Features  Art in the flesh

The Daily’s Whitney Mallett gets a taste for meat as medium and muse

“Imagine you’re hanging from a meat hook.” A dance teacher made this analogy to me years ago, and I will never forget it. There is something eerily beautiful about the suspension of raw meat. Of course, this beauty is matched with the discomfort that comes from visualizing yourself as a hanging carcass. Painter Francis Bacon would have probably liked the idea. He once said, “Hams, pigs, tongues, sides of beef seen in the butcher’s window, all that death, I find it very beautiful. And it’s all for sale – how unbelievably surrealistic!”

Bacon often painted hanging meat. He was not the first artist to be seduced by the texture, colour, and marbling of raw flesh. Rembrandt painted his famous Carcass of Beef centuries before and, during Bacon’s own lifetime, Chaim Soutine rendered a more modern, bloodier version of Rembrandt’s suspended ox.

In the later part of the 20th century, meat made a transition from the subject of art works to the very fabric of them. In 1987, Canadian artist and Concordia graduate Jana Sterbak first showed her dress constructed of 50 pounds of salted flank steak in Montreal. Over the course of the exhibit, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic transformed from raw to cured state, in some ways imitating the human aging process. Sterbak followed up her meaty success with another in 1996: Chair Apollinaire, a chair made from over 150 pounds of steak, also cured. The piece is a pun on the French word for flesh: chair.

Fittingly, Sterbak strongly emphasizes that her works are not about meat, but about flesh. “And flesh is what we are!” she adds. A steak’s muscle, fat, and tissue, when juxtaposed against human flesh, encourage us to consider our own animality – something that usually escapes our consciousness. When meat’s typical function is perverted, and it is presented as flesh and not food, it becomes prime material for self-reflection.

Chinese artist Zhang Huan donned a meat suit in his piece My New York to explore his complex relationship with his adopted city. The suit, made of raw steaks, was shaped to give Huan a brawny body-builder aesthetic, but its flayed surface contrasted strength with vulnerability. During the performance piece, Huan released doves, alluding to the Buddhist tradition amassing grace by freeing live animals.

Huan’s piece was an attempt to reconcile the culture he came from with a culture thrust upon him. He explains that although a body-builder slowly builds up muscle, he adopts the aesthetic overnight. Donning the meat suit parallels his forced adoption of American culture. The connotations of red meat as a conspicuous example of American society’s disproportionate consumption cannot be ignored in the piece. Meat is not just flesh used to explore mortality and self-reflection; for Huan, it is undoubtedly also a symbol of a culture whose habits of consumption differ drastically from the rest of the world.

In a 2005 interview with Jonas Storsve, Sterbak explained: “The two most evident connotations of flesh, but not necessarily of meat, are the sexual and the mortal.” The relationship between carnage and carnality is explored in some of the earliest recorded art using meat. Carol Schneeman’s 1964 performance Meat Joy – shown first in Paris and then again in New York City – was a Dionysian piece in which eight partially nude figures danced and played in raw fish and chicken, sausage, paint, and paper. It was meant to celebrate flesh as a material.

The same year, American performance artist Robert Delford Brown’s Meat Show also used meat to invoke sexuality. In the Washington Meat Market, he created brothel-like rooms out of tons of blood and raw meat strewn with yards and yards of sheer fabric suggestive of lingerie. Visitors walked through the decorated meat locker in white coats and were then fed sausages. Brown, notorious for invoking shock and scandal in his avant-garde art, located the viewers’ own consumption of meat while meat surrounded them. The show only lasted three days.

Meat goes bad fast. Meat art often has to be performed or captured on film because otherwise it will rot. Its impermanence reminds us of our own mortality – one day, we too, will rot. Sterbak cures steak to prevent her work from putrefying, but the piece’s transformation from fleshy and raw to its shrivelled, salted state recalls changes that take place in our bodies over time. “Art, when successful, comes close to resembling life; and life, as well as love, is ephemeral, perishable, and fleeting,” she professes.

Pinar Yolacan also uses meat to explore human decay. For Perishables, she photographed elderly women wearing garments constructed from poultry and tripe – each piece imitates the individual subject’s wrinkled face. The state of the aging women and their perishing garb is immortalized in the photographs. In an interview with The New York Times in 2004, Yolacan commented on her choice of material: “I’ve always been interested in the impermanence of things,” she said.

