The Grand Tradition of Meat Art

That’s right, meat art.
Meat art is art that uses meat as the medium and art that uses meat as the model. Artists have always found inspiration in meat, and now a new generation of artists is exploring and reinvigorating the meat art genre through a wide range of visual art, art experiences, and performances.

5th Egyptian Dynasty (around 2,400 bcd) deceased with food offerings

5th Egyptian Dynasty (around 2,400 BC) deceased with food offerings 

2010 MTV Video Music Awards - Show

Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress, 2010

Long before Lady Gaga put on a meat dress for the MTV Video Music Awards, the Ancient Egyptians included fanciful meat drawings in their offerings to the gods, and the Greeks and Romans paved their rooms with meat-focused mosaics. But meat’s real heyday was the still life painting of the 16th and 17th centuries when elaborate tableaux of banquet-ready roasts and hanging carcasses of sinewy slaughtered animals were depicted with realism and meticulous detail.

Rembrandt, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655

Rembrandt, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655

Pieter Aertsen, The Butcher Stall, 1551

Pieter Aertsen, The Butcher Stall, 1551

Why meat?
The early still life painters loaded their canvases with religious symbolism and meat was a handy visual metaphor. A leg of lamb could be a stand-in for gluttony or decay; a slaughtered animal could symbolize spiritual death or represent the body of Jesus. Contemporary artists still use meat to explore themes of morality and mortality, but they’re also making statements about violence, technology, sex, and gender politics.

Modern landmarks in meat art history:

Paul Thek, Untitled (Four Tube Meat Piece), 1964

Paul Thek, Untitled (Four Tube Meat Piece), 1964

Damien Hirst, The Prodigal Son, 1994

Damien Hirst, The Prodigal Son, 1994

Thirty years before Damien Hirst began pickling calves and sharks in formaldehyde there was Paul Thek. For his 1960’s Technological Reliquaries series Thek sculpted replications of raw meat and encased them in glass and plexiglass vitrines, wire cages, and an Andy Warhol Brillo box. Thek’s meat sculptures question our capacity to live compassionately even as science and technology encroach on our humanity. The questions are provocative and the imagery is still potent three decades later when Hirst covers the same ground .

Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964

Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964

Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy debuted at the First Festival of Free Expression in Paris in 1964, and the film version has been exhibited worldwide at museums like the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Louvre. It’s considered to be a groundbreaking achievement featuring partially nude dancers performing a kind of sloppy erotic rite with raw fish, chickens, and sausages.

Jana Sterbak, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987

Jana Sterbak, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987

50 or so pounds of raw flank steak is stitched together and hung on a hanger in Jana Sterbak’s 1987 Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, the precurser to Lady Gaga’s fashion statementSalted and unrefrigerated, the piece cures with age as it steadily decomposes, asking the viewer to consider personal vanity while confronting the fleeting nature of beauty. The dress hangs in the permanent collection of  the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where, to be properly displayed, a fresh dress has to be sewn every 6 weeks.

 

More recently, the meat artists have lightened up their metaphors. Today’s self-consciously carnivorous diner embraces the every-day grotesqueries of whole animal butchery and nose-to-tail cooking. They’re less inclined to recoil from stagings of flesh as art and more willing to celebrate the tactile and visual beauty of meat. Meat artists have responded with a more playful approach to their work.

The 2008 group exhibition Meat After Meat Joy obviously referenced Carole Schneeman’s seminal performance when it brought together a roster of best-in-class contemporary artists who use meat in their work. The show included Betty Hirst’s American flag rendered in meat and lard, Zhang Huan’s pumped-up superhero meat suit, and Adam Brandejs flesh shoe. The art was politically provocative while keeping the revulsion at bay.

Betty Hirst, American Flag, 2008

Betty Hirst, American Flag, 2008

Zhang Huan, Meat Suit, 2002

Zhang Huan, Meat Suit, 2002

Adam Brandejs

Adam Brandejs, Animatronic Flesh Shoe, 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Rubell, Creation, 2009

Jennifer Rubell, Creation, 2009

2009’s Creation was a meat art ‘happening’ that spoke directly to our over-heated food culture of  pickling classes and restaurant pop-ups. Staged at the opening of the Performa Biennial, a vast, performance art invitational, the centerpiece, inspired by the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, was a literal ton of ribs in a single, massive pile. The meat was lubricated by streams of honey that poured from vats suspended from the ceiling. The interactive work demanded that its 500 participants dine sans napkins.

You can see the future of meat art where the current crop of creators gathers online at the Meat Artists blog and gallery.

Silly you, thinking that meat is just for cooking and eating.

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