Once unwrapped, the surface is diffusely shiny, reflecting only a dull haze. Millions of this minimalist, monochrome sculpture exist across the globe: a thin, floppy bright-orange square, almost eight centimetres across, representing a race against the sun, a denial of time. It is made up of around 97 per cent dairy, or more accurately solid materials that were once dairy: whey protein concentrate, anhydrous milk fat and dried milk powder. The other three per cent is a cocktail of hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, preservatives, additives and dozens of other intermediary ingredients that don’t legally need to be listed, including a vitamin D supplement derived from Australian wool.[i] This consumable ready-made is the true icon of our era: the processed cheese slice.
Before cheese was redefined, time always caught up with it in the end. In Germany, in the late 1800s, they had tried canning Limburger; in France, Camembert and soft cheeses trapped in short cylindrical tins (handy to ship and to pack in soldiers’ rations) didn’t seem to last any longer than when wrapped just in wax paper. Across Europe, attempts were made to heat and mix cheeses in an effort to provide something clean, long-lasting and profitable, a cheese that could accompany sailors and entrepreneurs as they trekked to warmer climes. But the oily fats would separate and seep out, only to soon after go rancid. Swiss company Gerber made a breakthrough in 1911 by adding an emulsifying salt, which managed to keep the melted Emmenthal a consistent paste that could be poured and moulded as desired. A few years later, in 1915, a young Canadian in Chicago was experimenting with melting dried out bits of discarded Cheddar from the grocers he supplied. He ended up with rectangular loaves of orange cheese that could be easily sliced for sandwiches and which, he claimed, could be ‘kept indefinitely without spoiling’.[ii] James Kraft patented his creation and solidified its popularity by gaining a contract to supply his cheese to the US Army throughout the remainder of World War I, ensuring a generation of men were hooked on the gummy, salty cheese when they returned home.
At the same time Kraft was developing his product, an artist in the village of Kuntsevo, just west of Moscow, made what he considered to be a startling discovery. Painting quickly over a previous image with a solid layer of paint to form a black square on a white square canvas, Kazimir Malevich arrived at his first Black Square (1915). As the focal point of his incipient formulation of suprematism, the black square was a full stop and a zero, a new starting point, a void that represented the ‘germ of all possibilities’,[iii] a ‘total eclipse’,[iv] sidestepping representation and replacing it with absolute being. It was a transposable symbol for utopian potential, an entity that went on to multiply, featuring on a theatrical curtain for the futurist play Victory Over the Sun (1913), on a book cover, on lapel and sleeve badges, on banners and even on the gravestone for Malevich’s burial.
Here, during Word War I, at the compounded birth of the long modern century, we find the arrival of parallel squares—one orange and one black—that mark many strands of the coming hundred years, scions of a century obsessed with control and order, disguised behind dreams of perfection. Both are abstractions from a messy reality, seeking inspiration and assurance in standardisation, in streamlining. How they have fared since is telling. Malevich’s revolutionary experiments are several cracked, fading paintings, whose ideas have been subsumed into institutionalised and ossified readings of modernism and minimalism, turning the Black Square into an historical sign, a dead ideal of the past. The orange square, however, has flourished. Even as a derided symbol of kitsch pseudo-food, it has been resuscitated in foodie circles by upscale burger joints across Europe. Processed cheese slices make up the largest part of processed cheese sales worldwide, and they account for a mind-blowing 74 per cent of total sales at the supermarket in the USA.[v]
Perhaps, as the orange square has come to embody the wide dissemination and integration into daily life that Malevich imagined for his Black Square, we might benefit from those perspectives applied to his suprematist vision. Exhibiting the first small canvas alongside dozens of other geometric paintings in Petrograd in 1915, Black Square was hung in the upper corner of the room, occupying the place of Orthodox Christian icons. He invited viewers to read the square as they would a religious icon painting: as a visible reflection of the invisible, a medium that, through an invocation of the prototype, provides direct access to the divine. Accordingly, the square is a non-vision, a painting that shows nothing but is still giving us a Platonic square that embodies pure feeling—any feeling at all. In discussing the influence of Malevich, Tom McDonough has posed the square monochrome ‘not as one further move in a history of geometric abstraction, but as its negation, in fact, as the abolition of a separate sphere of art and representation more broadly. The monochrome appears here as a species of nihilism, understood as a true materialist aesthetic.’[vi]
