by Jim Welke
“Not a Rose: Photographs by Heide Hatry” on show at Galerie Camille, Detroit 8-May-2015 to 6-June-2015 brings more than photography to the gallery. This show brings raw meat–photographs of raw meat, that is. Not so enigmatic in itself, but remember the title of the show: “Not A Rose.” The photographs show us flowers; flowers Heide Hatry concocted from raw, unpreserved abattoir detritus.
For shear, unblinking courage, she ranks with war photographers. But war photographers tramp through jungles, deserts, and broken cities. And they photograph war. Hatry tramps through slaughterhouses, past dolorous animals waiting to be terminated, and on past prime cuts waiting for the masses to consume with delight. In between the living and the filets, there exists a grim, blood spattered production line that summarily stops hearts and then trims out the unwanted fat, bones, and offal. What the butchers toss aside here, Hatry takes in hand, hauls home, sorts, refrigerates, and selects for her palette.
Before we move on, take a moment to ponder that. Form images in your mind: grim slaughterhouse, discarded animal parts, Hatry’s studio brimming with discarded animal parts.
OK, now picture Hatry in her studio, scalpel in hand, as she minutely dissects those parts. And then at look one of her photographs, either on the gallery wall or in her book of essays and photos, “Not A Rose,” (Charta, 2012) which accompanies the show and presents myriad points of view of her work.
The points of view expressed in her book will likely mimic a bit of your own perceptual evolution vis-à-vis her images. At first you see beauty, then you see cold merciless truth, then you see truth and beauty; or, at least, Hatry’s version of those diffuse and elusive qualities. In the introduction to “Not A Rose,” she writes:
For some years I have been working with biological materials–animal skin, flesh, and organs–to create art that addresses issues of personal identity, gender roles, appearance and reality, subject and object, the moral, ethical and political dimensions of meat production and consumption, and a wide range of other topics. …I want to subtly remind the viewer that his or her every act of mindless consumption is abdication of our moral and ethical substance…
Technology extends human reach to encompass the globe in milliseconds, minutes, or hours (depending whether your point of view extends to a packet of information; data received via satellite; or a corporeal travel via aircraft). Now, we see and know more than ever before, yet exercise denial or become transfixed with horrible fascination as horror spills from the orifices of our information age machines. We freeze up and deny proven science-supported truth when it fails to fit our personal or cultural perspectives. Technology affords us greater power to share information than ever before–with real-time awareness of ongoing glory and tragedy–yet it also affords us the capacity to wreak irreparable havoc on a scale and at velocities never before witnessed. If our intellectual capacity to recognize and face truth does not catch up with our ability to alter it, to alter our natural world and our place in the ecosystem, then we face peril on a scale equivalent to our ignorance and apathy. Never before have we had the capacity to destroy so much, so fast, and with such pervasive permanence. When he saw the atomic bomb detonated, Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientist who created it quoted the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” With the technology we wield, either personally or via proxies, the term applies to all of us.
In her way, Hatry exposes the fragility of our filtered perception. What we see does not always conform with what we think. Leonardo da Vinci had the same progressive thought back in the late 15th century. Alastair Sooke, in a story in The Telegraph describing a show of da Vinci’s anatomy drawings, “Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy of an artist,” recounts that when he witnessed the death of a 100-year-old man, da Vinci wrote, “without any movement or sign of any mishap, he passed from this life. And I dissected him to see the cause of so sweet a death.” The article goes on to mention, according to librarian Martin Clayton at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle who curated the drawings in the show, that contrary to popular belief, dissection of humans was not proscribed by the church:
“There was an explosion in investigative anatomy at the end of the 15th century, and as long as it was done in a respectful way, and the bits were buried together afterwards, then the Church had no problem with it at all.”
Art and science merge or form alliances on occasion, especially when savvy artists point out the absurdity of our social customs in the face of irrefutable evidence dropped on our doorsteps by science. Da Vinci pursued science all his life and almost to the exclusion of art toward the end of his life, and his efforts helped put western civilization on the path toward the Age of Enlightenment, a time when, they hoped, reason would trump dogma and blind faith. (It didn’t work out that way, but hope spring eternal.)
