OATFIELD CONFECTIONARY by John M. Cunningham
Most of us have had a sweet tooth at sometime in our lives. If you don’t suffer from this completely benign condition, you probably know someone who does, and their giveaway symptoms. Most obviously, it is a child transfixed at a shop counter, or an adult who holds long conversations over comfort food, which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds.
I thought that I had outgrown such puerility, until one day last autumn, Desmond Doherty and Harold Jacob of ‘Oatfield Confectionary’, invited my colleagues Terre Duffy, Sally Murphy and myself to visit their factory here in the heart of Letterkenny.
I have to admit, that when the door of the ‘Oatfield’ factory floor opened to let us in, I had the strange, woozy feeling that I was entering an imaginary place, walking into a room that wasn’t real. For sure, there was nothing fancy or ostentatious about the plant. It is a place of work – solid, industrial, serviceable. Yet I can’t explain why I should have felt so? But looking around at the rest of our party, I understood that we all found the experience deeply satisfactory, and as we entered, we felt a rush of sudden, incomprehensible elation. In the background, the machines of the factory bubbled like stockpots on the back of a stove, and as time went on, I began to settle into what I could call (for want of a better term) a state of double consciousness. I was both a part of what was going on around me and cut off from it, drifting freely in my mind – as if by some magic – my childhood self had emerged and taken over my body. We were all enjoying ourselves, lost in nasal paradise.
As a subject for an art project, ‘Oatfield’ is both brilliantly fertile and utterly contradictory. Sweet factories hold a rich fascination for us as a sort of modern-day fairy tale. Like Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, where we sometimes lose ourselves like children in a universe of ephemera, myth and nonsense. Looking back on our younger selves, we see a world where anything seems possible and whatever we wish for is ours for the taking. Surely every child feels this way, filled with youthful optimism that is only ground down once the realities of adult life begin to make themselves known. It is only when we see ourselves truly as struggling adults can we fully appreciate the significance of our early years, and confront our humdrum reality with the lost magic of childhood.
What makes Abigail O’Brien’s photographs of the ‘Oatfield’ factory so remarkable, is her uncanny ability to turn these childhood myths into reality in such a way that the ordinary factory floor turns out to be just as magical as the extraordinary. When she shows us the staff and workings of the plant, our sense of wonder is increased, not decreased. When we learn how a Chocolate Éclair comes into existence, do we think them less tasty; or that the candelabra of the Christmas Colleen Assortments will burn less bright in our minds? This is another world to see and feel, another world of sweets.
As an artist and personality, Abigail O’Brien is such an emblem of hope and energy. That she could, in the process of this project, experience a life threatening illness, and yet exude such composure, such tranquility of bearing – is nothing short of phenomenal. For Abigail, the way the world works – which isn’t what it could be – is not a cause for despair or blanket cynicism, rather, it is just a strong incentive to live purposely, and to be determined to live well.
The Oatfield Sweet Factory survives in these photographs of Abigail O’Brien, and the aura that surrounds these stories will surely reach across the years and vindicate one of the true aspirations of art. Namely, that it can make the spirit of things endure. In the end, Abigail’s book is old school magic, much like ‘Oatfield Confectionary’ itself – simple and beautiful – and I suppose that’s the point really, because half the fun of magic is in the reaction it gets and the wonder it causes.
With ‘Temperance’ we get to witness a cauldron of creation brimful of complexities, contradictions and dualities set in the context of an iconic Donegal sweet factory. The artist was in residence at the Oatfield Sweet Factory, Letterkenny a long established feature of the local landscape. In a series of photographs, sculptures, and a video piece O’Brien brings to the fore the usually hidden production processes behind confectionary-making, imbuing them with a certain spirituality and ruminating on mortality, morality and existence.
The installation infuses the everyday with the epic. There is an act of transubstantiation in which sugar, toffee and treacle are changed to membrane, mucus and sinew. Employees become surgeons, pathologists, biologists, even alchemists as they cut, divide, forge and flay in the act of creating. The fluids of industry become the fluids of life, as the artist whilst documenting industrial life goes much further in articulating an almost visceral mortality and exploring biographical concerns in regard to illness, the body and the status of women.
