review of Meat After Meat Joy, curated by Heide Hatry, at Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, New York, October 16 - November 15, 2008
I sing the song of meat, of its joys and discontents. For text demanded is now text made manifest. For meat is not only murder but also medium. Not merely the flesh, bone and sinew of corporeal existence but also an aesthetic construct replete with its peculiar and innate ontology. Not just tissue but also a symbolic projection of the impolite body into the rarefied space of the contemporary art world.
As for Heide Hatry, who participates in the exhibition at Daneyal Mahmood Gallery as both its curator and one of the artists, meat is a sine qua non, an act of brazen clarity, revelation and defiance somewhat akin to William Burrough's famous explication of the title of his novel Naked Lunch: "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
Meat is food. Meat is death. Meat is torture. Meat is production. Meat is raw, although it can be cooked. Meat is dissection, substratum, structure. Meat is the bridge between human and animal, a reminder of where we come from, of our shared morphology, and of our place in the food chain. But meat is, above all, metaphor. It drips with larger aesthetic and political implications. It is laced with the gristle of artistic effort, striated by the tendons of semiotic theory and the ligaments of art school curriculum, greased with the lard of unctuous careerism, inflamed in the rotisserie of the contemporary art market, braised on the skillet of critical acclaim or indifference, its physical wholeness challenged by entropy, time and the maggots of eventual dissolution. It is a pungent medium, and should this not be immediately apparent, just give it a day or two without refrigeration.
So what brought Hatry to embrace this unusual material? (Unusual in the context of art, although not on the butcher block). There is the historical precedent of Carolee Schneemann's original Meat Joy, the 1964 video of a performance that incorporated raw fish, chickens, sausages and wet paint in an oozy, orgiastic group grope. It is included in the current exhibition and linked below.
Hatry has previously organized a concise retrospective of Schneemann's early work, and her celebration of the artist's proto-feminist impulses provides a good impetus for this show, not just because (from an interview with Hatry in my two catalogs) "Meat Joy seems to indict the complicity of women in their own subjection, even while averting to the fact that her liberation is always at hand, immanent as it were", but also "because like so much else in her opus, it was, in fact, the starting point for countless other bodies of work for innumerable other artists".
So who has Schneemann inspired? Which works from which artists are chosen? There are meaty, photographic efforts by a number of women artists. For example: Jana Sterbak's flesh dress, Tania Bruguera's The Burden of Guilt performance with a decapitated lamb's ribcage, Steffy Bleier's images of animal organs hanging from hooks, and Nezaket Ekici's Culture Beef, pieces of meat on which are written texts that concern a dual Turkish/German identity.
Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most iconic work in the exhibition is the video of Chinese artist Zhang Huan's performance from the 2002 Whitney Biennial, My New York (image at top), in which he dons a meat suit and confronts the viewer as some sort of grotesque bodybuilder or superhero, lifted on a board from the Whitney moat, walking on the sidewalk releasing white doves. His bulging pecs, deltoids and hamstrings seem like a parody of American largeness and arrogance. In some ways, Zhang's piece feels like a companion to Joseph Beuy's I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), in which the demiurgic German artist similarly enacts rituals of cultural acclimation in order to mark his entry into the United States.
There are several male artists in the show who enjoy painting chops, ribs and other cuts seemingly right out of the meat locker. David Raymond's elegant, minimal, flat, acrylic efforts make him the Alex Katz of the pork chop, whereas Anthony Fisher's thick impasto of oil paint and trickily portentous titles imply weightier, perhaps meatier, intentions. Also included are sculptors who suggest the essence of flesh and viscera without actually using much organic material. Adam Brandejs fashions a Nike sneaker, swoop and all, stapled out of fleshy latex and hair; it twitches via an internal motor. Simone Racheli creates familiar looking household objects, like toilets or chairs, that seem composed of muscles and bodily organs, but are actually made of wood, paper and wax. Tamara Kostianovsky engages in similar trompe l'oeil efforts, constructing sides of beef from her own clothing.
Then there is the strange case of Betty Hirst, who does in fact use flesh, and only flesh, in her oeuvre. The problem is, these meat sculptures - a head on a pedestal, a book on a stand, a rat on the floor, an American flag made of meat and lard, semi-consumed by maggots and enclosed in a vitrine (some perverse homage to Jasper Johns?) - were on view just on opening night. Due to their unstable organic nature and tendency to putrefaction, they were taken out of the freezer and placed on exhibit only once. Perhaps Betty needs to learn the joys of formaldehyde from her namesake Damien Hirst, who is rather good with cutting up sheep and cattle and placing them in vitrines, and seems to make a good living from same. His art seems remarkably well preserved and of noteworthy duration, while his fame is undeniable. If "Betty Hirst" is in fact invoking her British counterpart, I note a superficially arch cleverness but do worry about the underlying significance.
There are several notable omissions in the exhibition. One of Betty Hirst's meat pieces, fashioned to look like a penis, is titled Homage a Schwarzkogler in deference to the Viennese artist who notoriously severed his genitals during a performance. But there is no work in the current show by Herr Rudolf, nor by Gunter Brus, Otto Meuhl or any other proponent of Viennese Actionismus. Especially AWOL is Hermann Nitsch, whose ritualized sacrifices, processionals and bloodlettings, performed by a cast of acolytes during his two-week-long Orgies Mysteries Theaters at Schloss Prinzendorf, present a remarkable and remarkably relevant body of work. Also absent are the mid-1960s wax effigies of Paul Thek, thick layers of faux epidermis, dermis and muscle, sometimes skewered by metal rods, exhibited under sickly green or yellow Plexiglas, and often interpreted as critiques of the Vietnam War. Belgian conceptualist Wim Delvoye has produced several bodies of work that could have been appropriate here; his tattooed Chinese pigs, and the skins that are eventually harvested, might be an interesting addition to a show on meat joy.
Finally, there is the agriculturally referenced work of Peter Nadin, pig farmer, beekeeper, poet and artist, who has distributed smoked ham as an interactive performance at Art Basel Miami Beach, the grease stained butcher's paper that remains after the meat is eaten being the enduring piece. Any and all of these are thematically relevant and might expand the frame of the show. But I do not wish to second guess Hatry's curatorial prerogative, nor the difficulties in securing, transporting and insuring work by well known artists. Certainly there is quite a bit to see, and to sense, in Meat After Meat Joy.
The exhibition was initially mounted earlier this year at Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And this review was written in one sitting, or in two shakes of a catalog's tail - whichever you prefer. Thus my pound of flesh is unarguably delivered, erasing all debts and making all accounts square.