Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

Anorexia, art, war, rant

April 17, 2006

The pumpkin dumpling that I just couldn’t finish.

A little less than a year ago I wrote an entry about SehnSucht, a restaurant for anorexics in Berlin that had opened up sometime in January 2005. Because I didn’t have a picture of the restaurant, and because I hadn’t visited it (and to this day can only get a robot on the phone), I did the logical thing and accompanied my entry with a blurry image of a greasy half-eaten pumpkin dumpling.

The dumpling image was a huge hit if i can believe my site meter referrals. And until last month, dumplin’ was smack in the middle of a Google Images page for the search-string anorexics. Folks were clicking on the dumpling, and so doing finding culiblog, proving that it’s not only horny old fat men that scour the anorexia sites for skeletal supermodels and thinspiration. Actual ‘Anas’ and ‘Mias’ were haulin’ their boney tuchas over to culiblog to get a gander at the food porn.

Well this one’s for you, Ladies!

LA Raeven at the Mediamatic War Salon, photo by Bea Correa, courtesy of Mediamatic

LA Raeven is the artist name for twins Liesbeth and Angelique Raeven, whose very subject matter is themselves. Their video installation work and performances are about the female body image and the behaviour dynamics of twins, especially when this dynamic expresses itself in psychologically nuanced eating habits.

LA Raeven were launched into fame in February 2002 when they created a huge kafuffle with Wild Zone 1 & 2, a video installation exhibited at the ICA London. It was the first time that the twins showed themselves in their work, lolling about and being overly skinny amidst half-drunk glasses of white wine and a floor littered with the occasional mini-nibble. The gallery was infused with the artists’ own feral scent, reportedly concocted from their very own pee. Of course the bourgeois art press found it so scandalous that female artists with anorexia should be able to express themselves about body image, that they censured the artists’ call for participation before the exhibition, and a goodly deal of the exhibition’s press. Just like in China!

LA Raeven, video still from Wild Zone 1 (2001), courtesy of the artists

In a painful to watch BBC NewsNight interview, the Raeven sisters weren’t contextualised primarily as artists, not even as kooky artists, but as eating-disorder victims. The ‘feminist’ psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Hunger Strike and ironically, Fat is a Feminist Issue (no potshots, please) was called in to moderate the discussion. Watching the interview, I was apalled at the insufferably intolerant BBC commentator. I believe that self-empowerment has many forms of expression, and that it is in fact medicalisation and consistently pathologising what is primarily women’s behaviour, that is inherently anti-feminist. But that’s just me, I’m a 3rd-wave feminist orthochondriac, not into rehearsing unhealthy scenarios, or encouraging others to practice theirs from haughty podia. And I’m talking about NewsNight, here.

The sisters told me recently, ‘It was unbelieveable how we were treated at that time. Censured! When a Chinese artist eats a fetus, you don’t see journalists calling psychoanalysts in to help. Instead, Western art journalists stumble over themselves trying to explain away (AiWeiWei!) this behaviour as an expression against an unhealthy regime.”

LA Raeven at the Mediamatic War Salon, discuss their new work, ‘Thin Line’ (2005), photo by Bea Correa, courtesy of Mediamatic

As part of Mediamatic’s anti-war protest exhibition titled, le Mépris, (non-food-related, but go see it anyway), Mediamatic held a War Salon, (April 5th) at which the Sisters Raeven were invited to show some of their new work. The idea to put LA Raeven in a war and violence themed programme was an inspired one. Aside from new work by the ladies, highlights from the lineup included an analysis of the US Army recruitment game America’s Army, and ended with a macabre audience participation karaoke with the songs of that very political body, Brigitte Bardot.

A goodly portion of the audience was represented by young male gamers from the nearby universities, there to listen to their friends, scientists David B. Nieborg and Jonas Hielscher speak about and demonstrate America’s Army and Battlefield2, respectively. Gamers. That’s a nice, socially acceptable term that we all use in contemporary cultural discourse. Gamers play games, in this case, war games on computers with lots of other gamers. Gamers at university study games and other gamers, and even write theses about these things. Well LA Raeven also play games.

LA Raeven, video still from “Love knows many faces” (2005), courtesy of the artists

I disagree with those that would suggest that LA Raeven’s presence and presentation at the Mediamatic War Salon represents a war on the body, or war against the body. Their oeuvre, and especially the new works, Prison in Me (2005) and Thin Line (2006) show an assault on individuality and a strategy to escape this assault. The image above is a still from the video, Love knows many faces (2005), in which the twins go for a swim and play a sisterly game of trying to drown eachother. Recovering from a symmetrical but futile attempt at individuation, they exhaust themselves into one big clump of Liebestod. Game on, Girls!

