Can gelatin be art?

Stories from Food & Wine.
Sept. 12 2011 5:16 PM

They're Breaking the Mold

The British artists who make museum pieces out of gelatin.

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Two years ago, London-based artists Sam Bompas and Harry Parr installed hundreds of quivering, glow-in-the-dark jellies (the British term for anything set with gelatin) at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. The one-night installation, part of the museum's Sensate: Bodies and Design exhibition, was inspired by funerals—because jellies, like bodies, are fleshy but temporal. An audio recording juxtaposed a traditional funeral march with the sound of thousands of jellies wobbling. "The jellies sounded downright rude. Kind of squelchy," Bompas says. Museum-goers were invited to eat the art before it melted: Flavored with sherry, each sculpture doubled as a kind of highbrow Jell-O shot.

In their book,  Jellymongers, which is just out in the U.S., Bompas and Parr chronicle art-meets-food events like this one, share their vast jelly knowledge, and offer photographs of cheerfully colored jellies molded into the shapes of buildings like St. Paul's Cathedral and the Taj Mahal. There are also surprisingly doable recipes calling for fresh or bottled fruit juices and, occasionally, liquor. The trickiest part about making them is finding sheets of gelatin. "The powdered kind really is rubbish," Parr says.

Bompas and Parr's idea to create jelly art came about, as many whimsical ideas do, while the friends were drinking at a pub. Bompas, who worked in financial public relations, and Parr, an architecture student, were just looking for a hobby to turn into a quirky side business. "For most people, jelly is disgusting—a base form of kids' food," Bompas says. "We wanted to use proper fresh ingredients."

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In their early research, they learned that England was once famous for its jelly—Henry VIII wanted it at his banquets, and there is evidence of French chefs making secret trips across the Channel during Victorian times to steal jelly-making ideas and buy beautiful copper molds. Those elaborate vintage molds, Bompas and Parr discovered, are prohibitively expensive. At first, they used Ikea containers as molds. When they wanted to create more elaborate shapes, they learned to create their own molds using architectural design programs.

To speed up the process, they held a competition in 2008 for architects to design jelly buildings. They received more than 100 entries and hosted a banquet for 2,000 attendees, displaying the individually lit submissions on a table that made them shake. (Wobbliness was a judging criterion.)

Since then, the duo has become known for doing all kinds of fantastical things with food, like filling a room at a gallery with a breathable  gin-and-tonic vapor and creating a four-ton bowl of punch for people to row across in boats. "It's amazing to design these things that you know will likely never happen again in your entire life," Bompas says. But the artists are still most famous for their jellies. Bompas recently wondered aloud whether there was any other food that delights people in the same way.

Bompas and Parr's success lies in their conviction that they can make the impossible possible, and in their willingness to nerd things up. They spend much of their time poring over historical cookbooks, like Salvador Dalí's  Les Dîners de Gala, and befriending people who might be able to help them, like the menu archivist at the New York City Public Library. When they don't know how to do something—such as turn a gin and tonic into vapor without having it combust, for instance—their intense curiosity charms people into giving them advice. "It takes all of five minutes to get in touch with a world expert online," Bompas says.

One example: When they had trouble unmolding jellies from ceramic molds and couldn't find answers in their many old cookbooks, they contacted "foremost jelly expert" Ivan Day, a food historian. Day explained that jelly makers traditionally lined ceramic jelly molds with mutton fat, but that vegetable shortening works fine. "If you're total jelly geeks, like us, this was a very exciting discovery," Bompas says.

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