THE title of Berlinde de Bruyckere’s exhibition at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is ambiguous, and deliberately so.
We are All Flesh can be understood as the assertion that we all have a fleshly, corporeal nature. We may sense a theological note, an allusion to verbum caro factum est: the word was made flesh. Or it could be taken as meaning we are nothing but flesh, a reductive definition of the human as no more than a collection of physiological processes doomed to grow old, die and decay.
Entering the exhibition does not entirely dispel such questions but it focuses the mind on a very concrete form of corporeality. We find ourselves in a vast space filled with only two objects, but ones that other visitors were clearly finding somewhat disturbing. The first was what seemed to be the carcass of a horse, with head and extremities cut off and hanging like a slaughtered beast in a butcher’s shop.
The subject — in painting at least — has a long history in art. Its most famous exponents have been Annibale Carracci, Rembrandt and Chaim Soutine. So we find ourselves immediately in the presence of an object that is at once disturbing yet can claim an authoritative art historical pedigree from baroque to modernism. But of course there are differences. Horses are noble creatures, even in countries such as de Bruyckere’s Belgium, where they are eaten.
And then the animal, though headless, still has its skin, whereas the carcass in the butcher’s shop is always flayed. The difference is analogous to the famous distinction that Kenneth Clark made between the naked and the nude, or the sort of cultural boundaries that Claude Levi-strauss discusses between the raw and the cooked. In this case, the flayed carcass is no longer a dead animal, it is food. The animal with its skin on is still a dead animal; it is confronting in a different way.
Those who have purchased an animal from a traditional French market will have experienced the difference: hares, geese, even boars hang outside in the cold, in all their fur and feathers, as though just killed. You choose the animal, pay and come back later to pick it up skinned or plucked, cleaned and ready for the kitchen. Not an experience for some of our contemporaries who are too squeamish to bear the sight of a calf on a butcher’s hook and will buy a pair of chops only if they are packaged under skin-tight plastic wrap, on a styrofoam tray with a sanitary pad underneath to soak up any organic leakage.
De Bruyckere’s horse is thus disturbing first of all because it is a horse rather than a cow, and second because it is still clad in its skin rather than properly prepared for eating: so instead of evoking food, it hints at some act of cruelty or sinister ritual killing. Such changes of context can radically alter the meaning we read into appearances. In reality, though, it turns out to be the very opposite of the flayed butcher’s carcass, for it is nothing but the hide, the bones and flesh cut out and replaced by wax and resin to maintain its form.
The other thing that is worrying about the horse, although it may not strike viewers at once, is its closeness to human anatomy. All mammals have a similar skeletal structure, only varying in the relative dimensions of various bones. Thus both the elephant and the giraffe have, like us, seven cervical vertebrae, only in the elephant they are comparatively flat and in the giraffe they are very elongated. One of the most significant differences is that in quadrupeds that need to run fast, such as the horse, metacarpal and metatarsal bones have evolved into what is effectively a third section of the leg.
The most obvious difference between humans and other mammals, especially quadrupeds, is our erect posture. Standing upright means the human arms rotate backwards, the scapulae move from the side of the body to the back, and the chest spreads and becomes broader rather than deeper. The effect of these changes, together with the extra section of the quadruped leg, which confuses our perception of its structure (how many people know where the horse’s knee is?), is enough to mask the similarity between our corporeal structures.
But that similarity is revealed as soon as the animal’s body is seen vertically rather than horizontally, and suspending a quadruped’s carcass by a foreleg, simulating the effect of the erect stance, can make the analogy of our corporeal structures almost shockingly evident. That is in fact what we witness on entering the exhibition — we see not only a dead horse but forms that we recognise as a back, a chest, a pelvic girdle, and all under the alien covering of an animal hide.
Further into the room is an even stranger
Inside Me III
(2012), wax, wool, cotton, wood, epoxy, iron armature, 135cm x 235cm x 115cm