James Ostrer's sugary-adorned portraits

The Times Powerpoint

While we are throwing away bottles of pop and avoiding hidden sugars in the quest to tackle the obesity crisis, others are using art to deal with their rampant sweet issues. The photographer James Ostrer, a self-confessed sugar addict, has covered his subjects, including himself, in layers of sweets, buns, crisps, chocolate and cakes for his latest photographic study, Wotsit All About?

He starts by mixing cream cheese with artificial colouring, which he then smears over his subjects, before adding the junk food. A full body can take up to one hour to finish, the face only about 30 minutes. He has to plan ahead meticulously, making the adornments in advance, because there is only a certain amount of time the food will stay looking perfect before it falls off the subject or, if it’s ice cream, melts.

“I wanted to engulf myself in sugary foods hoping that by doing this, I wouldn’t be attracted to them anymore,” says Ostrer. “I thought the project would cure me. It did create a sense of detachment between me and the item as a consumable, but now that the show is hung, I have removed the vast boxes of junk food from my studio, so that I don’t binge.”

His photographs include a model covered in endless hundred and thousands. In one photograph (above left) a man has

chips as hair, a burger as amouth with tomato ketchup dips for eyes and a chicken nugget as a nose. A tribal theme runs through the photographs. “I wanted to redefine the human species in modern tribes based on what they eat.”

Ostrer studied at the Royal College of Art, before becoming a set designer at the English National Ballet. After some scenery fell on him causing a back injury, he turned to photography. His portrait of interior designer Nicky Haslam sitting in Lucien Freud’s chair hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Most of his work is “self-help therapy”, though, focusing on addiction and family.

Of his latest body of work, he says: “Instead of wanting to create something that makes you feel down in 20 minutes, like sugar, I wanted to create something beautiful that lasts forever.”

James Ostrer’s sugar sculptures. 

ames Ostrer is a sugar addict. Not that he’s alone - apparently the average Briton consumes the equivalent of up to 238 teaspoons of sugar every week. Half of us are overweight, nore than a quarter of us are obese and it’s costing us billions of pounds in healthcare every year. Unlike most of us (who angst about it, and then order pudding), Ostrer, a photographer known for his nude portrait of interior designer Nicky Haslam, decided to explore this modern scourge by slathering his friends in icing, sticking them all over with doughnuts and hundreds and thousands to make unbearbly sticky living sculptures, and then taking photographs. Say cream cheese, you’re on candy camera. The results are lurid. The images nod to ‘tribal’ art, but in inky pinks, screaming yellows, thoroughly unnatural blues.

“It was meant to be an exercise in separating me from becoming highly addicted to sugar, to unpick Tony the Tiger telling me to have bowls of sugar for breakfast” Ostrer says.

The pictures have a nightmarish quality - think Leigh Bowery les loose at Cadbury World - a reference, he says, to the way that we fail to nurture ourselves by eating foods with little ir no nutritional value, while paying no attention to where it comes from. And he’s as guilty as the rest of us. 

“My relationship with sugar is compulsive. Anything with bright coloured packaging. I went through a massive chocolate fingers phase, those little bright bullets, you just pop them in. But making this body of work means that now when I look at these objects they’ve become sculpting items. When I walk into a supermarket I don’t see food. But I have two car loads of junk food in my studio, like it;s my own corner shop, and that’s a dangerous place to be.” 

A: Are you conscious about the food you eat?
JO: Whenever I visit my mum she says to me, “Are you still on the lentils or do you want a bacon sandwich?”. I go through phases of swinging from bad to good without much of a middle ground. Also my one real vice is that I love eating out for most meals so there tends to be a lot less control in what is in the food. When you order a “healthy” chicken salad it may as well be a Big Mac with all the dressing and croutons....

A: What do you want audiences to take from the work?
JO: As an artist I want people to feel something and whatever happens is great. This is the first show that I have ever had where not one person out of everyone that came up to me at the opening asked me what the work was about. They all im- mediately launched into what the works meant to them on a personal and/or global level. This is the greatest compliment and experience I have ever had as it means the works are doing what they are meant to.....

A: What do you have planned for next?
JO: I don’t like to discuss my new projects before I have completed them but I am very excited about what is going on..... On a personal level the other major focus is that I want to start to cook for myself as healthily as I cook for my dog. He nearly died a year ago from having cancer and a heart condition. I started to hand cook chicken and vegetables and sometimes goose fat for him every day and he literally runs around like a puppy again. The happiness and energy he has now is unbe- lievable and I have no comprehension as to why I can’t do the same thing for myself. 

© Ruth Zoe Andreas, all rights reserved