Black Square could be seen simultaneously as both the realist nadir and the spiritual apex of art; we might view the orange square as its continuation. Following the ‘cracking’ of milk, in the 1970s, into various parts and products, industrial cheese producers found that they didn’t need to start with actual cheese in order to create processed cheese. In the 1990s, Kraft was found by the American Food and Drug Administration to be using milk protein concentrate, at that point not a permitted ingredient in processed cheese slices. Kraft’s solution was to rebrand the product, from ‘Pasteurised Process Cheese Food’ to ‘Pasteurised Prepared Cheese Product’.[vii] The orange square is a ready symbol for our actual state in the world, an icon for how far we have actually come from any conception of or relation to what we might call ‘natural’. The cheese slice is an eternal, unchanging solid, one that in a similar paradox to Black Square is both direct in its materiality, as a direct embodiment of pure nourishment, while at the same time only ever evoking the idea of ‘food’, the Platonic ideal of ‘cheese’ remaining a distant, unreachable form.
We might also, then, read the orange square back into the Black Square to find what links these formal siblings from different sides of the world. The factory production of processed cheese is part of an historical progression away from geographic and microbiotic specificity towards a standardised product that can be produced anywhere and always taste the same. The orange and the black squares share an appeal to universality, that is in the same gesture an erasure of any sense of place and a denial of detail. In this light, Malevich’s idealism was actually, as his critics of suprematism feared, a step towards alienation, mechanic vision and a promotion of purely individual consumption.
As one of the world’s most widely consumed materialist aesthetics, the orange square, with its plastic buoyancy and manipulable slow viscosity, holds within it the aims of the scientific paradigm of an undying hygienic eternity. It is an insidious and ingested version of the dream-plastic Imipolex G hinted at throughout Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), a material used variously for insulation, worn by the book’s characters for heightened erotic bondage-play and even, it is suggested, enabling telepathic properties. What, then, does this tell us about our own bodies after more than a century of consuming the orange square? The cyborg realities we have theorised have long since arrived—the dull plastic sheen diffused through our muscles and membranes, imbued within the constituents of our very thoughts; the orange square is already in each of us, is us. Each act of consuming one multiple of the orange square is an act of communion with the void, with the plastic reality we inhabit as equally constructed and accidental. Each square is a monument to an unknown future, one where humanity has disappeared. Among the concrete ruins, all that remains are rectangular bricks of processed cheese and scattered prepackaged cheese slices, as brightly orange as the day they were made, perhaps punctuated by the occasional limb or body part from those who consumed enough of the cheese to effectively preserve their cells.
Originally published in Art + Australia, Issue 3 (52.4), Summer 2018
[i] Zhejiang Garden Biochemical is the world’s largest producer of vitamin D supplement produced as a by-product from grease that coats sheep’s wool, with the majority of wool supplied from Australia. The supplement makes its way into many of the world’s processed diary products. Cited in Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox, Scribner, London, p. 75.
[ii] Cited in Warner, p. 40. The Kraft company later developed pre-cut and packaged individual cheese slices, which entered the US market in the 1949.
[iii] Malevich, cited in Alexandra Shatskikh, Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism, Marian Schwartz (trans.), Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2012, p. 50.
[iv] Malevich, quoted in Shatskikh, p. 45.
[v] International Dairy Foods Association, Dairy Facts, Washington DC, 2007, cited in A.Y. Tamime (ed.), Processed Cheese and Analogues, Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NY, 2011, p. 151.
[vi] Tom McDonough, ‘The Mercurial Monochrome’, cited in Iwona Blazwick (ed.), Adventures of the Black Square, Prestel and Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2015, p. 248.
[vii] Cited in Warner, pp. 44–45.