Though the body, and the female body in particular is continually displayed in relation to ideals of beauty and sexuality the ‘insides’ or raw material of a body are for most people quite upsetting and even starkly ugly reminders of dysfunction hence the popularity of confectionary love-hearts and the like. Conversely there is a fascination with this dysfunction as attested by numerous television medical programmes. When we see ‘hard-boiled’ confectionary body parts, laid out on dissecting tables, a liver and gallbladder on one, a brain and heart (a traditional duality of opposites) on another, we are at once attracted and repelled. One has the image of this sweet sugary stuff as integral bodily components working at once for and against bodily interests. The artist suffered a serious illness during this project so the concept of organs working at once for and against the body seems very relevant. These confectionary spare parts, vital to but lonely when separated from the body could also be a rather humorous comment on the traditional ‘pickling’ of brains that we see in the laboratories of mad scientists in horror movies. Indeed there is something alien and disturbing in the shapes in Species and the toffee rain of Slip.
The vitality and materiality of the raw ingredients is very apparent and O’Brian emphasises their sensuousness whilst reinforcing a bodily connectivity in works such as Adipose and Mesentery. This vitality is in contrast to the heavy black frames that work as a form of black bordering reminding us of the interconnectivity of life and death. Indeed mortality is reinforced in works such as Corpus and Undertaking. This is further emphasised in a catalogue photograph Heft which has echoes of deposition painting signifying the laying out of a body though the white costumed employees suggest medical personnel rather than mourners.
A confectionary factory is in itself a place of duality. Sweets are bad for you; they rot teeth, but they taste great. They add to life whilst taking away from it. The pleasures and pains of free will never more apparent. Though confectionary is a test of self discipline it is manufactured in a highly regulated environment to comply with health and safety regulations. O’Brien in a humorous and quietly effective video piece ‘Good Housekeeping’ compares this explicit regulation with the social strictures placed upon women in particular by juxtaposing factory rules with meditations on female behaviour. This is reinforced in the Good Girl/Bad Girl works in which the artist captures the polar opposites in a centrifugal production process. The artist attributes somewhat feminine aspects to a number of the pieces, indeed titling one Silk. Likewise with the dark liquorice-like material in Taffeta 1, (taffeta is a silky material often used in female fashion). Its elegant rolling waves in stark contrast to the mysterious and threatening dark pour of Syrup which threatens us with potential overwhelming or indicates loss. A haemorrhaging or an invasion: harmful in equal measure.
There is indeed as the curator John M. Cunningham observes a sense of vitality and life, even spirituality in the articulation of the processes behind the confectionary production. We witness the vibrancy and mystery of creation as we gaze with wonder at the strange substances that somehow seem to turn to sweetness itself. However this sweetness comes at a price as O’Brien suggests in Fool’s Gold. It is shadowed by decay and thus mortality. In an environment regulated by concerns over health and safety that produces traditional and much loved sweet(ness) the artist has successfully integrated the uncertainty that comes from awareness of the fragility of existence when illness strikes and subtlety questioned the strictures that surround female life.
The remarkable series of photographs that Abigail O’Brien produced at the Oatfield Sweet Factory at Letterkenny in County Donegal can be read on many levels. The most prosaic interpretation would focus on the documentary nature of these works, which record the equipment and materials and processes involved in the making of traditional candies, but which also introduce us to the men and women who perform the necessary alchemy of sweet making. Mixing and kneading and pouring and extruding and pressing and tempering and slicing and wrapping, flow together into a sort of candy-choreography. Even outsiders can perceive the concentration, but also the rhythmic sureness and ease with which individual gestures are carried out. What transpires here is a kind of laying on of hands, and the workers, like the dwarfs in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, have an air of witchcraft about them. But we do not just see employees going about the practiced routines of work. We see them in repose as well – as in ‘Breaktime’ or in ‘Time Out’, which conveys a sense of fundamental separation and weariness that seem to place the viewer in the role of voyeur. The men and women depicted here might be actors glimpsed backstage after a performance, their masks dropped.
In summarising this sequence under the title ‘Temperance’, O’Brien suggests the search for balance and harmony, for a middle ground. Aristotle saw temperance as the summit between two chasms – the chasms of intemperance and insensibility. The artist explores these extremes in the rituals and processes of the factory floor, but also reminds us as viewers that our hunger may be bigger than our stomachs. Hence, a state of balanced moderation may be possible only after swinging into extremes (‘Good Girl 1’ and ‘Good Girl 2’) or trespassing into excess (‘Fools Gold’). It is for this reason that O’Brien’s work vacillates between the peaks of movement and rest, of luxury and emptiness. One can also see this symbolised in the delicious, baroque folds of a sugar-mass collapsing into smooth flat forms.
