We usually think of art as a hand tool activity – painters hold paintbrushes; sculptors handle chisels and welding torches; digital artists throw styluses at screens; and photographers hang on to their cameras. But at least 300 years ago, Indigenous artists in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States made elaborate designs out of wood by biting into birch bark. And contemporary artists like Hannah Wilke and Janine Antoni literally dove into their work, turning simple ingredients like chewing gum, chocolate and lard into feminist critiques of traditional beauty standards.
At Unrequited Leisure, Nashville-based artist Raheleh Filsoofi Artifact The installation combines a video performance with a sculpture to offer viewers an intense experience of mouth-made art.
In his “Dick” video, Filsoofi brings a large, unfired ceramic bowl to his mouth and begins biting into its wide rim. The performer bites the bowl six times, each time gradually towards the center of the bowl. From bite to bite, the six bite marks form a pleasingly repeating pattern of semi-circles that add up to a scalloped effect. Filsoofi spins the bowl counter-clockwise in his hands and repeats the process until the entire rim of the bowl is decorated with his toothed design.
The installation at Unrequited Leisure features a video monitor with the finished bowl designed by Filsoofi in front of it. The arrangement resembles an altar, which adds to the meditative mood of the performance video and fills Unrequited Leisure’s intimate space with conscious stillness.
Jesuit priests sent the first samples of birchbark bite patterns to Europe in the 17th century. Birchbark artists strip the soft bark from birch trees in the spring before peeling it into separate layers of paper-thin wood. A layer is folded and then bitten. Teeth marks create fine spots in the wood that allow light to pass through. Artists can also bite real holes in the bark to create lace-like textures. When the wood is unfolded, a pattern is revealed. The practice continues today in Indigenous communities across Canada and the United States, both as an art form and as an act of resistance to cultural erasure.
Filsoofi’s work also speaks to other contemporary female artists who have put their mouths where their art is to make empowering statements that challenge traditional ideas of feminine beauty. Hannah Wilke’s 1960s terracotta vulva sculptures are now considered pioneering works of feminist graphic art, but when the artist swapped ceramics for chewing gum, the works became iconic. Wilke’s chewing gum vaginal sculptures combine a post-minimalist aesthetic with a satirical bite: “I chose chewing gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman: chew it, get what you want her, throw her out and get her into a new room,” Wilke explained at the time.
Filsoofi’s chewing performance reminds me of that, as well as the kind of sculptures Janine Antoni created by biting and licking chocolate and lard. His 1992 work “Gnaw” included 600-pound blocks of chocolate and lard that the artist sculpted with his mouth. The process became a commentary on modern romantic mores and standards of beauty when chocolate, lard and spit removed from the blocks were repackaged as heart-shaped boxes of fancy candy and lipstick tubes from luxury.
Filsoofi is a newly appointed Assistant Professor of Ceramics at Vanderbilt University, but his interdisciplinary creative practice spans from ceramics and video to poetry and ambient sound works. The artist immigrated to the United States from Iran in 2002, and his mix of ancient and contemporary materials and techniques reflects his aesthetic investigations into sociopolitical themes, which largely focus on borders and immigration. For Filsoofi, the clay bowl symbolizes historical narratives, which she imagines to be literally rooted in the earth. Filsoofi’s performance represents the reaffirmation of an empowering personal narrative in the form of the artist’s bite pattern.
I find Filsoofi’s installation very moving on a purely formal level. Many performance-based video arts fail when the artist is so focused on the performance that they fail to make creative decisions about lighting, angles, and edits – all things that a filmmaker might obsess over. Some performances could be better presented with nonchalant documentation, but most of the time this lack of consideration reveals a misunderstanding of the medium.
Filsoofi’s “Bite” video is a great example of a well-made performance video: it uses dramatic chiaroscuro lighting to draw viewers’ attention to its performance. She wears a black dress that makes her torso disappear into the background, making the slight movements of her face and seemingly unrelated arms appear mysterious and dramatic. Filsoofi’s teeth get stuck in the clay and the bowl bounces around a bit each time his teeth disengage. Filsoofi has to swallow hard and lick his teeth before each round of bites, and the video is surprisingly visceral — my mouth starts salivating just typing that description.
The artist also makes an excellent choice by associating his video images with a meditative silence. The stillness only adds to the meaning of this performance as a repetitive ritual in a sacred space.