsit all About is on show at the Gazelli House Gallery, London W1, until 11 September

More Photography