Nothing has gone through a greater transformation in image than the burger joint. Before McDonalds, Wendys and the rest of the big beef boys got hold of them, your basic burger place was sanctified ground, and the pit stop where you made out. Made up and made each other act surreally stupid. Most performance art, the best rock n roll and not a few babies started in burger joints. And, yep, on occasion you even ate one of Frank’s skinny little burgers, flip flopped on the sizzling grill, smothered in sweet, succulent fried onions, all spilling out of the most enriched, white bun ever baked by Wonder Bread. But if your mind chows down on the ideas in “Burgerheaven: the True Taste Of Stardom, ” the high cal installation at YYZ Artist’s Outlet, the uncomplicated pleasures of the burger joint become a distant memory.
At their recent opening, John Beagles and Graham Ramsay, the British artists behind “Burgerheaven”, served up burgers based on the mages of dead celebs – the meat in the Princess Diana burger had blue dye signaling her blue blood – in a cheeky manner to show how deeply celebrity culture has dug it’s hooks into our lives. “We feel swamped by this fast-food culture as well as celeb culture,” says Ramsay in an e-mail. “They seemed to make a neat pairing for us…OK, you want to get a piece of these icons, then here you go, get it down your neck!” Also involved, he says, is “a nod to Warhol and the reproduction of star’s images. We produce identical meat images of each icon as he screenprinted them.”
Beagles and Ramsay’s timing could not be better. “Burgerheaven’s” stylized burger stand in YYZ’s main gallery is surrounded by iconic photos of Elvis, Lady Di, Kurt Cobain, and other dead celebs, should be positively vibrating with irony next Wednesday. This is when more than 1300 McDonalds outlets across Canada will host “McHappy Day” where a dollar made from the sale of certain items will go to Ronald McDonalds Children’s Charities of Canada. Yet it is not the humble burger that “Burgerheaven” is about, but the comfort giving culture that supposedly goes along with burger culture like that extra slice of cheddar. Actually, the comfort is fake. That’s the problem. Fast food is really about isolation. In “Burgerheaven”, fast food culture is just another slice from distant Hollywood, not really real even if it packs on some very unnecessary pounds.
In making this point, “Burgerheaven” gets all the support it needs from real life. With nutritionists, Slow Food advocates and Adbusters readers leading the way, burger palaces are now under siege. Even the United Nations is getting flak from many sides for allowing McDonalds to brand next Wednesday as McDonalds World Children’s Day at franchises in 121 countries worldwide.
Burger wars run deep in our cultural lives as a symbol of society as it’s most aggressive, superficial and market driven. The big beef is not in the burgers but in the attacks on burger hustlers. Most of the children in the class from Toronto’s CH Best school, taking in “Burgerheaven” the recent morning I was there, certainly understood that ideas, not burgers, were sizzling away in the video loop that’s showing as part of the installation. There’s also a big, brightly coloured burger hat nearby on the floor.
Food gets dragged into art – either via loaded imagery as Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist “Cup, Saucer and Spoon in Fur” or the real thing as when Montreal artist Jana Sterbak used rotting meat in 1991 for her “Vanitas: Flesh Dress For an Albino Anorexic” – when artists want to send a wake up call about starvation of the soul. The more excessive and disturbing the message – like “Cloaca”, the electro-mechanical digestive system from Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, which literally stank up New York City’s New Museum of Contemporary Art last year and will likely make a Toronto appearance – the more emphatic the warning. “We made work about food previously”, says Ramsay, ” mainly low quality British meat products and Mad Cow disease and even rotten teeth. We are also thinking of making black (blood) pudding with our own blood some time soon. Might be a tricky one to serve up, it’s cannibalism.”