Sit on It



The art of sploshing. (Contains mildly NSFW photography.)

1 ©mHBurgess2014

© Martha Burgess

The Friday night before last, on an otherwise abandoned block in Gowanus, I spied a young man and woman; she was carefully carrying a plastic bag that contained a boxy package. “Are you here for the sploshing?” I asked. They were. I followed them to their destination—Trestle Gallery, a nonprofit art organization affiliated with Brooklyn Art Space, on the first floor of a building that once housed factories. Was it their first time sploshing? I wanted to know. It was. And me, would I be participating, too? No. I was only there to watch.

I’d learned of artist Martha Burgess’s “Cake Sit” a few months prior, over dinner at Omen, the serene, Zen-like Japanese restaurant on Thompson Street. The novelist Monique Truong, whose Book of Salt I often cite as one of the best examples of food writing, turned to me and asked, with wide-eyed excitement, “Have you heard of cake splooshing?!”

Although I spend an inordinate amount of time writing, thinking, and talking about cake, to say nothing of eating it, this splooshing, as Truong called it, was new to me. People, she explained, sit on cakes and get off on it.

Cursory research revealed that sploshing—the correct spelling—is, indeed, a thing, and that there’s a specific cake version thereof. Burgess herself mentioned a 1928 precedent in George Bataille’s Story of the Eye: “I first saw her mute and absolute spasm (which I shared) the day she sat down in the saucer of milk.” But Truong found a direct reference in Tove Jansson’s 1946 Comet in Moominland: “‘There you sit on our cake,’ said the Snork Maiden. Then the Muskrat got up, and, oh, dear, you never saw such a mess as there was on his bottom. And as for the cake … ‘Now I shall be sticky for the rest of my life, I suppose,’ said the Muskrat bitterly. ‘I only hope I can bear it like a man and a philosopher.’”

On its own, the act of plopping one’s posterior on a beautifully frosted, possibly delicious dessert didn’t intrigue me. If anything, I was horrified by the idea of wasting of a perfectly good cake on something as fleeting as taking a seat. The pleasure principle was intriguing, but only in theory. Who wants to get crumbs up one’s bum or sticky icing on one’s pants?

What did interest me, and enough to want to see the perverse paradise in person, is Burgess’s appropriation of the fetish for a public, communal performance project. Over tea a week later, the artist, who identifies herself as “the tree that fell in the forest,” explained that in this current show, “Performing Audience,” she experiments with “the distinctions between artist, audience, and art institution—blurring all those boundaries.”

“You know how many artists say, It takes the audience to complete the work of art?” she asked. “I just wanted to speed up that process a bit.”

Back in Gowanus, I trailed Arcadia Hartung, whose name I’d learn later—after I’d dubbed her “Fabulous,” because that’s what was printed on the back of the underpants she wore when she lowered her bum into her cake—and her friend up a flight of stairs and into the small, bare-walled exhibition room. Along the way I found out that she’s a former intern of Ms. Burgess’s; that neither she nor her plus-one had ever (deliberately) sat on a baked good before; and that she had bought—not baked—the cakes in her bag.

c ©mHBurgess2014

© Martha Burgess

Close to thirty people had gathered in the gallery, and the space was charged with an upbeat, excited energy. The artist, head down, camera in hand, was having an intense conversation with the videographer, whose equipment was smack dab in the center of the room. Ahead of them was what constituted the proscenium: a bare wall covered in butcher paper, in front of which stood a Donald Judd–inspired purple rectangular cardboard construction. The first round of sploshers had already begun to place their cakes on this bench; Ms. Burgess rearranged them according to her aesthetic preference. Sitting atop the bright, violet surface, the single-file line of confections looked like a Wayne Thiebaud still life.

Standing “offstage,” Truong waved me over and introduced the poet Barbara Tran, a friend of Burgess’s who had agreed to perform that evening. She was wearing bright red pants, which she’d bought for the occasion; they matched her cake, which she’d baked using a box mix of strawberry batter. The finished, layered product was covered with textured swoops of white icing and dotted with tiny red-hots. She was going for a Roy Lichtenstein Ben-Day effect. Tran was wondering what sort of frosting made for optimal sploshing—for whatever reason, she’d decided chocolate was not as cushy. Buttercream, she presumed, was better than ganache.

A few minutes later, nine people, including Tran, stood on the other side of that cardboard barrier, each participant behind his or her respective cake. It looked like a police lineup for pastry thieves. Burgess snapped their photos. Then she had them walk out in clusters—four, two, or one at a time—to engage in the act itself. Four of them came. They sat. It was done. Burgess asked them to stay, plonked down and sinking into their cakes, so she could take photos. While they waited, a few of them stuck their fingers into their cushions and tasted. After they stood up, Burgess photographed the strangely beautiful sculptures they’d left behind.

“Regarding the encounter between a human’s hindquarters and a cake,” she explained, “I’m drawn to the object that is produced as a result of the process, and I feel that this result may be more important than the accident itself.” As for the process, Burgess believes it’s “not unlike printmaking—one’s ass being potatoes.” This irreverence is part of her MO. The act, she says, is “sensual and silly and goofy and very sweetly bad … I don’t think of it as waste so much as an act of rebellion.”

b ©mHBurgess2014

© Martha Burgess

Truong saw rebellion, too. “The moment that Barbara, in her bright red pants bought especially for the occasion, flattened that cake, I was experiencing the cathartic thrill of destroying all the birthday cakes belonging to my little first-grade classmates … So maybe for me, the cake sit—her cake sit—was like the burning of an effigy, the cake a stand-in for an awful childhood, except a cake sit was incredibly fun.”

Charlotte Druckman is a journalist and editor whose food writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Bon Appetit. She is also the author of Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen.

Proof of the cake sit is on display at Trestle Gallery through April 4, in the form of Burgess’s photographs.