Meatpaper FIVE

Carne Diem
What meat art can tell us about life and death

by Richard Fulmer

David Raymond, Twenty-one Chops, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 42" x 60"

BACK IN 1964 I was a reluctant college student distracted by a new-found interest in modern dance. I didn’t have much technique, but I was an enthusiastic improviser looking for an art form I could fit into. I was lucky to be young at a time when dance and action painting were coming together in what would eventually be called “performance art,” a style in which my limitations were tolerated. A painter, Carolee Schneemann, had just presented a pioneering piece of that sort in New York called Meat Joy. I missed the performance, but the permissive connotation of “meat” and “joy” in the title and the photographs I saw of unclothed, paint-smeared men and women rolling around on the floor with raw chickens suggested a bright future for me in that genre.

Ultimately, I turned out to be a better clinical psychologist than dancer, but was never sorry for the years I spent studying movement. So when, in June, I saw a notice in the Boston Globe for a show called “Meat After Meat Joy” at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, I was eager not to miss it. This time, I brought my son Andrew, who is 19 years old, the same age I was when I first encountered Carolee Schneemann’s work.

When visiting a gallery show composed largely of uncooked meat, one key consideration quickly becomes clear: the need for refrigeration. Still, it took Andrew and me a few minutes to make sense of the thick, frosty pillars that occupied the first room of the gallery. We had better luck with Betty Hirst’s Baby (2008) a thick, flat, gingerbread girl of a female infant, featureless except for her clearly-modeled vagina — and entirely sculpted from raw beef. Having learned to expect meat as a medium, we circled back to the pillar, which, on closer inspection, we could now see was a head, also by Hirst (Bust, 2008). There was something disturbing about these human shapes rendered in skinless meat — a layer of flesh we’d expect to see only in serious injury was here completely exposed.

This is meat as we would never see it in the real world, elegant, pristine, even sublime, like the space station in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The gallery’s second room introduced us to meat as subject, in this case of painters like David Raymond (Twenty-One Chops, 2003), whose thick cuts of meat float weightlessly in space. This is meat as we would never see it in the real world, elegant, pristine, even sublime, like the space station in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

But meat can also be raunchy, as Boston-based painter Anthony Fisher demonstrates in thick impasto. Fisher brings us so close to his subject, we almost wrestle with the big heavy chunks that fill, and sometimes exceed, the frame. Fisher also confronts us with the animal that once was. In Mea Culpa, Agnus Dei, and Feast (2007) we meet a living lamb, at times skinless or with only patches of its wooly coat remaining, posed upright and, in Mea Culpa, staring straight at the viewer. You don’t need Fisher’s titles to sense his interest in the guilt and sacrifice inherent in meat eating, his insistence that we recognize how consuming meat requires the loss of another being.

Heide Hatry, the show’s curator, agrees that this theme of an animal’s loss of life is key to the show. But “Meat After Meat Joy” also refers to a different sort of loss: the loss of recognition that Schneemann herself experienced when critics of both sexes objected to the carnality of her work, what one writer described as “partial and full nudity, sensual pleasure, sexual equality, and, in her 1968 film “Fuses,” explicit lovemaking” (Bruce McPherson, preface to More Than Meat Joy). In Hatry’s view, “Fuses” was released “too early,” and dismissed by an audience not yet able to make sense of it as art. In 2007, Hatry curated a solo show for Schneemann; this year’s “Meat After Meat Joy” is a continuation of her effort to revive interest Schneemann’s work.

But Hatry’s interest in meat art goes beyond Carolee Schneemann. In her own sculptural work, Hatry stitches together pieces of animal skin and parts to craft portraits of women. Hatry grew up on a farm, where her chores included cutting pig carcasses. In pig farming she says, “everything of the animal is used, but their skin is thrown away. I try to make a use out of it.” To Hatry, making art from pig skin is a way of recovering the lost life of the animal. Defying, acknowledging, or respecting death and the passage of time may be a motive for any art, but the use of as ephemeral a medium as flesh emphasizes that theme.

Zhang Huan, My New York, 2002, still from video performance

Andrew and I saw some of those same themes played out in the fabric sculpture of Argentian artist Tamara Kostianovsky, whose life-size sides of beef made from her old clothes (Abacus, 2008), hang, three in a row, from meat hooks, as in a warehouse. The several iterations of the same form emphasize the impersonality of the carcasses, just as the use of salvaged clothing humanizes them, connecting us to the animals we consume.

“Meat After Meat Joy” is anchored by two short films of performance art that are shown continuously in one of the galleries. In My New York, Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist who now resides in New York City, walks through city streets wearing a red meat suit of his own creation. Zhang’s meat suit is modeled in the shape of an extremely muscular body builder, moving as flexibly as if it were Zhang’s own flesh. The suit gives the impression of muscles bare of skin — a living, flayed body — but Zhang’s uncovered hands, feet and head signal that all is well. As he walks through city streets on a brilliant, sunny day, Zhang’s assistants hand him a series of white doves, which he holds briefly and then releases. Zhang, in turn, gives doves to passers-by in a careful and deliberate exchange: Facing the stranger, Zhang holds the dove lightly in both hands, making sure the recipient has found the same light, two-handed grip before relinquishing it. My New York suggests a tension between order and destruction — a powerfully muscled man handling doves with great gentleness, and then initiating strangers into that same gentle manner. Meat, in Zhang’s New York, has the power to confront us with our own true nature, while opening up new models of social exchange.

