Caitlin Berrigan is a 25 year-old Brooklyn-based artist who chooses media such as fats, sugars, and proteins to address ideas and subjects that are often invisible to the naked eye. At Location One last month, Berrigan presented her Viral Confections project: ping pong ball-sized chocolate truffles she casts from a silicone mold created especially for the task. The truffles are made in the shape of the Hepatitis C virus. “These delicious truffles do not carry hepatitis C,” the artist’s website explains. “Each one was lovingly handmade from 72% Belgian roasted cocoa in attempt to befriend the virus.” Other Viral Confections installation pieces include large apothecary jars, decked out with a frilly, soothing variant of the biohazard logo, and filled with model boxed truffles; Berrigan conducts “tea parties” at installation sites, where the conversation inevitably tends toward illness, with exceptions like molecular biology shoptalk and empathy. During last month’s event, Berrigan’s hepatitis-shaped truffles were scarfed down before the conversation ever got started. “Within the first five minutes, this group of people came over and ate all the chocolates,” Berrigan says. “I think they were tourists. I was left with maybe six truffles, and they didn’t stay for the presentation.” The artist presented Viral Confections anyway, and talked about Hepatitis C, which affects 200 million people worldwide.
“I’ve been working in the activist community for several years, and it gets really depressing, because there’s really no awareness of the disease at all,” Berrigan says. “I’m trying to pique people’s interest, re-examine our relationship to viruses, and raise some awareness about Hepatitis C.” Berrigan’s hepatitis-shaped chocolate truffles are part of a larger series, Sentimental Objects in Attempts to Befriend a Virus. Berrigan plans to produce handmade booklets with basic information about the disease, and to eventually build a functional, geodesic-domed greenhouse made in the shape of Hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a virus that causes liver disease and is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, such as through blood transfusions and IV needles; Berrigan contracted the disease from a blood transfusion she received when she was four months old. She started the Sentimental Objects series to mediate the largely separate cultures of disease, treatment, and public perception of her illness. “The tactics of fear are really important to raise awareness,” she says, “but there’s too much fear in the environment now.” One of the ideas behind the Viral Confections series, the artist says, is “to help determine what is really important about fighting the virus, which many times is just people’s negligence and ignorance, their own fear.”
Berrigan, who has a chocolate tempering machine and other equipment in her Brooklyn studio, had worked previously with the medium of chocolate. “I cast my nipple, lips and tongue,” she says, “and sold these tiny boxes with my body parts inside.” For a show in France, Berrigan and another artist created a 5-foot marzipan tampon that invariably angered spectators. Another piece in the same show featured a for sale, by-the-slice dress made out of prosciutto, worn by a leggy model. “The dogs got really excited about her, which freaked her out,” Berrigan says, reluctantly. The art in that show was based on the subversion of ideas already prevalent in culture, but largely unaddressed. To a degree, says Berrigan, “media are already selling the body in cannibalistic ways,” and edible projects impel spectators to “consume these beautiful bodies in a more literalistic, cannibalistic kind of way.”
This weekend, Caitlin Berrigan will present at the New York portion of the Bent Festival, at Eyebeam Atelier. “I’m going to be taking different lipids and fats and putting them in jars,” she says, “so that people can manipulate contact mikes and listen to the sounds the lipids or fats make inside the jar.” Lipids make noise? “Everything makes noise. These grad students and artists at UCLA did a project listening to yeast cells,” Berrigan says. “The yeast had a pleasant, ‘om’ ringing when they were happy and healthy. Then they were put to high temperatures, burned, and the noise got more and more scream-like,” says Berrigan, laughing a little. “It was horrible.”
Photos: Berrigan in her kitchen; the Viral Confections Apocathary jar. The Bent “Circuit Bending Festival,” featuring Caitlin Berrigan’s Aural Viscosity, takes place Thursday through Saturday at Eyebeam Atelier, 540 West 21st Street. Berrigan’s work can also be seen on her website. For more information on Hepatitis C, go here, here, or here.