Some visual artists, celebrities and rock stars love to shock and carve up a side of beef in the process. That was certainly the case when Lady Gaga fronted the MTV Video Music Awards back in 2010 clad in her infamous ‘meat dress’. She later explained it was her way of protesting against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the government’s restrictions placed on the rights of gay soldiers. Many saw it as just her ‘outrageous way’ of wanting to stand out from the crowd.
The dress was later acquired by the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall Of Fame and preserved by skilled taxidermists as a kind of beef jerky. Some have suggested it would be better placed in a museum of contemporary art, possibly draped over Tracy Emin’s ‘Unmade Bed’ in the Tate. Hey, I have just come home from a hard day’s work and thrown my meat dress on the bed!
When it comes to the artistic exploitation of raw meat, only one name really rings out in the art world and that is the late Hermann Nitsch, who died a few weeks ago aged 83. The Austrian born ‘actionist’ was renowned for his conceptualised stagings using animal carcasses, entrails and gallons of blood to evoke ritualistic scenes of life, death and religion.
Arguably the most controversial and polarising artist of the last 100 years, Nitsch upset everybody from animal rights activists, to religious leaders, government authorities and the public at large. His works were labelled obscene and blasphemous and he endured several court trials charged with public indecency, serving three short prison terms.
His supporters on the other hand, embraced him with an almost cult like devotion – wallowing in his showers of blood and guts as was the case at Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival in 2017. The ABC reported at the time:
“The performance, directed by Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, took place on Saturday in a warehouse in Hobart’s CBD, and included mock crucifixions set to music, culminating in a frenzied squabble by blood-soaked participants writhing in the entrails from a freshly slaughtered bull carcass.”
One can only hope the leftovers were served at the after party barbeque or given the Gaga taxidermy treatment and converted to souvenir beef jerky. Needless to say the Mofo performance drew a storm of protest with even meat lover and cattle station baroness Janet Holmes à Court joining the cries of outrage, stating that “the killing of an animal in the name of art did not excite her.”
It wasn’t the first time that Nitsch had created controversy in Australia and in 1988, here for the seventh Biennale of Sydney, he soon became the focus of tabloid fuelled anger. The police seized video tapes of his performance and he was an easy target for the conservative radio commentators of the day.
There was not however the same level of public protest that accompanied his Dark Mofo blood feast some 30 odd years later. The late 80s was a violent time in Australia with crime and corruption rampant and we were still reeling from the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre a few years earlier. Perhaps the exhibition of bloody sides of beef and their ritualistic dissection did not resonate compared to the reality of mass murder and gangland killings.
Whether we will encounter another Hermann Nitsch in the years to come remains to be seen. The real blood is being spilled in Ukraine, almost live on television and social media every night. Perhaps Nitsch’s ritualistic disembowelings were more unintentionally emblematic of our continuing cruelty to all kinds of animals, than allusions to death and crucifixion.
I wonder whether Herman often enjoyed a good rare steak in his enormous Prinzendorf Castle in Lower Austria, or even dallied with some plant based burgers. Maybe he was a closet vegan – though I couldn’t find anything to verify this. And when he was not ripping the guts out of a dead goat, did her ever relax with a DVD of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast or the sequel All U Can Eat?
Finally it’s reported that he wanted a short stanza lasting only 10 minutes from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony played at his funeral – so his once blood splattered mourners would not get a cold. A rather subdued and mundane exit from such an exuberant life!