With her work using animal entrails, Hatry takes on a similar role here, the application of art to correct, or at least reveal the shortcomings of our 21st global collective society. She forces us to see what we otherwise, through conscious and unconscious denial, would not see. To her credit, she presents her case without preachy diatribes and offers no solution. She simply asks us to look.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, while she refers to her art as Neo-Conceptualist, a movement that includes such notables as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, her work will likely be construed by some critics as sensationalist Shock Art. Such observations might be made in a non-pejorative way, but these days often they are not. This amounts to killing the messenger, and falls within a greater tendency we have to diminish those who criticize our lifestyles, or the means to that end, with questions that malign the motives of the critic. We view such artists as threats and mischaracterize their work so as to dismiss them as shrill malcontents, much as we did so-called “Communist sympathizers” back in the 1950’s. Except now we use an even broader brush to paint our bogeymen black: we call them hippies, or anarchists, or… heaven forefend… contemporary artists.
Hatry presents herself as neither shrill, nor malcontented. She asks us to see the world as it is, and she does it quietly with images that offer beauty, or at least intrigue us with hideous contradiction (as is especially the case with her previous series, “Head and Tails” and “SKIN.”) It is not the images that repel us, but the knowledge of what they represent. When we gain that knowledge, when we become clued-in, we confront what we assume are primal taboos. Yet social taboos persist not because they protect us–simple fact-based scientific evidence would do that better–but because we are afraid to confront and question taboos. Or, too lazy to confront and question them. That’s where art comes in, it makes a fetching first impression, we drop our guard at the sight of it, and then it reveals truth. Beauty is the sugar that coats bitter truth.
Yet beauty remains subjective, and to be sure, not all of the images in “Not A Rose” meet conventional standards for such. But all of them compel you to look, and to look close. The faux Latin nomenclature attached to these images to give the imposter flowers names will provoke consternation and amusement as you puzzle out the source material for the strange things on the menu. As you gaze and think deeper, you will no doubt be struck by the consummate craft Hatry cultivated to execute these works. She works with dead animal tissue–rotting meat–so she must work quickly. And meat is not plastic like paint or clay; if you cut wrong, you start over. The work demands a fertile imagination: what flower do you see in a pile of organs? These works are not merely found objects or the self-congratulatory tossing around of media accompanied by insistence that it is art because the artist says it is. The photos of her creations, masterfully shot, can and do attract buyers who hang them on walls. Her books offer a multi-disciplined and philosophical view of Hatry’s work well worth the read. The shock may wear off, but the attraction will not. And that, in this writer’s opinion, forms the essence of good art: persistent attraction.
Hatry does on occasion project the air of the ambitious self-promoter. But if one does not promote one’s self, then who else will do it. Art in the age of the Internet requires it as an antidote to anonymity. If artists do not continuously talk their own book, regardless of how good or bad others think the art is, they drift into obscurity and self-loathing. She produces books of essays by disinterested commentators, and organizes panel discussions populated by some who seek to eviscerate her. Self-promotion is not the same as self-inflation. Hatry shows up, does real work, and shares the stage with other artists. So, you can view Hatry’s choice of meat as medium as an attention getting scheme, but if you do then praise her for her courage. She is not the first to make art from meat, in fact, Hatry curated a show of artists doing similar things: Meat After Meat Joy (Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, 2008). Many got in on the act much earlier, as this survey of MoMA indicates: search “Meat.”
Meat occupies a strange and under-analyzed place in our consciousness. Meat eaters often view vegetarians with contempt, almost as heretics, especially if they criticize the wasteful, destructive, and cruel practices of factory farming. Let no one illuminate the veiled source of our sustenance, they seem to say, as though it were sacrosanct. And our mouths do come equipped with sharp incisors, whether vestigial or not.
So spare the messenger. Be not afraid. Stand up straight and look into the maelstroms of horror we humans create. Go where the wild things are and maybe we will begin to get things right in this world instead of horribly and forever wrong.
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