In her application to become Photographer in Residence at the Oatfield Sweet Factory, Abigail O’Brien emphasized that she hoped to produce a work with “a relevance that will extend beyond the factory gates.” This greater relevance embraces social, psychological and aesthetic aspects. The 70 Oatfield workers constitute a community that has evolved in relative isolation for the better part of a century. Only through interaction and cooperation can their goals be achieved, though each individual must be fully concentrated on his own particular task, as we see in ‘Undertaking’ or ‘Flay’. In such everyday and workaday gestures, O’Brien sees something ritualistic and even primal. In an earlier, deeply moving work entitled ‘Extreme Unction – From the Ophelia Room’, she focused on the theme of grief through photographs taken at the ‘Dead Letter Room’ of the Dublin Central Post Office and at the Dublin City Morgue. In ‘Martha’s Cloth – Confirmation’, she documented the weaving of cloth at the McNutt Tweed Factory in Downings, County Donegal. The looming process became a metaphor for the threads that make up an individual life, while the waft and weave of the cloth symbolised the reflective and the active aspects of everyday life.
Both projects became part of The Seven Sacraments, shown in Munich in 2004 and Dublin in 2005, which brought the artist her first international attention. That series, inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s work on the same theme, took nine years to complete, and now the artist has moved on to an exploration of The Natural Virtues, to which ‘Temperance’ contributes a new chapter. Yet both cycles employ similar techniques and metaphors, so that one can indeed see all of O’Brien’s oeuvre to date as a gigantic work in progress exploring the rituals and the dogmas of everyday life. Many of these relate to the preparation and consumption of food – as in her ‘Kitchen Pieces, Confession + Communion’ from 1998. Among the most formally beautiful and enigmatic works in this series is a group of eight still-lifes where a granite-topped kitchen cupboard becomes a household altar with fish and meat and poultry, bread and fruit and pastry arranged in what William Butler Yeats might have termed “a fearful symmetry.”
For ‘Dream Kitchen’, O’Brien used a streamlined Siematic Kitchen display as a set, gently satirising the culinary communion of mother and daughter. In formal as well as emotional contrast, a real kitchen provides the background for ‘Clara Baking’, whose Vermeer-like light places the image firmly within the tradition of women as portrayed in the closed spaces of Dutch genre painting. The extensive cluster of images and objects that make up the ‘Kitchen Pieces’ also includes five sculpted wooden bread loaves, as well as a loaf broken into 30 pieces that are cast in bronze and then plated with silver. Like ‘Thirty Slices of Bread’, which the artist contributed to a show entitled ‘BreadMatters’ in 2007, the work alludes to the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal of Christ. In the background one hears the voices of young children conjugating verbs that have to do with eating and drinking: “I eat / You eat / He eats / She eats / You eat / They have eaten”, followed by similar conjugations of taste, bite, chew, sip, savour, nibble, spit, rub, nibble, savour, sip and eat – like a kind of gastronomic litany.
This blending of voice, object and photograph is typical for O’Brien’s multi-medial approach. Rarely are her photographs shown autonomously but are moulded into environments and ensembles. The body of work entitled ‘Fortitude’, for example, introduces us to a mind-boggling private collection of tanks and other military vehicles, along with “The Collector” and his family. As the first instalment of the new series based on ‘The Natural Virtues’, the photographs were presented alongside a full-size blow-up replica of a tank, covered with a “camouflage” pattern of cross-stitched pink raspberries. ‘Temperance’ features 26 large Lambdachrome prints, as well as hard-candy casts of human organs, displayed on industrial trolleys. An accompanying video entitled ‘Good Housekeeping’ rounds out the ensemble. It shows a woman washing down the factory machinery at the end of the week: the ablutions after the excess, the middle ground between labour and repose. This multimedial, installational aspect of O’Brien’s work sets her apart from the “stars” of the international photography scene, who aim for an entirely reduced, sober and sometimes sobering presentation of oversized images.
