Food For Thought

Beneath These Masks Is An Artist Conflicted By Junk Food

  • The titles of James Ostrer's photographs are inspired by the European Union's codes for food additives, known as E numbers. Instead of just E numbers, Ostrer uses EF numbers, for "emotional fossil." This one is called EF 124.
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    The titles of James Ostrer's photographs are inspired by the European Union's codes for food additives, known as E numbers. Instead of just E numbers, Ostrer uses EF numbers, for "emotional fossil." This one is called EF 124.
    James Ostrer
  • Ostrer modeled some of the masks himself. He got his friends and family to help him out with the rest.
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    Ostrer modeled some of the masks himself. He got his friends and family to help him out with the rest.
    James Ostrer
  • To make these masks, the artist often used colored cream cheese as a base, and layered other foods on top.
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    To make these masks, the artist often used colored cream cheese as a base, and layered other foods on top.
    James Ostrer
  • Once the models' faces were completely covered, Ostrer only had a few minutes to photograph them — the masks were pretty uncomfortable, and they deteriorated quickly, he says.
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    Once the models' faces were completely covered, Ostrer only had a few minutes to photograph them — the masks were pretty uncomfortable, and they deteriorated quickly, he says.
    James Ostrer
  • In creating each sculpture, Ostrer drew on his mental images of everything from famous works of art to celebrities he'd seen on TV to the ancient people he read about in history class.
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    In creating each sculpture, Ostrer drew on his mental images of everything from famous works of art to celebrities he'd seen on TV to the ancient people he read about in history class.
    James Ostrer
  • Ostrer's complicated relationship with junk food began when he was a child.
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    Ostrer's complicated relationship with junk food began when he was a child.
    James Ostrer
  • After his parents divorced, he says, he started turning to junk food as a way to cope with stress.
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    After his parents divorced, he says, he started turning to junk food as a way to cope with stress.
    James Ostrer
  • As he got older, he noticed that his diet was making him feel sick rather than nourished.
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    As he got older, he noticed that his diet was making him feel sick rather than nourished.
    James Ostrer
  • Nowadays, when he walks by the aisles full of junk food at the grocery store, Ostrer says, he doesn't feel the same craving for it.
    Hide caption
    Nowadays, when he walks by the aisles full of junk food at the grocery store, Ostrer says, he doesn't feel the same craving for it.
    James Ostrer

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British photographer James Ostrer purchased about $8,000 worth of junk food over the past two years — enough to fill up six or seven cars.

But all those Mars bars, strawberry shoelaces, donuts and cheese puffs weren't meant for consumption. Instead, Ostrer caked them on himself and others (with the help of cream cheese "plaster") to create a series of human sculptures. Photos he took of his creepy-cool creations on candy-colored backgrounds are on display at the Gazelli House Gallery in London through Sept. 14.

The exhibit is called "Wotsit all about" (Wotsits are the British version of Cheetos) and was inspired by Ostrer's complicated relationship with junk food.

It all started after his parents got divorced, he tells The Salt. He lived with his mother, and "each weekend I used to get picked up by my dad, and he would always be late," Ostrer says. His parents would bicker and shout. And afterward, "my dad would always drive my sister and I to McDonald's and we'd have a Happy Meal."

Soon, he says, he started turning to junk food as a way to cope with stress. Ostrer is tall and doesn't consider himself particularly overweight. But as he got older, he began to notice that his junk-food heavy diet was making him feel sick rather than nourished. "It's never going really to make you feel good," he says.

For this project, Ostrer says, he started by designing junk food masks for himself. "I wanted to completely engulf myself in these food types to this extreme level," he says. "The process of creating these was a kind of a cathartic experience."

Ostrer also used his friends and even his dad as models. But it wasn't a comfortable experience for anyone.

The artist usually started with colored cream cheese, which emulates frosting and makes for a good base. He then layered other foods on top. The full-body treatments took about eight hours to complete, he says.

Sculpting the faces was more challenging and Ostrer had to work quickly. Once the models were fully covered, he only had a few minutes to photograph them. And he made sure to leave at least one nostril open. "Otherwise it would get difficult for the models to breathe," he says.

In creating each sculpture, he drew on his mental images of everything from famous works of art to celebrities he'd seen on TV to the ancient people he read about in history class. And the titles, like EF 126.75, are inspired by the European codes for food additives, known as E numbers. The EF in Ostrer's titles stands for "emotional fossil."

Nowadays, when he walks by the aisles full of junk food at the grocery store, Ostrer says, he doesn't feel the same craving for it. "Now I kind of see them as sculpting materials."

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