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Exploding Wedding Cakes and Whiskey Tornadoes: The Whimsical Food Art of Bompas & Parr

The charismatic food art duo Bompas & Parr discuss their project 'Tutti Frutti.'

It's difficult not to like Sam Bompas & Harry Parr. As a studio they manage to encompass all that is delightfully eccentric and sophisticated about the English. Even the name Bompas sounds like a klutzy wordplay on pompous (and yes, it is his real surname). Their portfolio reads like a set list of heavily bankrolled schoolboy pranks--exploding wedding cakes and whiskey tornadoes, chocolate fountains and clouds of gin and tonic. Bompas & Parr are the darlings of art debauchery.

Their extraordinary use of food, technology and imagination are mixed into scenes reminiscent of situations dreamed up by children's author Roald Dahl and prepared by chef Heston Blumenthal. The result? Devastatingly whimsical with an edge of darkness. And, despite Bompas & Parr's self-effacing nature, they are highly successful at what they do.

Photo by: Beth Evans 

Is there ever a narrative? Or is the work of Bompas & Parr pure showmanship--a theatrical spectacle, a circus rather than a creative investigation?

“It's choreographed,” says Bompas, “there's a sense of risk, anticipation, the grand reveal...a reward, a coda, an area of reflection. It's cinematic, yes, but the same is true in architecture. The Taj Mahal in India, for example, fits that structure with their spaces trading on emotional areas. It's about facilitating an emotional experience that people wouldn't ordinarily have on their own.”

To facilitate these experiences, Bompas & Parr work with neuroscientists as much as they do with fashion designers. Parr, the more muted partner, is an architect, and Bompas is the ringleader (English eccentric duos love that strategy, think The Pet Shop Boys, Gilbert & George). 

For their installation for the 100-day summer festival at London's 2013 Kew Gardens, entitled IncrEdibles (which celebrates the diversity of edible plants), the studio commandeered the assistance of menswear designer Kit Neale to work on staff uniforms and a print for the site, while calling on Mileece, a hydrogen fuel cell ambassador and sonic artist (on Planet Mu Records) to collaborate on the sound.

The installation, entitled Tutti Frutti, was situated on the pond in front of the Palm House, the largest of the Victorian glasshouses in Kew Gardens. Inside and out, the gardens are home to rare plant collections brought from around the world by the garden's benefactors.

The work Bompas & Parr embarked on with Tutti Frutti pays homage to edible fruit and the pineapple in particular. During the Georgian and Victorian era, the pineapple was seen as 'the king of fruits.' This royal assimilation has been played out by the studio with a  Dahl-esque twist--from the slightly odd scent of bananas to the drinkable sound of plant life, Bompas & Parr brought research and execution to bare on a multi-tiered experience that also included a book of fruit salad recipes by famous chefs and other food artists.

A rendering of Tutti Fruitt. 

In a move that perhaps signals a departure from their present identity as food artists, the duo is thinking on a larger scale than ever before. "We enjoy setting out the perimeters for people to have their own adventure. We've evolved. Now, when we create an installation  about 10% of the experience will be actual food . . . but we always try to make all the architecture and design elements turbo-charge what's on the plate. We always need a soundscape because what we do is very sensual,” explains Bompas.

The sensual turbo-charge, in this case, was the inclusion of Mileece in the collaboration. "She can take the electrical energy output from plants and this energy changes as you touch it, it turns into the sound wave. So, basically we've got this interactive piece of plant art that's the soundscape,” explains Bompas.

Where does the 10% food element come in?

“There are pineapple cocktails available,” continues Bompas, “and there is a pineapple plant in the drink. As you touch the plant, the soundscape morphs around your touch. The plants become these actual physical instruments and you are able to communicate back and forth between the plants. You effectively play the plants.”

Playing plants sounds fun. “It's almost like a human interaction with an animal” he says of the experience, “sound is excellent, it moves emotion, and, of course you are drinking the plant at the same time.” Here, the distinct devastatingly-whimsical-with-an-edge-of-darkness flourish that's become a signature of the studio plays out to full effect--there is something sinister about eating a plant you've recently been conversing with.