While Sterbak and Yolacan prevented their pieces from going rancid, Jan Fabre exploits the rotting process in his installation piece, Temples of Meat. The project involved wrapping columns at Ghent University in Belgium with 200 pounds of decaying steak, bacon, and minced meat to make them “come alive” by attracting flies. Meat is essentially lifeless, but at once becomes a source of life, and a metaphor for life’s transient nature.

Meat’s expiration illustrates life’s impermanence, and its decomposition exemplifies the cyclical nature of life and death. Whether it’s rotting or not, meat can be disgusting. Meat evokes a visceral reaction: being confronted by a material representation of death can instinctively repel us. But most of us also depend on meat for survival. When it is presented before us as art, this complex relationship is explored.

Meat exposes us to what is below the skin’s surface. We are often disconnected from our own insides; for whatever reason, we are revolted when confronted with a suggestion of the body turned inside-out. Viewers were repulsed by Chilean artist Gabriela Rivera’s 2005 film Efímero: she covered herself in raw meat strips to construct a metaphor for the relationship people have with their mirror image. Meat is intimately related to the body. It resembles our own flesh; it even becomes a part of us when we ingest it. Disguised in meat, Rivera’s flayed, Frankenstein-like figure provoked her audience members to examine their own body images. However, many people were just shocked and repulsed by the film.

McGill student Alex Cowan is also interested in meat as provocation. He strewed rotting scraps around public spaces in Montreal – what he thought would be a foolproof plan to invoke some sort of reaction. But only a congregation of seagulls and pigeons seemed to take notice. “Some people looked disgusted; most people were entirely indifferent. Most people tuned it right out of their consciousness,” he explains.

Indifference toward this display of meat suggests society’s disconnect between ground-up meat in a Styrofoam container and the concept of a dead animal. Sterbak notes the linguistic dichotomy: “Consider that in many languages the name of the animal changes when it arrives on your plate. For example, cow becomes beef; pig becomes pork.” Meat is defined by our consumption of it. “In the abstract, idealized world that we live in most people don’t want to make the connection between meat and a pig. Humans create their own world. We have developed meat as a commodity because that’s what we think it ought to be,” says Cowan.

The commodification of meat has reached the point that it has become a symbol of objectification. Ann Simonton wore a bologna dress to protest women being treated as meat. The phrase “treated as meat” connotes a complete lack of respect and devaluation.

Art can provoke us to question the disconnection between the process and the product. The transition from dead animal to food, however, can itself be an art. Michelle Boubis, a butcher at Jean Talon Market, argues that butchery is an art form “because it ennobles the animal, giving value to what we eat.” Treating butchery as an art means treating the animal like a living thing, and not merely as objectified, consumer-defined, meat.

This type of processing is rare today. While Boubis receives animals whole, directly from the farm, most meat is packed in industrial factories. The meat hanging from butchers’ windows that Bacon found so beautiful is becoming less and less common. Instead, packaging appeases our conceptualized ideal of meat. “Many people, myself amongst them, have doubts about meat consumption, and, above all, the way our society takes care of its livestock intended for mass consumption…. This is why meat does not resemble itself in the effort to divorce it from any appearance that may recall our own flesh,” Sterbak stated in an interview with Storsve.

These concerns are not new. In his 1924 silent film Kino-Glaz, Dzia Vertov critically examines industrial meat processing. He playfully presents the sequence of a cow’s slaughter in reverse, inspiring both delight and horror in the viewer. Life springs from the materiality of death lying on the slaughterhouse floor. A dead ox appears to be sewn back up by mechanical knives, leaps to its feet, and is driven backward to the pasture.

The relationship between meat and art has manifested itself in different ways. A New York Times article from 1909 titled “Meat Packers and Art” describes meat as a currency to purchase treasured European art. The article reports fears that the art would be exchanged for $2-million “accumulated in meat packing.” Historic European works were said to be dangled before the “covetous, meat-packing eyes” of American millionaires, contrasting modern industrial society with established artistic tradition. Both art and meat were marketed as commodities then, just as they are now. The market was ascribing the two equivalent values for exchange before artists were using meat to draw metaphors in their art.

Whether hanging in a butchers’ window or on display in art gallery, meat is for our consumption. As food, or as art, meat is a product – whether it ends up on our plate or not. It isn’t hard to engage critically with meat when it’s presented subversively as art. But hopefully we can begin to consume it as critically with our mouths as we do with our eyes.