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From Jana Sterbak to Lady GaGa: The meat dress as ephemeral art of transgression.

Catégories Mode & Beauté

By Victor Antonio SOSA MARTINEZ

Lady GaGa at the 2099 VMA Awards (left)
Jana Sterbak’s « Vanitas » (right)


To claim that there is a category within art that can be classified as « garbage » is already a controversial suggestion. To start with, « art » and « garbage » are two concepts that would seem to exclude each other simultaneously, so that, by turning one into the epithet of the other, it could generate a paradox led ad absurdum. However, the union of these two words, the one as abstract as concrete is the other, also manages to generate new universes and paradigms able to complicate and fascinate the scientific and humanistic imaginary of this emerging 21st century. Since always, the materials of the works have mutated and changed to the degree of constructing new forms that, beyond provoking an aesthetic experience in the viewer, manage to disturb him to the point of destabilizing him/her. Such is the case of art pieces created from raw meat, restructured models that defy all the statutes and predispositions set in art, attacking even the most respected classical notions within the aesthetic canons expected in a work considered as « artistic ». However, the concept of « garbage » is also a highly debatable term; objects may or may not be garbage according to a utilitarian function that may be extremely ambiguous.


What is garbage for one, may not be for another. Thus, recycling is part of a process of transformation both material and ideological that reconstructs and makes sense of something as obsolete as garbage can be, but what happens then with meat? its function is specific since it is valued with respect to the vital function of the food, so that, when the meat ceases to be usable for the organism that consumes it, it immediately becomes « garbage ». Therefore, decontextualizing the meat from the making of a dress can be interesting since it is deconstructed in the Derridian sense of the term. The very first meaning of the flesh through a visual signifier is capable of giving rise to a new intellectual or simply, experiential reflection. This paper will seek to explain, through a (post)structuralist perspective, the intimate and collective crisis that a piece of flesh can generate back art from the perspectives of the artist who creates it and the artist who represents it. Subsequently, its impact on the world will be analyzed based on public opinion and the interpretative abstractions that could be given to it. Finally, this paper will treat the possible transcendence in posterity within the artistic and cultural imaginary of the contemporary world.


To speak of art can refer to Aristotle’s famous phrase « Art imitates nature ». However, beyond resolving the hermeneutic conflict of art, this premise throws us into a series of justified questions that, while useful for pondering on the link between creative production and the world in which it takes shape, they fail to decipher the enigma about the origin and limits of the « artistic » within the « natural ». The answers are then sought within the culture, in the sway of the numerous transformations of matter throughout the thousands of years of human history. However, the fruits of this effort have proved to be as diverse as they are contradictory, often culminating in the confrontation of terms and exegetic models defended by some certain theoretical position. Now, it should be noted that, despite the different ways of theorizing art from different approaches, within the semiotic and epistemological chaos of art itself, there is a message that, when interpreted, can go from the aesthetic to the subversive, going through the carnival, the symbolic and the representative, a trajectory that travels the flesh dress through the senses in a constant iterability that stimulates the human imagination and creativity. The French poet Charles Baudelaire already showed us through his poem “La Charogne” an aesthetic image of the repulsive aspect of the flesh, and Victor Hugo announced in his Préface de Cromwell the importance of the grotesque in art. However, it is the actual manifestations of the flesh beyond the written word and the symbolic invocation that make them very different from the preceding forms of transgression in art.


In 1987, Jana Sterbak, a Canadian artist of Czech origin, created the sculpture Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino anorectic, on display at the Montreal Museum of Modern Art during the same year. Sterbak’s work attracted the attention of the public by the controversial material with which it was built: about fifty pieces of raw steaks painstakingly darned to form a provocative dress, an idea that then seemed disgusting to many critics and viewers. During this time, the flesh dress, beyond its objective nature based on the creation and decomposition of the organic, was conceived by the artist as a transgression towards the social and conceptual norms of art. In fact, the garment of flesh represented for her an act of violence that went beyond the limits of the right and the conventional, giving shape to a « tragicomic vision of existence » through the ephemeral and the human.


In Vanitas the body is present through its absence, that is, the explicit materiality of the flesh veils the true meaning in a cultural background. As Jennifer McLerran says, “Sterbak explores how the subjectivity of the individual is built in and through the body, in and through those psychological and social processes that shape us”[1]. In this way, the work reveals its physical characteristics in a reaction mixture of disgust, insecurity and fear within an unstable context. It is asserted then that the primary sensitive qualities of this piece of art evoke, also, a series of intelligible answers deciphered from socio-cultural predispositions. But what makes raw meat a transgressive element in the construction of a work of art? What is the difference between using other organic elements such as vegetable tinctures and silks and deciding to make something from pieces of meat? It is here that we find ourselves within the social constructions that are stipulated through the transformation of matter as a trait of civility in peoples.


