They hang like shaggy amber ghosts or fossils of ancient fish. But these relics are actually life-size sculptures of sugar beets as they appear in the soil, with roots tentacling down nearly seven feet. Made from animal collagen and artificial sinew, then painted with a synthetic polyester, the 11 sugar beets were created by Montana artist Tracy Linder and appear as part of the I.D.E.A. Space at Colorado College's new show, Sugar, Sugar.
Linder grew up near Billings, Mont., on a single-family farm that grew sugar beets. The 44-year-old artist creates works meditating on the life process of the root vegetables; she points out that each in this series, a portion of a larger group, is unique. "I'm trying to create a biography of each of those beets," she says, "I'm really looking at some of the mysteries of what's going on in our earth."
The mysteries of sugar grow exponentially in scale and complexity when backed up by its role in history and biology. Says I.D.E.A. Space curator Jessica Hunter Larsen, "We are sugar; we're made of it. Everything we eat breaks down into some form of sugar. It's the basis of our metabolic process, so it is extraordinarily important.
"We associate it so much with good things in our existence. It's an instinct for human beings to gravitate towards sweet things because [they] tend to be less poisonous than bitter things, so that's in large part where our desire for sweetness comes from ... We sort of ride that position between pleasure and distress over sugar."
The distress includes not only a poor national diet but also sugar's history. Sugar production in the Americas catalyzed the slave trade, shaping every aspect of colonial culture after the arrival of Columbus. Since sugar cane had to be cut at a very specific moment in its development and processed immediately so as not to lose its sweetness, sugar cane was processed on the plantation where it was grown.
"It's a very labor-intensive process," says Larsen. "Certainly when it was first developed it was a very dangerous one, involving grinding the sugar cane down and boiling it ... really, the only way you could get anyone to do this would be through slavery."
Linder is well-acquainted with sugar's more contemporary battles. Though most seeds for 2010 harvesting have already been planted, a federal judge recently ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to perform scientific studies on a strain of genetically modified sugar beets. Genetic modification received USDA approval in 2005, but the judge found that the department never prepared an environmental impact statement that would address fears about the beets sharing their genes with other crops.
The issue is of significant importance today, since food producers' interest in sugar beets is growing. (The price of another sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, has spiked due to the demand for corn in ethanol.) All this in mind, Linder notes that Sugar, Sugar is timely: "Our connection to the land is much different than it was 50 years ago."
Beyond sugar as food, the show tackles the headier aspects of the chemical across other studies, from sugar-inspired poetry to scanning electron microscope images of sucrose as well as historical photographs of sugar plantations. Local artist Christina Marsh built a fleet of 30 toy-sized sugar ships adorned with lollipops. They reference the slave ships, says Larsen, speaking to the sinister duality of the "Good Ship Lollipop" and forced labor.
CC costume designer Gypsy Ames created an outfit that she will wear to the show's opening and first Sugar Salon (a series of four interdisciplinary presentations on different facets of sugar), which afterward will reside in the gallery as a sculpture.
Future Sugar Salons will address the scientific and culinary aspects of sugar (Linder will present a lecture on sugar production in early December) with a sugar mandala created by another Montana artist, Julia M. Becker. After three days, the mandala will be ceremonially destroyed in the final salon.