By Félix Suazo
In 2010, the American singer, actress and producer Lady Gaga (New York, 1986) scandalized the audience at the MTV Awards by appearing at the gala in a dress made of beef, designed by Franc Fernández and styled by Nicola Formichetti. The press at the time reviewed the controversy triggered by the extravagant outfit, which for some was offensive and for others a declaration of creative freedom.
Beyond the show, the fact allowed reviewing a long genealogy where art and meat come together to confront artifice, hypocrisy and double standards. Canadian artist Jana Sterbak (Prague, 1955) had made a similar approach almost three decades earlier with the work Vanitas: meat dress for an anorexic Albino (1987), in which she alluded to abstinence and the transience of the body. More ferocious and challenging were the collective actions of a ritual nature, some of them accompanied by animal sacrifices, developed by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch (Vienna, 1935) within the framework of the Theater of Orgies and Mysteries project (1962-1998). Previously, in 1961, the Venezuelan Carlos Contramaestre (Tovar, 1933 – Caracas, 1996) had also resorted to meat to create the works for the exhibition Homenaje a la necrofilia (1961), an allegation against violence where eroticism and death juxtaposed.
In any of the cases mentioned, showing the flesh is defying the inevitable. Meat is not only weak as a desirable object, it is also the emblem of a corruptible humanity that confronts us with taboo ideas about sacrifice and desire. Whatever our position regarding these behaviors, the important thing is to reason about their deep meaning, both biologically and in their ethical and legal dimensions.
Moving from real matter to simulation, we find the works with tiles and viscera by the Brazilian Adriana Varejao (Rio de Janeiro, 1964). The grid and the organic fabric are the protagonists of a symbolic clash between the rational and the natural, recalling the frictions between the native culture and the colonial tradition. Her works offer the scenery of a fractured world where order and barbarism, eroticism and death come together. According to the artist: “I wanted to combine the rational grid of the tiles with the erotic nature of the flesh, all simulated with the artificial and voluptuous language of the Baroque. Tiles are not tiles, and meat is not meat."
The skin is the border of the body; delimiting its internal functions and the surrounding stimuli. To cover oneself with another skin, then, is to duplicate the nudity that dresses us; make evident the primal helplessness of the flesh. In the series Peletería Humana (1997), the Argentine Nicola Costantino (Rosario, 1964) adopts a contradictory tactic, conceived to show common attributes (skin, anus, hair, nipples), whose uniform multiplication distorts our bodily perception. Her dresses, corsets and artificial leather accessories (shoes, balls, handbags) suggest an additional epidermis with masculine nipples, anuses, natural hair. The artist explains it as follows: "I made that work that had a component of sensuality, showing nipples and skin, but in a pleasant way. Likewise, the context of making clothes with human skin was shocking. It combined the sensation of seduction and how you like when you see it, but when you think about it, it causes you a certain revulsion."
During the 1970s, the Brazilian Artur Barrio (Porto, 1945) made several proposals regarding violence and forced disappearances for political reasons in Brazil. In addition to his Situations, made with bloody bags that appeared in public places, he conducted experiments where he used raw beef. In works such as Libro de carne (1978-1979) and Rodapiés de carne (1978) he proposed an allegory of knowledge and space as bodily embodied experience. Conceived as records of processes, his propositions also suggested the impossibility of their material reappropriation by the system, remaining as photographic documents.
Around that same decade, the Argentine Carlos Alonso (Tunuyán, Mendoza, 1929) proposed an allegorical "symbiosis" of the cow and the man. The installation Anonymous Hands (1976) is a portrait of Argentine society, at a time when the country was transformed into a kind of slaughterhouse where people were confined and tortured like cattle.
Meat as an emblem of a contradictory society persists in the photographic work of the also Argentine Marcos López (Santa Fe, 1978). An example of this is the series Sub realismo criollo, 2002-2005, made up of dramatizations that have the Argentine pampas and the history of art as a double backdrop. One of the distinctive pieces of the set is the Dionysian recreation of the Last Supper where the Master and his Apostles —all of Creole typology— enjoy a succulent banquet with bread, wine and... much meat. For the author "... the staging is a document", with which he also questions the supposed fidelity to reality of photographic naturalism, arguing that it is also constructed.
The meat "speaks", even from the silence of the morgues. This is where the Mexican Teresa Margolles (Culiacán, 1963) has gone, looking for the muffled voices of the victims of violence. Among the remains found is the pierced tongue of a murdered young man, which the artist presented in 2000, not as a demeaning and grotesque trophy, but as a plea against criminal infamy. Says Margolles: "This is a tongue that belonged to a teenager who was murdered. This body was going to be delivered to the morgue. I showed his mom my work and told her that her son's tongue could speak for many teenagers who had been killed in Mexico.”
Flesh, both real and represented, is an indication of fullness and guilt; substantial interface of contradictory impulses where ecstasy and martyrdom, pleasure and suffering converge. There is something of all this in the visual propositions that have been reviewed, each of which refers to some ominous facet of the "man of flesh and blood", not of the abstract subject of philosophy but of someone "concrete, unitary and substantive" who experiences in "his own flesh" the rigors of life (Cf. Miguel de Unamuno. From the tragic feeling of life, 1913). Showing the meat, then, is "putting the finger on the sore spot" that some refuse to see.