Thin Line (2006) shows one of LA Raeven’s own food games, now in the hands of pre-pubescent twins. In a Bruxelles basement conjuring up horrific notions of Dutroux, the identically dressed twins flip a coin. The ‘winner’ is required to eat both sisters’ dinner portions, and the loser gets nothing at all. The game is repeated through all the courses of a (continental European) meal, such that inevitably, one of the sisters ends up stuffing herself whilst the other is left to go hungry. Before you brush it off as childish, may I suggest that you play this game with your partner for an entire day, exploring the complex feelings that it generates. In fact it is not at all about waging war on one’s own body. Pity that the body just gets in the way.

The hunger strike is male behaviour, a purposeful and politically engaged expression. The hunger artist is male, and is an artist above all. I left the war salon with even greater respect for LA Raeven’s authenticity and artistic engagement. But I coudln’t help wonder about the reasons why (female) anorexia should be considered to be more pathological and unspeakable than the (male) fear of terrorism whose effects are unleashed upon us every day. Why should an expression of the fear of fat, and/or the extreme expression of self-control that is anorexia be considered to be more offensive than the extreme societal control that is expressed by waging and playing at waging war?

LA Raeven, video still from “Prison in Me” (2005), courtesy of the artists

technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

debra at 19:10 | | post to


  1. I am an artist and suffering from anorexia (and culiblog subscriber) and I’d just like to thank you for this very thoughtful entry. It’s not everyday that people such as yourself write about eating disorder related subjects that relate to art as well.

    Comment by FS — April 18, 2006 @ 4:20

  2. Just as long as you’re not suffering from being a culiblog subscriber.

    Thank you very much for your comment. My aim is to grow culiblog to be the most definitive source on food-related culture anywhere. Baby steps.

    In the case of LA Raeven, I think that they are artist-activists who have made a professional strength out of a personal weakness. This strength affords them powers of observation and expression, and also makes a lot of art professionals uncomfortable for reasons that these art professionals refuse to articulate.

    In almost all articles that should be about the Raeven sisters work as artistic expression, the author invariably talks about how ‘uncanny’ it is to be around them. I don’t think that someone’s unexplored reasons for feeling uncomfortable need to be aired in what should be an intellectually charged art critique, because it doesn’t in any way feed the discussion.

    Journalists and art critics have not been able to handle the Raeven’s subject professionally because of their own unaddressed blindspots and prejudices, and by that I mean intellectual shortcomings. If this entry can do anything to alleviate that, I am pleased beyond description.

    Practice good health,

    Debra Solomon

    Comment by Debra — April 18, 2006 @ 9:26

  3. Culiblog has actually helped me realise that people can live healthily and enjoy food not only carnally but aesthetically as well, and I must thank you for that. I applaud your lifestyle and hope to model mine after it. I also must mention that your photographs and artistry in food is simply gorgeoous as well as innovative.

    It’s invariably archetypical of much of the avant-garde art culture to inherently assume that art is meant to be beatiful and viewed stoically as a pristine object to be analysed from a distance, yet Raeven’s work is hardly that. It is evocative, and *that*, I believe is what art should be.

    Somehow I find it very clever of the Raevens to approach the subject in this manner in the first place. On an occult level, it only aids in strengthening the paradox of society’s ability to act not only as a catlyst for social decadence but through view of ‘art’, the ability for it to also further manifest Raeven’s work as the effigy of the society which created it in the first place.

    Thank you again for contributing to the small populace which continues to keep an open mind.


    Comment by FS — April 18, 2006 @ 16:47

  4. My pleasure and Amen.

    Although I don’t really believe that anyone can make another one see anything, I’m pleased as punch that this speaks to you.

    Comment by debra — April 18, 2006 @ 17:13

  5. Interesting post, Debra, but I’m not sure I follow your logic. Are you saying that anorexia should be socially acceptable because war is? Or, rather, that it is art because it is not socially acceptable?

    Traditionally, as I’m sure you know, the female body has been interpreted as the domain of women’s self-expression because of their exclusion from public discourse.

    Thus anorexia and similar disorders can be seen as a kind of feminine reaction to the medical (and fashion, and self-help, ad inf.) logos imposed on them by the man. But even if (according to this theory) society confines womens’ expression to the site of their own bodies, that doesn’t mean that it should.

