Here comes trouble

By GREG COOK  |  July 18, 2008

The best piece is the video I Have Your BILL$, by Revolt2Die (a/k/a Elaine Bay of Somerville). She’s one of the first artists I’ve seen to create videos that embody the nature of Web video in all its raw, grainy, jittery glory. This one is a funny, prickly riff on terrorist hostage videos. Her hostage is a dollar bill, which she keeps sticking in a lighter flame. Then she flashes hand signs that could be religious gestures or maybe gang references. The piece casually acknowledges that Web sites like YouTube have become a global commons where the great American discussion now takes place — and the terrorists themselves have joined in. It taps our great American capitalist fear — someone’s got our money — while alluding to all our recent economic problems. Revolt2Die taunts us, never quite burning the money. You harbor the urgent, ludicrous hope that you still might be able to stop her.

And then the second brouhaha: last Wednesday an e-mail arrived from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanding that Pierre Menard Gallery take down “Meat After Meat Joy.” My first thought: “What took you so long?” The show, guest-curated by Heide Hatry of New York, has 10 artists who make sculptures of meat or art depicting meat to investigate “the paradoxical relationship meat has to the body.”

“Unless you’re Hannibal Lecter, there’s nothing ‘artistic’ or ‘joyful’ about meat,” PETA senior vice-president Tracy Reiman said in the press release. “If it’s unacceptable to kill humans for an art exhibit, then it should be unacceptable to kill animals, too.”

“They’re only looking at the show from one angle,” gallery director Nathan Censullo said of PETA, “and not trying to consider it from another one that might be respectful and reflect their views.”

I lean toward Censullo’s view. The show is about people in the United States of Hamburger seeking the soul in meat. But it’s meant to be provocative, and not for the squeamish. The title comes from Carolee Schneeman’s 1964 performance Meat Joy, a piece represented here by a video that shows women and men in underwear dancing, squirming, hugging, and rolling around on the floor with dead chickens and fish, then splashed with paint and dragged into a pile of paper strips. It’s an elegant dance number, an ecstatic fetishistic rite, a cooking-show parody, an orgy, a barroom mud-wrestling show, totally cuckoo, and very 1964. None of the subsequent work is so absurd. Meat art after Meat Joy is more serious.

Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s video My New York documents a ritualistic 2002 performance. Clothed in a muscle suit of raw meat that makes him look like some bizarre superhero, he solemnly hands out white doves to a watching crowd on a New York street. Done less than a year after September 11, the performance has been viewed as a memorial or an exorcism. Some see the meat suit as corresponding to the exploded bodies of suicide bombers. Freeing the doves is said to refer to a Buddhist tradition of freeing animals to obtain grace. It’s rather too Symbolic — superheroes freeing peace symbols. But the meat suit is riveting.

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Related: The whiff of art, Slideshow: Heide Hatry at Pierre Menard Gallery, Interview and photos: Gerard Malanga, More more >
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