Creating to Destroy

I, along with every other American, saw James Cameron’s Titanic when it first debuted in theaters in 1997. My motivation for doing so wasn’t due to any sort of preoccupation with tragedies, Leonardo DiCaprio, or seminal Hollywood blockbusters. Rather, I went to see Titanic — at the time, the most expensive film ever made — simply to understand what a $200 million film budget looked like. 

There’s a part of me — the finish my plate/save my plastic bags/turn that old skirt into a pillowcase part of me — that was incredibly unnerved by the excessive amount of waste in that film. Wikipedia’s notes on pre-production describe the film’s massive and meticulous approach to achieve historical accuracy:

For the ship’s interiors, production designer Peter Lamont's team looked for artifacts from the era. However, the newness of the ship meant every prop had to be made from scratch. […] The sets representing the interior rooms of the Titanic were reproduced exactly as originally built, using photographs and plans from the Titanic’s builders. “The liner’s first class staircase, which figures prominently in the script was constructed out of real wood and actually destroyed in the filming of the sinking.”

Entire cabinets of exquisite china, reproduced to exacting detail with the original White Star Line insignia, were constructed and styled simply to come crashing down at the perfect cinematic moment — heralding the catastrophic end of the RMS Titanic and so many of her passengers.

And while I may be the type of person who hears an exorbitant figure as such and can’t help but wonder which countries have a GDP smaller than Cameron’s budget, or perhaps, what I might do with $200 million were I given the opportunity to administer it, I left the theater haunted by this adjacent notion of Creating to Destroy.  

Since then, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to revisit this and examine my own relationship with Impermanence (the slightly less nihilistic cousin of Creating to Destroy) in my creative practice. I’ve never attempted performance or installation art; rather I’ve always gravitated toward working in fixed media with long shelf-lives — be they physical or digital. A number of years ago, I was contacted by a small gallery to inquire as to whether I would be willing to install one of my pieces at large scale on a wall in their space, as part of a group show that would be up for approximately two weeks. I agreed, having never created anything that would take nearly as long to produce as it would exist in this world. Ultimately, the show was cancelled, but I was left trying to reconcile the disconnect between makers and viewers. For makers, the value lies in the act of creation; for viewers: the outcome. Like others who have chosen similar vocations, I make things because I’m in love with making, because I can’t imagine a life without it, and because I secretly enjoy all of the angst, self-flagellation, and learning that comes with the territory. Given the option of: Would I prefer to A) spend every waking minute making terrible work that never saw the light of day or B) wake up every morning to discover that I had made amazing work in my sleep, I would choose A every time, and I’m willing to venture that I’m not alone here.  

My latest work in progress, the Legendary Baked Goods series, has been an exercise in Impermanence, while at the same time, an attempt to bridge that gap between maker and viewer. It all began innocently enough and certainly without any overwrought intentions. Before the holidays, my friend and I discovered that we were both harboring a shared desire to bake. She actually had an excuse — an upcoming cookie party in which attendees would exchange baked confections — whereas I had no rational explanation for this urge whatsoever. I was merely obsessed with the idea of replicating modern artworks in royal icing; there was a sweet irony in democratizing and de-contextualizing some of the most revered and unattainable works of minimalism, color field painting, and abstract expressionism. And thus, I began. 

The first series I completed was in honor of Ellsworth Kelly, then Mark Rothko’s Multiforms, and most recently, Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism. When I recently posted the Malevich cookies on Instagram, a conversation between myself and fellow designer, David, ensued:

DH: “Seriously you have too much time on your hands!”
MC: “I take my personal work seriously, regardless of medium ;-)”
DH: “But do you eat your personal work?”

To which I respond — truthfully, I’m not much of a cookie person. I’ve been known to eat a reject here or there. I do it for the love of doing it, and have taken to forcing the outcomes on underfed friends and colleagues. Throughout it all, we’ve explored both media and technique (corn syrup- vs meringue-powder-based icing; almond extract vs. lemon zest and lemon extract; application via paintbrush vs. decorating tips, squeeze bottles, and toothpicks). Laugh as you might, but the process of baking has involved the experimentation and failure required of more serious creative pursuits, and in many ways, has been equally gratifying. I’m finally Creating to Destroy. Happily.

16 January 2012