    It is one thing to call attention to a problem, and another thing to simply replicate it. I haven’t seen this work, so I can’t say much about it specifically, but I’m a little unclear about your argument.

    Comment by max — April 18, 2006 @ 19:47

  6. Don’t worry Max, not being able to follow my logic is completely normal. (The numbers are for me.)
    What I’m saying:
    1. I’m irked at the (art) media’s reaction to LA Raeven because these media don’t seem to be bothered by far more heinous expressions of control in the public sector. They revile at the language of one and embrace the language of the other.

    2. I’m also expressing IRK at the art media’s lack of professionalism in mistaking their own personal discomfort when faced with anorexia but not daring to examine this discomfort in light of other ‘challenging’ art works. (The journalists let their bourgeois sensibilites take over. Sorry for using the word bourgeois.)

    3. I’m not saying that anorexia should be socially ACCEPTABLE, or UNACCEPTABLE. I’m saying that I don’t think that personal expressions should be judged within the public discourse. Someone’s sexual habits or eating habits whether they inform their artwork or not, in my op, do not belong to the (primary) discussion of the artist’s work.

    4. ‘just because society confines women’s expression to the site of their own bodies, that doesn’t mean it should’. I agree with you,
    if artists choose to use their own body as a podium for their own expression, does not mean that their personal motivation to do so is neccessarily a useful part of the discourse (see above).

    5. LA Raeven certainly are involved with their bodies as a podium because of their own interests, life experience/observations, but they also use the reactions and recoil it generates in the professional realm. But you’d have to see the work live to see this.

    Comment by Debra — April 18, 2006 @ 20:25

  7. I’ll try to tighten it up next time, Max.

    Comment by debra — April 18, 2006 @ 20:41

  8. I’m not blaming you — there are several overlapping issues here. I’m certainly suspicious of the pathologizing discourse of professional medicine, but I’m also unsure that anorexia is a perfectly legimate form of self-expression, as opposed to self-destruction.

    Then there’s a legitimate question of when art is merely juvenile transgression for its own sake, and when it’s really adding something to a dialogue. Not that we can expect the art media to parse these questions for us.

    Comment by max — April 18, 2006 @ 22:30

  9. I don’t know what a ‘legitimate form’ of self-expression is. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be the one handing out licenses. I prefer to snigger from the sidelines.

    Maybe you mean that you don’t know if anorexia should be ‘canonized’ by its insertion in art history as a subject. I don’t see why any subject should be or shouldn’t be considered available terrain in the context of artistic investigation and production. It’s never going to be ‘the subject’, but how the artist deals with it. We’re probably in agreement about this. If it’s ok to be in agreement.

    We’re in agreement about questioning when art is juvenile transgression or adding something to the dialogue. But I think an artist can be self-indulgent in their personal life and still be effectively expressive when that subject becomes their artistic platform. Like in the case of LA Raeven.

    Recently I became a disgruntled audience member at a symposium titled promisingly, ‘the feminist legacy in performance art’. That sounded thrilling enough (thrilling in an art way, not thrilling in a REAL way ; P). I was disappointed that the ladies throwing that shebang were in fact self-indulgent and ignorant of feminist theory and history - especially contemporary history. It was one of those ’symposium/learning environment podium as art’ sort of art works, as if simply the offering of ‘a space for talking about the feminist legacy’, was an art work. As a friend of mine said while we were escaping the symposium, ‘we don’t lack real estate’. Indeed, come on over to my house, I’ll talk yer ear off.

    Statement without consequences. Women embarassed to say the ‘F’-word. Fuq that.

    Comment by Debra — April 19, 2006 @ 10:38

  10. You have no idea how much this article has helped me. Im doing a project on disburbing paintings of nudes and somehow Ive come into the subject of anorexics (its turned into a kind of protest project now, against pro-anorexia websites)…anyway I needed research on artists and related things and this is the only place ive found detailed stuff so thank you very much. This is a great blog


    Comment by Nic — July 14, 2006 @ 20:34

  11. Cher Monsieur, Chère Madame,
    Nous, Sylvain Rossel et Simon Hauser, sommes étudiants à l’école cantonale d’arts de lausanne (ECAL) et terminons notre dernière année d’études. Dans ce dernier travail de théorie nous travaillons autour du thème du travail en groupe (spécifiquement à deux) et leur formes différentes.
    Nous aimerions connaître votre opinion personnel sur quelques questions.
    En espèrant que vous y répondrez, nos sincères remerciements.>

    Sehr geehrter Herr, sehr geehrte Frau
    Wir, Sylvain Rossel und Simon Hauser, sind Absolventen der
    Kunstfachhochschule Lausanne (ECAL) im letzten Studienjahr. Für unseren Theorieabschluss
    vertiefen wir uns rund ums Thema der Teamarbeit (der Arbeit zu zweit im
    speziellen) und ihre verschiedenen Formen.
    Wir möchten Sie um Ihre persönliche Meinung zu verschiedenen Fragen
    Bitten und hoffen auf ihre Antwort.
    Vielen herzlichen Dank.