O’Brien’s entire idiom effectively demonstrates how aspects of Christian ritual and belief are intertwined with everyday objects and activities in what might be termed rituals of the commonplace. In her recasting of ‘The Last Supper’ (1995) – the first work in the series The Seven Sacraments – quotidian female rites are celebrated above a long, white-draped banquet table set for a single guest. In ‘How to Butterfly a Leg of Lamb’ (1999), which references Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ and was also realised with the artist Mary Kelly, the visual power of the culinary demonstration itself is underscored and intensified by the elegantly folded red napkins that accompany the action. (O’Brien is fascinated by the use of the colour red in all its shades and hues in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, where it variously symbolizes life, vitality, erotic ecstasy, emotion and tension.) The folding of napkins and tablecloths, embroidery and sewing and needlepoint and flower-arranging number among the “female” skills celebrated in O’Brien’s work. She has even exhibited the backs of needlepoint designs in order to show the confusion and improvisation and clutter from which the completed harmonies derive. Such activities have prompted critics to draw comparisons to other women artists like Judy Chicago and Rosemary Trockel or Trace Emin and Annette Messager, who have creatively transformed such clichés of a woman’s world.
In the catalogue accompanying Abigail O’Brien’s exhibitions at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the Kunstverein Lingen and Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy in 2004 / 2005, the Jesuit art critic Friedhelm Mennekes reflected in eloquent detail about the relationship between the ‘Seven Sacraments’ of Catholicism and the works of Abigail O’Brien. What this and other analyses sometimes overlook, however, is the humour that literally “graces” many of her photographs and objects – unmistakable in images like ‘Communion’ and ‘Dream Kitchen’, for example. It is also central to the installation O’Brien created in 1996 at the Dublin branch of Habitat, where a photo series entitled ‘Man Eating Cream Bun’ was first exhibited. O’Brien’s is a humour that in no sense diminishes the seriousness of the works in question but which ensconces them in a kind of comédie humaine. Never has the humour been so sprightly as in the series entitled Bella, which the artist completed in 2007. In each of the 14 images that comprise this wittily elegant series, a meringue is poised on a flourish of doily atop a long-stemmed silver dish that resembles a stiletto-heeled shoe. As in a fashion-shoot, the coquettish ‘Glamour Puss’ flourishes her petticoats and reveals the many facets of her sensuous but fragile self.
O’Brien’s saucy dame blanche has distinguished cousins in Andy Warhol’s delicious drawings of ice-cream sundaes, many of which were named for pop celebrities. Indeed, from his early ‘Campbell’s Soup’ paintings to his later entrepreneurial experimentwith the “Andymat,” Warhol’s work again and again addressed the theme of eating in America. Contemporaries like Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Robert Indiana and Wayne Thibaud made their own distinctive contributions to the theme, while Claes Oldenburg transformed his studio on New York’s lower East Side into the “Store,” where he sold hand-painted papier-mâché cakes and pies and ice-cream cones and joints of beef. Such works were particularly well suited to a generation determined to make popular culture an instrument for overturning the artistic dogmas of post-war New York, but artists’ interest in food as a subject is virtually timeless. One might cite the illusions of Dutch still-life painting, the fantasies of Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Édouard Manet’s scandalous ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ as examples of the expressive range of the subject.
In the café scenes of Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh’s ‘Potato Eaters’ or Chaim Soutine’s iconic sides of beef, food likewise proved a multi-faceted theme, but it has sometimes served as a medium, as well. Dieter Rot sculpted in chocolate, while fat was a favourite material for Joseph Beuys and Keith Haring once drew with spaghetti. In our own time, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz has created
images with chocolate syrup, pepper, peanut butter and jelly – even with caviar. Since most of these unconventional compositions are used as photographic “models”, they come far closer to the aesthetic of Abigail O’Brien than to that of the Pop artists. It is no surprise, then, that the products of the Oatfield Confectionary Factory, as it was once known, have provided not only photographic themes but also the material from which the artist has formed sculptures. These glistening “body parts”, cast from medical models of human organs, might have been produced by the glass-craftsmen of Murano, but are in fact moulded from the molten sugar syrup used for hard candies. (Images like ‘Synovia’ and ‘Mesentery’ explicitly echo the techniques developed in Murano for the production of colourful pate de verre.)
