The Smell of American Exceptionalism

Ed Ruscha's Chocolate Room, 1970-2004, will be on view at MOCA until May 3, 2010.

Chocolate Room by Ed Ruscha is an installation made of prints, silkscreens to be precise. It is, according to his catalogue raisonné, Nestle's chocolate paste silkscreened onto paper. There is no image, per se, just the rich surface of chocolate-covered walls and the smell that emanates from them.

Because of my job, I have had the good fortune to visit the work in its current form many times over the past few weeks. It has changed remarkably in that time, the butter fats in the chocolate apparently coming out of their colloidal suspension to create crystalline structures most often described as floral.

This degradation, to me, is in some ways the subject of the work--not just the interrogation of print-making by using non-archival organic "ink" to produce not an image but a surface, but the rapid decay of the materials themselves hinting at the unsustainability inherent in the "American way of life." That the room is coated in industrial milk chocolate speaks to American-style excess, that it was created during the Vietnam War, to American Exceptionalism.

The smell begins before you can see the work. It calls to you. At first, it is wonderful: a room full of chocolate! But the smell is not just powerful, it's intense. What starts out as subtle can become overwhelming, even a little sickening. The longer you stay, the more you feel like you have eaten too much chocolate.

It is gorgeous. The work is not only a wry pop masterpiece--It's chocolate! Silkscreened!--but a precise, if flip, critique of American Exceptionalism. For what could be more American than a world covered in chocolate, an industrial product symbolic of the post-war plenitude engendered by American enterprise--as well as its hidden costs, such as the slave-labor used to harvest cocoa? And while America was busy carpet bombing North Vietnam, wouldn't a room papered with chocolate bring to mind that other air campaign against Communist encroachment, the "candy drops" that became famous during the Berlin airlift?

According to MOCA's website, curator Henry Hopkins invited Ruscha and others to make prints for the American Pavilion at the 1970 Venice Biennale, but many declined in protest of the Vietnam War.
During the Biennale, protesters etched anti-war slogans into the rich brown surfaces of Chocolate Room, leaving the work to stand as a spontaneous anti-war monument, which Ruscha ultimately considered more effective than non-participation in the Biennale. In the summer heat, the heady smell of chocolate was particularly overwhelming and attracted a swarm of Venetian ants, which ate away at the work.
But, of course, Chocolate Room is not a protest piece. It is too canny for that. It is also, like all the best pop-art, a work of existential realism, showing us "something so obvious no one had noticed it, something that therefore demanded acknowledgment." If America, or at least one twisted ideal version of it, is like a thin layer of chocolate covering everything, then much of what is great about it is also what is rotten about it.

Now, nearly 40 years later, we are escalating yet another war without apparent end, where victory is hard to define and our presence ever harder to defend. The wars have changed, but the chocolate smells the same.