My New York suggests a tension between order and destruction.

The second video belongs, of course, to Carolee Schneemann. Like My New York, Schneeman’s mucholder Meat Joy (1964) uses meat to evoke a combination of fascination and alarm. In Meat Joy, men and women, scarcely dressed, writhe on the floor in a continuously moving embrace. No performer is seen individually, and it’s hard to tell how many there are, or whose body parts we are seeing. While the “skinless” Zhang seemed fully clothed, these performers in their own skin look nearly naked. Among these entwined, clustered human forms are plenty of dead animals. Plucked chickens retain their necks, wings, legs and feet; sausages are still in their strings, raw fish whole in their scales. The performers caress each other with meat, press it between their bodies, stuff it into their waistbands and bite it, transferring it from one person’s mouth to another. They grin, stare, squeeze their eyes shut, mouths agape, losing themselves in the pleasure of the moment. The men paint the women with brushes thick with paint — in black and white film, it reads as blood — the women douse the men with buckets of the same. Their bodies glisten. My son exclaims, “This looks like a lot of fun!”

Schneemann, on the other hand, did not regard meat as something to inspire abandon. Writing to the essayist Thomas McEvilley (“What You Did Do” from the 2008 collection of Schneeman’s work, Split Decision), Schnemann explained that she did not want the meat in Meat Joy to be “thrown around.” “The meat can only be let go in a manner of exchange with another participant,” she instructed. “Meat Joy has always suffered from turning into some sort of playing around when each sequence has involved weeks of intensive training.” Her performers’ very obvious literal enjoyment of the dance at once enlivens (after all, “Joy” is her title) and threatens to defeat Schneemann’s artistic intention. Meat, for Schneemann, is a medium of deep, erotic exchange. For her, the interaction is both pleasure and play, but also religious, an “erotic rite,” a sacred enactment of life.

This reminds Andrew, a student of animal behavior, of the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who saw meat exchange as the basis for the social contract. “De Waal describes how, when a wild chimpanzee catches a monkey, he tears it apart and carefully distributes it to his fellow hunters and to females in heat. He believes that chimps share meat rather than fruits or vegetables because the animals they kill are too large for one hunter to consume alone.” But while the exchange of meat can reinforce bonds, its tendency to inspire revelry or release aggression also threatens to push us out of control.

Carolee Schneeman, Meat Joy, 1964, still from video performance

The performers caress each other with meat, press it between their bodies, stuff it into their waistbands and bite it, transferring it from one person’s mouth to another.

When Andrew and I walked into the show, we couldn’t recognize meat as art. By the time we leave, we can’t recognize meat as meat. While getting some refreshments, we see a sculpture of carpaccio. We marvel at the saturation of its redness, how it has developed an unexpectedly dry, matte finish, how radically white the fat is in contrast to the muscle, and how the irregular circles of each slice hold their folds like fabric. The spell is broken when another gallery-goer points hesitantly and asks, “May I eat this?”

On our way out, we stop again at Hirst’s head. It is really thawing now, blood dripping from its nose and chin and oozing from its neck, staining the white cloth on which it rests. It is softer and its cheeks are beginning to droop in a process of decay that Hartry, the show’s curator would later describe as “beautiful.” Gallery Director Nathan Censullo told me that after we left, the head began to slump forward and part of an ear fell off.

As they thawed, the meat art lost firmness and definition, even shrank, a bit like a snowman (“Schneemann,” incidentally, means “snowman” in German) or an aging person. Some meat artists work with this process by design. Heide Hatry, for example, showed me pictures of pig skin she’s cut in the outline of a human form and then photographed as it rotted.

Betty Hirst, Book, 2008, meat sculpture, 7" x 10" x 2"

But decomposition is decidedly less palatable in person. According to Censullo, the smell of some of these pieces, particularly Hirst’s Flag (2008), displayed in a windowless basement room, soon became “unbearable,” forcing the gallery to replace most of the pieces with photographs of the works in their fresh state. Hirst’s book of meat was one of a few exceptions: Its Plexiglas case locked in the smell, allowing it to rot relatively inoffensively. Still, a few tiny flies had apparently been stowaways, for according to Censullo, “at least a thousand” maggots were soon “quite active, crawling all over.” Over the course of the exhibit they “turned from white to yellow to brown to black” under the case’s hot spotlight. Three weeks later, the gallery is still waiting to see if they will hatch into flies or whether they, themselves, have become meat.

Richard Fulmer is a clinical psychologist who practices psychoanalysis and family therapy in New York City.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Five.