Who told you to eat too much cake,
Pour soda down other children's neck?
You'll end up in the Devil's pan for it,
No one will be spared, not even the innocent.
(Tuomari Nurmio: Lasten mehuhetki ('Children's Soda Party'), 1981)
Oliver Whitehead's exhibition Dreamless (2013) presents us with a glimpse of a children's party resplendent with candy colours and the smell of muffins, with little princesses and mini-size superheroes making merry under the influence of a joyful sugar high. At this party, however, nearly everything that would never be accepted ordinarily is allowed, for here all parents, with their mania for control and advice on how to behave, have been left at home, and the youngsters are free to express themselves spontaneously, in an atmosphere of wild abandon. They eat cake from trays with their bare hands, squashing it in their tiny fists like modelling clay. At times they even throw mushed-up cake at partygoers on the other side of the table. Despite the fact that the children's behaviour gets wilder as the party progresses (and the sugar high increases) and although table manners are forgotten in the rampage, fortunately none of the little revellers end up in the Devil's pan.
Children's Joyful Celebration
In the two-channel video installation Dreamless (2013), Oliver Whitehead documents the preparations of a group of children for a party, a special treat with a table absolutely laden with cakes and sweets. At first, we see pre-school girls and boys getting into their chosen outfits as if to attend a friend's birthday celebration or a fancy dress party. They take great care preparing the characters, painting hearts, spiders, butterflies or lizards on their faces and dressing up in superhero capes, sea captain caps and princess tiaras.
When the tiny guests are finally shown to the big buffet table in a space bounded by white gauze curtains, they appear to be excited and astonished at the same time. Some of them show a flash of disbelief on their face – is all this really just for us? Covered with a white cloth, the table is set with colourful plastic cutlery and napkins and a beguiling assortment of sweets, biscuits, muffins and cakes. It is obvious that everything has been prepared with the utmost care, with cakes shaped like a car, a doll, a heart and even a gleaming silver handgun. The children eye them with admiration, and at first they touch them gingerly, cutting neat slices from the cake one at a time.
As the party progresses and ever fancier cakes are brought into play, the children's behaviour begins to get wilder. And when surprise toys start to appear from inside the cakes, the children attack them, tearing the cakes up with plastic forks and their bare hands. The treasure hunt for surprises leads to ever wilder behaviour. The children dig out the toys from inside the cakes, which remain on the table, ruined and uneaten. By introducing toys into the cakes for the children to find and grapple over, Whitehead draws our attention to associations awakened by toys as 'consumer fetishes'. Although toys are a symbolic marker for the world of children, they are also objects of often insatiable desire, as well as tools and rewards of competition among children.
The fate of the pretty doll cake is perhaps the most gruesome of all. Fringed with pink hair, the poor doll's head is the first to be demolished as the children tear up its face and then its torso. The toys hidden within are pulled out like innards from a slaughtered animal. Tearing the cake is like an act of cannibalism, with children taking bites out of the marzipan hands and feet. Finally, the cake looks more like a bomb victim than a confectioner's delicacy, its limbs scattered around the table. Only a single marzipan eye in a shred of face stares up at the camera from the table. I am reminded of an old children's song in which an abandoned rag doll sings sadly to itself in the corner of an old doll's house: "Dear children, please treat even an old doll with care!"
Whitehead has also captured the excited pre-party mood in photo portraits in which the young revellers pose in their party masks and costumes. Another photographic series presents the devastation of the buffet table after the party, when the children have left. Slowly the camera wanders above the table, recording the mess and picking out details from among the scraps and decorations spread around the table. The small plastic toys that a moment ago were the object of excited contention are now mixed up with the leftovers, forgotten in a post-party waste dump of delicacies.
Includes a Surprise Toy!
Whitehead has been interested in toys – cars, dolls and plastic soldiers – for a long time, and it is a theme that continues in Dreamless. According to Whitehead, toys, just as many other objects, attest simultaneously to "design and hedonism", to "violence and aggression". The video of children at the cake party appears to be quite simple at first glance, yet it soon acquires a darker undertone when you begin to wonder about marketing to children, expressed in Whitehead's video by the coveted toys and the many attractive delicacies which incite the children to eat just for the fun of it, and much more than would be necessary.
One of the sources of inspiration for Dreamless is modern consumer marketing targeted at children, in which food and drink is increasingly presented in guises and images familiar from the world of toys, films and comics. Advertising with intense visual messages and emotions appeals to children, shamelessly exploiting their affection for familiar figures. It is also increasingly common for a meal and a toy to share the same tray at a fast food restaurant, or a prize from a cereal box on the breakfast table. The relationship between these two consumer commodities – food and toy – has become almost symbiotic; it is the norm rather than the exception. The prize toy would seem to reward the child for eating, although the taking of nourishment should be a natural part of a growing child's life, without any extra incentives.
It is also increasingly common for children's food and marketing to link the food to figures from popular animations and comics, games, humour, magic and fantasy – strong brands that have become ingrained in children's minds. It is no longer just candy and ice cream that emulate the imagery of children's entertainment and toys – chicken nuggets, breakfast cereals and chocolate puddings are today also dressed up in more easily digestible and alluring forms. The good taste and healthiness of the food itself is no longer the prime consideration, it is more important to appeal to children through the visual appearance of the food – and above all its protective wrapping – thereby luring children to the food. The time of traditional fares such as pea soup and pancakes or chicken fricassee would seem to be over: a dull appearance makes it difficult to survive in contemporary food culture, based as it is on visuality and showiness, in which real need, healthiness and nutritional value regrettably remain of secondary importance.
translation, Tomi Snellman