Even people who know nothing about food recognize caviar as a rare and expensive treat. Its reputation as a delicacy is accentuated by the endangered status of the Caspian sturgeons that produce it and the elaborate trappings surrounding its service in fine restaurants. Although many Web sites provide links to purveyors of Iranian and Russian caviar, www.chrissycaviar.com, created by New York artist Chrissy Conant, offers a unique product, Chrissy Caviar®, which it describes as “the world’s most expensive luxury consumable item.”
Chrissy Caviar® 2001–2002. Courtesy of the artist.
All of Chrissy Conant’s work revolves around one subject: her own fears, moods, and desires. Her art is very personal, yet it challenges the viewer to reflect on his or her own inner life by presenting such objects as teddy bears whose fur has been replaced with long, sharp pins; or a homeland security mood indicator, on which the artist’s moods escalate in color and intensity from LOW to GUARDED to SEVERE.
Conant was raised in New Jersey and educated at Boston University and the School for Visual Arts. In 2002, in the aftermath of a broken engagement, she became preoccupied with having a child before she grew too old to conceive and spent a lot of time thinking about how best to present herself to prospective mates. When a friend took her to dinner at an expensive restaurant and told her she could order anything she liked, Conant ordered a large portion of caviar. It was brought with great pomp by a waiter who carefully spooned the roe onto blini, and then ceremoniously presented it with all the usual accompaniments—toast points, hard-boiled eggs, and chopped onions.
Chrissy Caviar® 2001–2002. Courtesy of the artist.
It was only later, when Conant was thinking about what kind of clothes or hairstyle would “brand” her—position her for the most desirable mate—that she realized what she really wanted to have was the allure of caviar. What would happen, she wondered, if she put a part of herself—perhaps her most precious part—in a jar and marketed it like caviar?
Thus the Chrissy Caviar® project was born.
After extensive research into how fish eggs are harvested and cured to make caviar, and into how human eggs are harvested and treated as part of in vitro fertilization (IVF), Conant spent six weeks injecting herself with the same fertility drugs prescribed to ivf patients. The injections caused her to produce multiple eggs instead of only one egg per month. Conant followed this regimen with a final hormone injection that made all her eggs mature at the same time. Then she entered an operating room where, in a forty-five-minute procedure, an endocrinologist and embryologist harvested her eggs. Conant documented all of this with a video camera.
Although the eggs are enormous in comparison to any other human cells, each is only the size of a pencil point. Conant carefully placed them in thirteen tiny flasks (including an “artist’s proof”) filled with human tubal fluid—the same synthetic saline solution used to preserve and transport human eggs for ivf. Each flask was set in a jar that she had manufactured for the project, similar to those used for commercial caviar. These jars were in turn filled with a clear silicone gel.
The presentation of the eggs was as important to Conant as the process of obtaining them. She designed a label that instantly recalls that of classic caviar, but instead of a fish it features a photograph of the artist reclining; and instead of being labeled “Beluga” or “Sevruga” it is prominently described as “Caucasian.” The label also informs us that the jar contains “one egg” and “human tubal fluid” with a weight of .00000006 ounces, and that it must be refrigerated at a temperature of no more than 38 degrees F.
Determined to establish Chrissy Caviar® as a brand to be marketed like any other high-grade caviar, Conant filled out the paperwork necessary to secure a trademark and filed for registration in the u.s. Patent and Trademark Office. Although the initial reaction of the government examiner charged with registering the trademark was stunned disbelief, he eventually came around. Conant now holds a trademark registered for use in connection with two distinct categories: food products and DNA.
An installation of the Chrissy Caviar® project debuted at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in May 2002. It included a continuously running ten-minute dvd that documents the artist’s efforts to harvest her eggs, a large, glossy “glamour” photo of her holding a jar of her caviar between her legs, a giant lithograph of the label for Chrissy Caviar®, and a limited-edition ballpoint pen topped by a clear plastic liquid-filled cylinder that you can tilt to get a tiny egg to float between images of an ovary and a caviar jar. The centerpiece of the installation was a glass-fronted, deli-style refrigerator case featuring two rows of the twelve labeled jars of Chrissy Caviar®.
By presenting human eggs as caviar, Conant deliberately challenges the viewer to consider the origin of the food we enjoy as caviar, as well as the prospect of treating human eggs as food. How much of the glamour of caviar remains if what is in the jar is an artist’s rare eggs instead of the rare eggs of the sturgeon? A serious foodie who wants her “caviar” to represent the rituals we have developed around food and to highlight the importance of food in society, Conant is at the same time aware that her “caviar” takes the idea of exotic consumables to the very edge of cannibalism.
One chef wanted to do a tasting of the eggs as part of a media event in his high-end restaurant in New York, but Conant has resisted his offer, even though the parallel with sturgeon caviar is essential to the project and she was, on a certain level, pleased that the chef made the connection so literally. She finds it somewhat shocking that people would actually consider ingesting a part of her.
The installation is currently part of a show called Molecules That Matter that is touring museums around the United States, but the deli case and the eggs are for sale to any collector willing to pay $250,000. Conant has made it clear that whatever happens to her eggs then—whether they remain in an installation, are cloned, or ultimately consumed on toast points—will be up to the buyer.
Additional information can be found at www.chrissycaviar.com, including video excerpts from Making Chrissy Caviar®, news of the traveling installation, and such miscellaneous data as the medical histories of Chrissy Conant and members of her family.