The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his book Le cru et le cuit, throws an analysis on how empirical categories -such as the state and manipulation of organic matter- can serve as tools to understand numerous abstract notions, within which lies the cooking of food and the manufacture of animal derivatives as cultural references associated with the idea of « civilization ». Therefore, the value of meat, within its most primitive functions, is implicitly inscribed within the social code that circumscribes the feeding of human beings. Likewise, a person who consumes raw meat can be perceived, in many special and temporary contexts, as a person no longer less civilized, but completely savage and irrational. Consequently, chemical phenomena such as combustion and firing, carried out by and for human beings, are those which not only provide an idea of cohesion between the conscious being and the very notion of evolution or even of development, but also a dialectical way of relating life to death in a cycle of ideological transformation that justifies a position of existential superiority of the human being with respect to the organic world around him.


In this way, confronting the decontextualized raw meat of its primordial function in the field of human needs, forces to relate it, immediately, with its initial biological origin, that is, with the vital process. On the one hand, lymph awakens the dread of recognition of one’s own body inside the inner tissues turned outwards; the garment represents the nakedness of the person who looks at it, turning to oneself and perceiving the horror of the flesh within oneself. It is, in other words, an exposure of the body to pain, to the image of its own materialized death. Now, relating meat to the idea of a dress can be much more disturbing than it seems, because the manufacturing process that turns skin into clothing is partially absent. The latter causes an ideological rupture that stimulates the experimenter (observer) with two different types of stimuli: on the one hand the natural fear that causes lymphatic tissue and, on the other hand, on the other hand, the experience of witnessing a work of purely human elaboration. This paradox, set by an institutional atmosphere (the museum), generates in the viewer contradictory thoughts that often end up being reduced to intellectually simple expressions, that is, it is generally chosen, to consider it a misuse of meat, or, a dress poorly achieved since « the exhibition or the placement in a museum or gallery can also be thought ‘as a language’, since it uses sample objects to produce certain meanings on the subject-object of the exhibition »[2]. On the other hand, the role that the ephemeral plays within this bewildering formula establishes a pact between the piece of art and the spectator, where the one who observes the work becomes aware of its imbalance. In addition, the imminent presence of flies, driven by the stench of the natural process of decomposition, articulates the properties of death, an ineffable sign of terror in Western culture, which also makes it a crucial part during the performance of the work, because it not only affects it, but transforms it.


However, another interpretation that the dress can have lies in the post-feminist Gothic culture that categorizes women as a violent sexual object within a society hungry for increasing and more accelerated consumption. Thus, the flesh garment, beyond its relation to the θάνατος (thanatos), creates a bond with the feminine through an aesthetic contract that is both theoretical and critical. In other words, it is not free that the artist has decided to make the meat a gendered object. In this way, and taking into consideration the problem posed by Butler on the categorization of « woman » as a subject of feminism [3], we can observe that the similarities between the flesh and woman shine in such a way that the objectification of women as a piece of « living matter » becomes present through the metaphor of the raw and the ephemeral.


During the years following the academic, artistic and cultural turmoil provoked by Sterbak, the meat garment, as a materialized form of the raw, became diluted within the multiple expressions of modern art until it became another attempt to demystify art through the everyday. However, it was not until 2009, during the VMA (Video Music Awards) that the meat dress reappeared, but this time being carried by the singer Lady GaGa, who, before the eyes of a stunned audience, amid a wave of stupor, Indignation and bewilderment, he modeled what would later be a « performance » applauded by some and repudiated by others. In this case, it was no longer a sculpture placed on the sideboard of a museum, it was a person wearing raw meat. The work of art then acquires a resignification in terms of its conceptuality and interpretation. Lady GaGa does not re-signify the work itself but it is a factor that is part of the re-signifying of the object from another perspective. Undoubtedly, this dress fulfilled more aesthetic functions than its predecessor since it had a shape adjusted to the body of the model singer, However, the image of raw meat was no less morbid for the spectators contemplating it in what was once again a mixture of stupor, amazement and bewilderment.


Frank Fernandez, designer in charge of making this new dress, declares: « The dress […] won’t last, that’s its beauty. When it’s taken out again, hopefully in retrospect, and it’ll be a different dress, which is for the best. I like the idea of [seeing it] changing and evolving into something else »[4]. Indeed, the ephemerity of the dress is the key to understanding it as a unique piece that can form part of the artistic canon, thus making it unrepeatable. For Fernández, although the dress is perishable, it marks a trend that can lead us to imagine it as an artistic genre, where visual art transcends within its own temporary material limitation. Very different from the work Incarnation of the surrealist painter Mark Ryden, the GaGa dress, although it approaches the masses through the hypermediatization of the message to be conveyed, proves to have an intrinsic performative value where the fact of wearing the dress transcends the expectations of the work as it becomes a work of art with a function of immediate material utility. While the work of Mark Ryden evokes the efficaciousness of the dress and the girl from the nostalgia of the memory, the work of Frank Fernandez, expressed through the body of Lady GaGa, represents the mutation and distortion of art through the ephemerity of flesh. Certainly, Stuart Hall claims that, in a way, « we make sense of things by how we use them or integrate them into our everyday practices, »[5] yet this only reveals a part of the story, as things, as well as concepts, they are continually renewed in a process of ideological reconstruction, which in turn is determined by a constantly changing context.


