What Makes ‘Is It Cake?’ So Damn Mesmerising?

How can a show be this addictive and yet so stupid?

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Last month, Netflix’s baking show Is It Cake? took the number one spot in both Australia and the US. Our only question is: why?

The fact that we’re content to watch as a strange man with a knife hovers over what appears to be a bowling bowl, among many objects throughout the course of the season, has got to be some kind of existential red flag. At the very least, it raises questions. Had two years of a pandemic made us collectively lose our minds? Is this where we are, as a culture? And why is the man from Saturday Night Live wielding a huge machete?

To find out more, we thought it only right to chat to an expert — more specifically, an expert in art history —  about what was going on. And as we found it, humans’ penchant for uncanny tricks of the eye, of things not being quite what they seem, comes with a long and unhinged history.

We’ve Always Loved Food In Disguise

One of the many ways in which the West is weird is that we’ve long got a kick out of the “treachery of food in disguise“. In The Middle Ages, Aristocrats were served dishes called ‘sotelties’ that were served between main meals, and basically, made to look like something else. An example is a swan made out of mashed potato, or an edible hanging tree.

Look, it was The Middle Ages. Nobody had a Netflix subscription; not even Apple TV+. This was a way to entertain rich old people and get them fed at the same time.

As food writer Ligaya Mishan explains in the New York Times, much of this was about creating a fantasy of abundance at a time when for most of the population, food was scarce. In fact, a part of the entertainment was about inviting the riff-raff to “ransack the displays and scrabble for mouthfuls among the ruins, while nobles of the court applauded from afar: a literal hunger games”.

We’ve Always Loved Illusion 

Our love of illusion, in general, also goes way back; at least to the 17th century. “Imitation is the cornerstone of art history,” says Dr Carina Nandlal, who has a PhD in Art History from Melbourne University. She explains that the art technique called Trompe d’oeil (French for “trick of the eye”) took hold of the public imagination for centuries, as it used optical illusions to push boundaries and create unsettling realities.

The point of Trompe d’oeil was to trick audiences into thinking that the contents of the painting actually existed in the real world. This was obviously a testament to the talent of the artist — only the best of whom could paint objects so precisely that an illusion like that was possible. 

An example of a painting that exemplifies the style is below. You can see that there are several paintings within the painting, making the objects in the painting appear to inhabit different layers of reality. It’s hard to appreciate the illusion with our broken 2022 brains, but to 17th century eyes this was a big deal. 

       ‘A Cabinet In The Artist’s Studio’, Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1671.

Dr Nandlal says that technological advancements like the printing press took over and mass-produced books and newspapers, which made the style sort of redundant. “But that desire for illusion never went away”, Nandlal says. “It just shifts to other places, away from high art.” 

And away from high art it went.

We Loved That ‘Is It Cake’ Meme 

One of those other places is the humble meme, which is maybe about as far from Flemish artists with names like Cornelius that you could get. During those weird early days of the pandemic, when everyone was watching Tiger King and squirrelling away bread starters, we were also poring over videos on social media slapped with the hashtag #everythingiscake. The whole thing took off when Buzzfeed‘s ‘Tasty’ account posted a video that showcased the incredible work of Istanbul-based baker and artist Tuba Geçkil.

Matter-of-factly captioned “these are all cakes”, our early pandemic brains were soothed by the satisfaction of seeing everything from a pot plant to a roll of toilet paper meet its inevitable fate: a knife, that when upon meeting its victim, would reveal a fondant-encased lie. 

The video went viral, and soon enough we were seeing some pretty good memes.

As you can imagine, some of them were a bit unhinged.

Something about the pandemic taking place in 2020 created the perfect conditions for #everythingiscake to thrive. Most of us are surrounded by images of food that we don’t actually eat. We’re awash in visual culture — whether it’s Anthony Bourdain wolfing down tacos in Oaxaca, an episode of Masterchef, or those fluffy Japanese pancakes adorning our Instagram pages.

Meanwhile, an entire planet had found itself in unchartered pandemic waters, with disinformation spreading far and wide. Amid the upheaval, there was a strange comfort in seeing a knife cut through a pot plant and revealing it to be cake. I mean, cake is comforting at the best of times. But Mishan says there was a particular pleasure in seeing this small scale undermining of reality amid a backdrop of looming crisis. “Maybe nothing is real; maybe everything is a joke,” Mishan muses. “But at least we’re in on it”.

So How Could We Not Love Is It Cake?

In 1843, the English art critic John Ruskin said:  “The mind derives its pleasure … not from the contemplation of a truth but the discovery of a falsehood”. And it could be this emotional landscape, combined with the 2020s relentlessness of visual culture, that makes a show like Is It Cake? so enjoyable.

Apparently, it wasn’t long after he made this statement the Trompe d’oeil style of painting began to wane in popularity. But as Dr Nandlal stressed, our appetite for these uncanny tricks never went away. It just exists in the form of Mikey Day poking a suitcase with a large knife before shouting “IT’S NOT CAKE!!! to the gasps of a studio audience. 

For better or for worse, we enjoy luxuriating in these absurd duplicities. First it was those medieval feasts, then it was Trompe d’oeil, and now, it’s this. Of course, Is It Cake? isn’t the only example of our 21st century love for illusion. There’s also photoshopping, deep fakes, and the creepy robots that have learnt how to dance. My god, they move just like us. 

Isn’t it hard to look away?

Reena Gupta is Junkee’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.