MEAT MAT­TERS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews -

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

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