Left: Lady Gaga's meat dress. Right: Jana Sterbak's meat dress. Images: LA Times.
Either by intention or coincidence, Lady Gaga referenced a meaty (I couldn't resist the pun!) tradition of performance and installation art when she appeared at the MTV Awards in a dress that looked like it was made of raw beef.
Julianna Barabas, a performance artist (and a good friend of mine), noted a seminal 1964 performance called "Meat Joy
" by Carolee Scheneemann
. In "Meat Joy," performers danced and rolled around in scraps of raw chicken and fish, and sundry other items. I was familiar with her more famous "Interior Scroll," in which she reads a book unscrolled from her vagina. The work is different, but both locate the site of art with the body, and make the point that it is inseparable from material.
Juliana also sent me a link to a description of "Meat After Meat Joy
"an exhibit of work that descended from "Meat Joy." One of the artists costumed himself in a superhero=like meatsuit:
But my first though upon seeing Lady Gaga's meat dress was Jana Sterbak's 1987 work, "Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic," colloquially known as "the meat dress." (The LA Times noticed
as well.) The work was very controversial at the time. The objections piled up:
- It was not flat art nor a stable sculpture.
- It was meant to decay while on exhibit.
- It was a public health hazard.
- It wasted good food.
- It wasted of taxpayer dollars. (Sterbak received arts grants and the piece was bought by the federally funded National Art Gallery.)
- It wasn't pretty.
- It exploited the female body.
- It exploited the animal body.
- It equated the female body to the animal body.
Of course, these are also all reasons why the piece was so great, and one of the most famous postmodern works by a Canadian (or any artist). It remains the signature work of an artist whose larger body of work is nicely summed up in this piece, which refers to a 1997 exhibit of Sterbak's work at the time:
"Pushing the envelope is this artist's natural state," Irena Zantovska Murray wrote in the exhibition catalogue. "Her interest in cage-like structures . . . is of as long duration as her desire to explore the themes of aggression and survival, domesticity and disruption of self-inflicted pain and of the transformation of self . . . . Here, imaginary beings switch voices alter genders, shed old skins, and assume new identities." (source:="(Source:" Concordia University)
Lady Gaga's personal reasons for wearing the meat dress are quite sound. She told Ellen Degeneres (a vegan):
"Well, it is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian. As you know, I am the most judgment-free human being on the earth," Gaga replied. "However, it has many interpretations, but for me this evening ... If we don't stand up for what we believe in and if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And I am not a piece of meat," she added, holding up the magazine cover. (Source: MTV)
Whatever her interpretation (or yours), it's quite clear that Lady Gaga is a performance artist above all else. As my friend Julianna says: "Gaga is the master of sampling in real life! Everything she does references 15 ++ other cultural phenomenas."
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