In her examination of confectionary processes and pleasures, O’Brien moves into a sphere rich in legend and fantasy and wish fulfilment: into the storied sphere of Candyland. The dream of a land of plenty, where “the trees are made of peppermint sticks, and lemonade fills the streams” (as in the 1961 film Babes in Toyland), occurs in many variations. One of the oldest is the medieval-mythical land of Cockaigne – a word derived from the small sweet cake sold to children at street-fairs. (These are the true antecedents to the fragrant madeleines that prompt the flow of memory in Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu.) The “sweets to the sweet” that Hamlet’s mother placed on the grave of Ophelia were actually small bouquets of flowers, but the metaphor itself suggests how precious sweets were at the time, when they were reserved for the nobility and the wealthy. By the 17th century, when sugar became plentiful in England, boiled-sugar candies like horehound drops and lemon drops and peppermint and wintergreen became popular favourites. In Tchaikovsky’s perennial ballet, The Nutcracker Suite, Clara and her prince find themselves with the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Land of Sweets with marzipan shepherds and Mother Ginger with her “Plichinelles”, the Bonbons, Taffy Clowns and Court Buffoons. Even when sweets became mass-manufactured staples of childhood, the dream of Candyland persisted. The Brothers Grimm had included it in their fairytales as a land of milk and honey called “Schlaraffenland”, whose wonders were passed along to generations of wide-eyed listeners. In Mother Goose we find the rhyme
Handy Spandy, Jack-a-dandy,
Loves plum cake and sugar candy.
During the Depression years in America, a popular hobo ballad described a child who dreamed of the “big rock candy mountain.” (At the same time, an attractive young woman came to be known as “eye candy.”) More recently, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lent the confectionary fantasies of childhood a modern twist, and the film version of 1971 gave us the enduring song “The Candy Man Can”. It added to a remarkable list of “sweet” songs and book titles, popular expressions and personalities like the vivacious “Sugar” as played by Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. It also gave us Tennessee Williams’ Hard Candy and Terry Southern’s mildly pornographic Candy and the expression “easy as taking candy from a baby”. But the degree to which sweet dreams have infiltrated the collective consciousness is perhaps best summed up by the expression “happy as a kid in a candy shop”. Or as Abigail O’Brien in the Oatfield Sweet Factory, where she worked over a period of several months. Because of the varying intensities of light within the working space and the speed of workers’ movements, she employed a digital camera. The results can be appraised in the intensity and concentration of expressions often encountered here. One immediately senses what attracted her to this project. As in so much of her work, she is recording the rhythmic, almost rituallike work of human hands, and once more the theme of nurture is present. (The first taste to develop in an infant is that for sweet substances, which are particularly high in life-sustaining carbohydrates.) The aesthetic dimension is often stunning in its intensity: the voluptuous layers of cooling toffee like folds in a Renaissance drapery; the shimmering, taffeta-like shades of yellow and pink and orange and turquoise; the gleaming cylinders of rock candy; the shiny black “loaves” of liquorice; and the knife plunging into a red “heart.” Added to this is the “patina” of the mysterious machines pictured here and the steam-shrouded figures on cleaning day, like Hephaestus’ dutiful helpers at the forge. These form the basis for ‘Good Housekeeping’, the accompanying video of looped stills with Oatfield’s “Health and Safety Regulations” providing the text.
There are surreal moments here, provoked by the anomalies of protective clothing that might equally well come from a research laboratory or an intensive-care unit or a canning plant. Workers are regularly provided with hairnets and gloves, safety shoes, ear defenders and safety glasses – even, where appropriate, with “moustache snoods”. The surreal atmosphere is intensified by signs that suddenly shout from the background: “Fire Exit”, “DANGER!” or “MOVING PARTS”. These read like slogans from an industrial age when “new-fangled” machines both lightened work and often made it more dangerous. It also echoes a time when family businesses like Oatfield consciously acted in loco parentis. Those insinuated levels of interpretation help to account for the richness of the environment Abigail O’Brien evokes here, where the pragmatic and the sensual interact in a sprightly play of colours and textures. The sensuous, fleshy folds of ‘Wrinkle 1’ and ‘Saponaceous’ and ‘Adipose’, furthermore, exist for only a few short minutes before the poured material falls in upon itself. This transitory moment is turned to delectable “eye candy” in the painterly photographs of Abigail O’Brien.