    Dear Mr, dear Mrs
    We, Sylvain Rossel and Simon Hauser, are student at Fine Arts in Lausanne (ECAL) passing our last year. In our final theory work we are
    researching around the theme of teamwork (especially the work at two) and their different manner.
    We would like to hear your personal opinion to differents questions. Hoping you would answer. Sincerely.


    1. Pourquoi et comment travaillez-vous à deux?
    1. Why and how are you working t(w)ogether?
    1. Warum und Wie arbeiten Sie zu Zweit?

    2. Est-ce que la question de l’auteur est importante pour vous?
    2. Is the question of the author important for you?
    2. Ist die Autorenfrage wichtig für Sie?

    3. Est- ce que vous pensez que le fait de se regrouper crédibilise votre
    3. Do you think, the fact to work in groups increases your credibility ?
    3. Denken Sie, sich zu Gruppieren erhöht die Glaubwürdigkeit Eurer

    4. Est-ce que votre manière de faire où / et vos habitudes ont été
    modifiée(s) où / et influencée(s) par l’autre?
    4. Had your mode of working or / and your habitudes been modified or / and influenced by the other?
    4. Wurde ihre Arbeitsweise und / oder ihre Gewohnheiten durch den andern
    verändert oder beeinflusst?

    5. Quel est l’importance de votre
    5. What’s the importance of your
    5. Welche Wichtigkeit hat ihr

    6. 1 + 1 = ?

    Comment by sylvain rossel & simon hauser — January 8, 2008 @ 16:11

  12. Wow, I am so in awe of La Raeven. It takes real courage for them to do the work they do, under constant attack from the media (who, in their own way glamourise thinness / anorexia). I wish I could meet LA Raeven, I`d hope they`d come to Scotland at some point.

    Comment by L.Morrison — March 7, 2008 @ 19:09

  13. I suffered from anorexia for years, and so too did my sister. I am an artist, my sister is not.

    I am also very unclear of the argument here. Anorexia IS unacceptable, just as war or rape are in our society. When you are suffering from anorexia your brain is starved, you cannot think, you are depressed, you have no perspective of reality. You defend your cause to the death. 70% of anorexics die. I can only vaguely remember my experience of being totally emaciated, because my actions were so totally committed to thinking about food, that i didn’t really think about anything else. I am quite convinced that LA Raeven have no ideas what their intentions are as artists.

    Anorexia is not a legitimate form of self-expression it is a disease. They don’t have strange ‘eating habits’ they have intense psychological problems. By exhibiting themselves in this way, LA Raeven are of course making themselves the primary discussion of their work, whether they realise it or not.

    Their work is causing so much discussion because they are unwell, not because this is an interesting feminist issue. They are not exhibiting themselves because they want to show us what society has made them resort to, they simply crave a distraction from their own feelings.

    They are human beings, and they need to express their feelings in ways that will help them as human beings.

    Society does not ‘confine female self -expression’ to their bodies, this is not a valid statement. Perhaps some people may like to believe that there is some argument in this, but there are thousands of incredible female artists who express themselves through their artwork. Expressing yourself by not eating, is not expressing yourself, it is actually the exact opposite.

    Of course the media are going to react in this way, this is a totally human response. These women are killing themselves, not expressing themselves. And the more we try to accept it the more we miss-understand the purpose of art. Art should impact upon society in a positive way, and if through seeing these women in such a terrible state the media tries to help them, as apposed to accepting them, surely this is a positive progression. I am not in any way saying that art should be beautiful and skim over these issues, i am saying that if their art is their bodies, then they are crying out for help. Anorexia should not be hidden away, i believe the absolutely that it needs to be much much more clearly understood.

    Comment by isobel — February 10, 2010 @ 15:28

culiblog is a registered trademark of Debra Solomon since 1995. Bla bla bla, sue yer ass. The content in this weblog is the intellectual property of the author and is licensed under a Creative Commons Deed (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5).