Already fascinated by the cabinets of curiosities – interactive, encyclopedic collections of objects that were popular in mid 16th-century Europe – Marks first had the idea for AVM (Animal Vegetable Mineral) Curiosities while studying food history at Sussex University. “This changed everything I was into,” she says. “Food was visceral and engaging, human in a way that brought life and history to objects. It was a eureka moment when I realised the sensory nature of food and the aura of the museum could be combined to create unique experiences.”
Fittingly, she then went on to work for food design studio Bompas & Parr, creators of fantastical edible art, before setting up on her own in 2011. Since then, AVM Curiosities has collaborated with industry heavyweights including the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), The National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts on a number of thought-provoking commissions.
Alabaster Ruins at the V&A, for example, was part of a body of work that commented on European architectural heritage and the consumption in its culture. Constructed out of sugar, Alabaster Ruins was a curious juxtaposition of historical and modern techniques. Working with a 17th-century ‘sugar-plate’ recipe, the mixture was poured into moulds that were formed using a cutting-edge 3D printer. In response to the brief, the shapes were constructed to resemble fragments of lost civilisations. Marks’ inspiration came from displays at the V&A itself – pieces from France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK.
“For me, Renaissance sugar sculpture was the first clear crossover between food and art,” Marks explains. “Early modern confectioners would travel around the courts of Europe like any painter or sculptor would; they created works that rivalled any portrait or statue. The evocative thing about their work is that none of it survives.”
Similarly, This Sea of Sugar Knows No Bounds, created for the Istanbul Design Biennial in 2014, was made purely from sugar. The installation was inspired by a quote from the theologian and poet Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi: “This sea of sugar knows no shore, no boundary”. The work had an almost “altar-like” quality to it, explains Marks: the sugar patterns “radiating like waves” and the use of rosewater-scented air, a reference to ritual purification.
It seems that the sweet stuff is a running theme for AVM Curiosities, but why? “Sweets are not like any other type of foodstuff,” Marks says. “They are things of childhood nostalgia and legend.”
REFERENCING THE PAST
In a 2015 project for Queen Caroline’s Garden Party, AVM Curiosities created a pop-up 18th-century ice-cream parlour in the grounds of Kensington Palace. The collaboration with ice-cream factory Jolly Nice involved the creation of three Georgian avours including an 18th-century classic, brown bread ice cream. What is so interesting, as with many historical methods, is that the Georgians had a far simpler and more effective way of making it. They would just ll a bucket with ice and then put a smaller metal bucket lled with the ice-cream ingredients inside it before pouring salt onto the ice cubes, stirring occasionally. The result? Homemade ice cream in just 45 minutes.
Ancient Egypt was also way ahead of the curve when it came to some of its recipes. As part of AVM’s recent Pleasant Vices collaboration with The British Museum, Marks worked with brewers Michaela Charles and Susan Boyle to recreate 5,000-year-old beer using traditional methods and ingredients that included a two-stage ‘mash’. The rst involved straining water and a malted, ground grain through a wet cloth. The second – straining ground, unmalted grain with hot water, which was then heated in a terracotta vessel, cooled, sieved and left to ferment. That was it. There was no refrigeration, no sterilisation and no brewer’s yeast. It’s puzzling how this could be a recipe for success, but as Marks assures me, “it was also delicious”.
Evidently many of our current vices have either remained from centuries ago, or come full circle. In the Pleasant Vices series, history lecturer and author of Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, Dr Jennifer Evans, joined Marks as they discussed aphrodisiacs.
The idea of aphrodisiacs goes back millennia. Interestingly, they were first seen as a cure for infertility, rather than simply a sex-drive stimulant. Marks explains that, during the early modern period, medicine was heavily in uenced by religion. It was widely believed that when Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden of Eden, God left clues behind to help them. These ‘clues’ were foodstuffs in the shape of the body part they were believed to cure if eaten – walnuts for the brain, for instance, or kidney beans for the kidneys. “Total nonsense of course”, Marks adds, “but then on Instagram earlier this year, what did I see? A post that read ‘10 foods that look just like the body parts they’re good for’. It made me laugh; this is a 500-year-old idea presented as a new revelation.”
Another aphrodisiac discussed in Pleasant Vices is ambergris – a black, waxy substance that is caused by an amalgamation of undigested squid beaks from the stomach of a sperm whale. It was then secreted into the ocean and washed up on the shore, fossilised, several years later. Highly valued by artisan perfumers, the material was used as a fixative to make perfume last longer and, worth more than gold per gram, it is still eye-wateringly valuable today.
ART AND THE SENSES
As AVM Curiosities’ portfolio showcases, food is a hugely multisensory subject, with taste, smell, texture, sight and even sound coming together when we eat. Take The Sonic Sensorium: Jazz Edition, presented at Two Temple Place earlier this year. Performances from three jazz musicians were matched with either a creative cocktail, edible perfume or experimental taste as they played. Obsidian Air, meanwhile, which was part of the Friday Late at the V&A in 2015 that celebrated the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition, saw the creation of the world’s rst completely edible bubbles. These large, black orbs were at once beautiful and grotesque, a parallel of McQueen’s work and, in some sense, life.
As for the future, this winter Marks creates a series of events in conjunction with Osterley Park in west London, where AVM Curiosities will curate “an immersive and sensory takeover of the building”. The first event will be Feast Your Eyes on November 23, a Georgian-inspired extravaganza with live music and scent chambers. This accompanies the exhibition Made for the Table, for which Marks curated some of the visual and audio interpretation.
With Marks’ repertoire so colourful, eclectic and full of character, it begs the question: if your last meal was also your last project, what would it be? “It would have to be a tasting menu of my life; from my grandma’s lokshen pudding to the 1930s cocktail I made for the last Sonic Sensorium,” she answers. “Scent and taste are the senses most closely linked to memory, so it would be a hugely emotive and sentimental experience.”