After the awards where the reappearance of the dress caused fury, Lady GaGa was interviewed by television host Ellen DeGeneres, who did not hesitate to ask for the signifying of the dress. For GaGa, the dress meant a struggle for equal rights, that is, a cruel satire of the human being as a mere piece of flesh on the bones. Both the opinion of the pop star and the dress he wore connoted a transgression within the very definitions of art. In this case, although there is also a human sense in the piece, it is far removed from Sterbak’s initial intentions. Here, the dress acquires a political-propagandistic function that seeks to destabilize a symbolic order through a re-configuration of art. It is a question of redefining the dress so that it goes more according to the artistic and commercial vision of Lady GaGa. According to Victor Corona, GaGa « explicitly attempts to relate itself to the categories of individual Otherness. Celebrating the « monster », the « freak » or « the misfit » in multiple expressions […], she is able to build a sense of subcultural belonging among her fans while the receptive liveliness of her music works to sustain the attraction of the masses »[6]. In this way, we could think that the singer used the dress in a premeditated act as part of the fictional construction of her own character but, at the same time, it helps to generate the expected social responses in order to get closer to her followers. Then, the performativity of GaGa can be seen as a plausible solution to the problem of a constant search for identity in an increasingly unstable society.


However, there is also the possibility of a feminist analysis of the image of GaGa modeling the meat dress, which can be taken as a representation of women as objects. However, the GaGa phenomenon has been rather analyzed from the opposite perspective, as Curtis Fogel and Andrea Quinlan who opine that, although « Lady GaGa could be seen as a sexual warrior, allied with the growing feminist problems, it could also be argued that she represents the continued objectification and dehumanisation of women »[7]. Perhaps Lady GaGa, rather than seeking a redefinition of art, sought the attention of a public eager for morbid and speculative. However, even if this were the case, it achieves a clear objective within the postmodern currents of art: to de-stigmatize all prejudices in aesthetics and reception theory. It is clearly not the same to look at the dress inside a sideboard as to see it on someone, and it is just this marked difference that makes the GaGa dress a new catalyst for criticism, reflection and speculation.


Lady GaGa reassesses the idea of art in a new project that inverts the original Warholian formula where « Pop culture in art » becomes the property of the masses. In other words, not only is the predominant status of art within bourgeois culture sought to disappear, it is a question of redefining art through the people who produce and observe it. Just as the new contemporary literature impels the passive reader to become an active reader who also collaborates within literary production, the ARTPOP project seeks to transform the experimentalists of art into active agents of the work. However, several critical positions are pronounced strongly against this deconstructive enterprise. Victoire Disderot, from the Templon gallery in Paris, argues that this decoding of art in the masses is first and foremost rhetorical: « These pop stars seek to reconcile art and popular culture, but it is, differently formulated, the very principle of Pop Art. However, there is a real fascination of pop stars towards contemporary art that tends, according to me, to the prestige of dominance. Rubbing shoulders with such artists serves to establish their legitimacy »[8]. Perhaps that is true and Lady GaGa is nothing more than a repetition of something we have already seen. However, assessing it according to what we consider correct or original could be counterproductive, since the « right » and the « original » are far from having a very clear origin.


Derrida points « la différance » as a possibility of conceptualization where differences mark the origin and the reference point to be able to apprehend the sign with the later purpose of using it. It is just in this way that one must see the flesh garment, not as a fixed art form seeking to adhere to the canon, but as a reminder that the meaning of something goes beyond the coagulation of a word in concept, as Friedrich Nietzsche rightly points out. From Sterbak to GaGa, through the two-dimensional representation of Ryden, the dress breaks with the schemes, awakening the prejudices and instincts that are part of our humanity, not with the mere intention of provoking them, but to stimulate them towards a more conscious thought about the structures on which it stands. As Victor Hugo used to say, « at every age its art », but only time will tell if art survives or becomes garbage. It’s all about perception and canon.




[1] Jennifer McLerran, “Disciplined Subjects and Docile Bodies in the Work of Contemporary Artist Jana Sterbak”, Feminist Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 535-552.


[2]  Stuart Hall, Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, London, Sage publications, 1997, p. 3.

[3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, feminism and the politics of subversion, United States of America, p.62.

[4] Jocelyn Vena, “Lady GaGa meat dress designer tells how to re-create his VMA-Look », MTV News,MTV Video Music Awards, 2010


[5] Op. Cit. Hall, p. 7

[6] Victor P. Corona, « Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga », Tbe Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 46, Issue 4, pages 725–744, August 2013

[7] Fogel, Curtis A., Quinlan, Andrea, « Lady Gaga and Feminism:A Critical Debate », Cross-Cultural Communication 7 (3), 2011,  pp. 1:34-8.


[8] Tess Lochansky, « Lady GaGa et Jeff Koons: quand l’art et la pop se marient », France,  Le Nouvel Observateur, Section d’Actualité, 2013