Jana Sterbak is a Montreal based sculptor and performance artist who attended Concordia University. She is best known for her piece “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for and Albino Anorectic”, a dress made entirely of flank steak. This piece is very controversial, and played part in her recent acceptance of the Canada Governor General’s awards in the Arts.
The McGill Daily (MD): You recently received the Canada Governor General’s Award for your piece, “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” (1987). What does it mean for you to win such an award?
Jana Sterbak (JS): This is actually a career award for all of my pieces. [This piece] is more known because it was captured by the public imagination. It was shown in Ottawa, in the National Gallery of Art, which was close to the parliament. Because of that, there was controversy about what is or isn’t art. The award pays no special attention to the work itself. And yes, I think it is a big honour.
MD: Let’s start with your most well known piece then. The term “vanitas” refers to 17th century Dutch paintings intended as meditations on the fleeting nature of life and inevitability of death. Is this what you’re sculpture is mostly based on?
JS: That’s pretty much it. Various people have various interpretations. Many things have more than one possible type of entry and everyone brings their own meaning to it. The one that you mentioned is mine.
MD: Given the title of your work, and the fact that it is a dress, did you intend to make a commentary on fashion and the body?
JS: Not in terms of fashion or consumption in any way. It is more about the body aging, and its perishability.
MD: But why flank steak – in regards to the dress or women’s bodies?
JS: The cut of the steak has to do with the facility of constructing the object. And flesh, well, because we are flesh.
MD: So is this directed toward women, or feminist ideas specifically?
JS: No men are also made out of meat. I would not have thought of this, but it could have been any garment. [In terms] of aging we are no different from men. The reality of death is the same for both genders.
MD: Ideally, what should we, as viewers, take from it?
JS: People are to experience as they wish, they can add to it. There have been various feminist interpretations on my work, but I did not make it for a political point of view. Voila, people bring what they bring.
MD: 23 years after you completed your work, Lady Gaga wore the dress at an award ceremony, contributing more feminist concepts to its presentation. What are your thoughts about that?
JS: She is using this way of wearing the flesh meat for her own purposes. She is a contemporary woman and I am surprised she wouldn’t think of something else. The dress is 25 years old, but this is not the first time it happened. But I think we have completely different concerns, [what Lady Gaga did] has nothing to do with [what] I do. What was nice was that the media already had my name down when they were interviewing her after the show.
ND: With regards to your other works, you seem to have a re-occurring theme. “Catacombs” are bones made out of solid chocolate, “Cake Stool” is made out of sponge cake, “Bread Bed” out of bread. How would you describe these pieces and your inspiration behind them?
JS: Most of these pieces refer to regular objects in everyday life. We survive through food materials; they are more poignant to us. It makes the art have much more emotional power because of their consumability. My work is not only about death; it is also about the passage of time.
MD: Are any of your more recent pieces relevant to this theme?
JS: Yes. I have an installation in the Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec called “Disillusion.” It has 16 chairs where the seat back and seat are made of ice, and the legs are made out of metal. It is done every day– and, during the day all of them melt and they come crashing down. This is an ephemeral work that has to be redone over and over again by the staff. It shows – in a tragic way – again, the passage of time. It is also a performance of the human element.
MD: What should we be expecting from your upcoming artwork?
JS: My most recent piece is inspired by a Brother’s Grimm story. It is going to be in the Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada on the 29 of March. You have to experience it yourself; talking about it does not do [it] justice because everyone has their own vision. Don’t talk about them, you have to see them in real life. Especially works that are in three dimensions.
— Compiled by Gaby Lei