An unidentified visitor to the SPAN exhibition reacts to Ellen Ligteringen's chocolate
By Nicholas Laughlin
Ellen Ligteringen's Een Lekkers project occupies two small rooms adjacent to the kitchen in the DSB Bank gardenhouse, the main SPAN exhibition venue. In the scullery, she has set up a gedachtentafel, or "table of thoughts", a sort of recreation in miniature of her studio, displaying the weird objects she makes from chicken leather. In the small pantry next door is a makeshift confectionary shop, with chocolate bonbons — concocted by Ligteringen, with cocoa she harvested herself — displayed in a refrigerated glass case.
Visitors to the exhibition are invited to sit down, taste Ligteringen's chocolates, and register their reactions via a special questionnaire. Small digital cameras mounted on four sides of the room record their facial expressions and body language. An audio recording in the reassuring voice of Odette de Miranda — one of Suriname's best-known radio announcers — explains the process to the wary. The project is documented on Ligteringen's website, Tan Bun.
Like George Struikelblok's Groei — a sculptural enclosure in which he is rearing two hundred chickens — and Pierre Bong A Jan's live tattooing session on the opening night of the exhibition, Ligteringen's project involves an installation of objects and an element of public performance, but it is also a process of investigation. She calls it research, and takes the whole thing seriously enough to have recruited the help of a professional psychologist in drafting the questionnaire to which her audience is subjected.
President Ronald Venetiaan of Suriname prepares to taste one of Ligteringen's chocolates on the opening night of the exhibition. Image captured by one of the video cameras installed by the artist and used with her permission
The chocolate is made from pure cocoa, cream, and sugar, but the proportions change in each batch. One day the bonbons are luxuriously rich, the next day so bitter they hardly taste like chocolate at all. The artist is genuinely interested in what her visitors think of the confectionary, but the chocolate is also, she explains, a way of catching her audience off guard. "Lekkers" is the Dutch word for a tasty treat, but in Surinamese usage it also refers to a kickback, a payoff, an illicit exchange to help sweeten a deal. Interspersed among queries about flavour and texture, Ligteringen slyly poses subtle questions to gauge her visitors' thoughts about this other kind of "lekkers": Bent u al in de ja-mood? "Are you in the yes-mood?" Hoe krijg ik u in de ja-mood? "How do I get you in the yes-mood?" "Does my taste threaten you? Should I keep my mouth shut?"
"I want to play with habits," Ligteringen says. "I'm not in the phase of giving answers or conclusions. It's more like an inventory, descriptive research."
This open-endedness is a challenge to many visitors' notions of the acceptable forms and purposes of an artwork, and is also Ligteringen's response to what she calls the "CV parade" of the Dutch art world. "Sometimes I work as an artist, sometimes not," she explained in an interview with Marieke Visser in 2009. "I want to give myself the freedom to work outside that domain." Een Lekkers straddles that ambivalence. "It is not totally clear that I'm part of the SPAN exhibition," she says. "Visitors are surprised on entering that it is an art project." Indeed, on the opening night, some who failed to notice the explanatory wall label assumed Ligteringen was one of the caterers. President Ronald Venetiaan, touring the exhibition, was sufficiently impressed by the chocolates to ask whether Ligteringen had considered export.
"I know exactly what I will do after the exhibition," she says. "I will start my little skratishop [Sranan for chocolate shop] at the Sunday market, next to a friend who is telling you the future. If you cannot handle your future you can eat a chocolate. I will expand the performance in a longer timeframe."
Elvira Rijsdijk, art critic for De Ware Tijd, tastes Ligteringen's chocolate