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Making Jana Sterbak’s “Vanitas”

My first thought was, Huh, this doesn’t smell as much as I thought it would. But then, it’s cooking or decomposing that creates the aroma – 60 pounds of fresh, raw meat[1], as it turns out, is more of a visual spectacle. Especially so when laid out on a table in the Walker’s basement photography […]

My first thought was, Huh, this doesn’t smell as much as I thought it would. But then, it’s cooking or decomposing that creates the aroma – 60 pounds of fresh, raw meat[1], as it turns out, is more of a visual spectacle. Especially so when laid out on a table in the Walker’s basement photography studio, having already been tenderized and in the process of being assembled into a dress. 

Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, a work by Jana Sterbak, was originally created in 1987, and as one might imagine, must be recreated each time it’s exhibited[2]. It’s an intense, 12-hour process that gets messy, what with all the fat trimmings and strips of sinew. This version of Vanitas is being assembled for the exhibition Midnight Party, which opens at the Walker on Saturday. (Be sure to read more about Vanitas on its Walker Collections page , which includes Sterbak’s intentions in creating the work.) When I visited the studio this morning, the hardworking Meat Dress Team (M.D.T.)[3] was busy with knives and upholstery needles, cutting the slabs of flank steak to fit the dress pattern, back and front; the more sinewy sides faced up, though they would eventually become the inside of the dress.

Even though, as a vegetarian, a tofu dress might be more my style, the meat dress isn’t really about meat at all, but about bringing together the ideas of fashion, flesh, and body image[4]. In the coming weeks and months, each time you visit the galleries you’ll get a different impression of Vanitas, as “the aging process drastically changes the appearance of the work” (Midnight Party, as a showcase of works from the Walker collections, will be on view for a while). But you might not get a sense of the craft and construction behind it.

From a craftsperson’s standpoint, one of the remarkable things about Vanitas is how Sterbak alters our perceptions of a repulsive material like raw meat. Granted, there’s (hopefully) a lot of hand-washing and sanitizing on the part of the M.D.T., but there’s just as much careful consideration of the visual qualities of the meat and how to best put the pieces together. I saw two M.D.T. members weighing the options (literally) when it came to choosing the slabs that would form the upper back of the dress. And when one of the chosen pieces ended up being just a bit too thin, they pulled from the waste pile to beef up that area. Meanwhile, veteran M.D.T. members were busy sewing together the front of the dress, which had already been trimmed into form. They all could just as easily have been working with traditional fabrics. And while food has been an element of fashion in the past[5], raw meat, most likely for health reasons, is an unusual, shunned material.

After the individual pieces had been sewn together, the M.D.T. began a three-hour curing process, using 60 pounds of salt to dry the meat and prevent bacteria growth. After a final fitting onto the dressmaker’s form, Vanitas will be ready for placement in the exhibition, amid more than 200 other works. Photos of previous incarnations show that the dress actually looks kind of nice. The dried meat creates a unique texture, especially in its ragged edges. But Vanitas tends to be seen as disgusting upon closer inspection, and the creation of the work gets forgotten at the viewer’s visceral reaction to it. So when you visit Midnight Party, consider the hard work put into assembling Sterbak’s artwork. In the meantime, I’ll be drawing up designs for a three-piece tempeh suit.

[1] Provided by D’Amico, who also run the Garden Café and soon-opening Walker restaurant Gather.

[2] Meat, unlike diamonds, is not forever.

[3] Comprised of

  • Diane Anderson, member of Walker Contemporaries
  • Susan Brown, exhibition installation
  • Pamela Caserta, registration
  • Masami Kawazato, development
  • Jack Randol, development
  • Susan Rotilie, tour guide
  • DeAnn Thyse, visual arts
  • Elena Vetter, visitor services
  • Cameron Wittig, photography
  • Lucy Yogurst, Northside Arts Collective
  • Honorary Meat Dress Team Member: Barb Economon, library/archives

[4] See also Lady Gaga, 2010.

[5] See macaroni necklaces or certain episodes of Project Runway.

  • emily newman says:

    how often will be the meat dress have to be remade over the course of the exhibit? from what i’ve read (sterbak is one of the artists i’m writing about in my dissertation), it will only last 5-6 weeks or so? i’m excited to see it in its various stages, particularly the redder/bloodier state. i’ve only seen it once, at elles@pompidou last year, and it was really quite dry and a kind of tan/brown color. it’s a great, controversial piece. when it was shown in canada at the national gallery in 1991, there were some fantastic cartoons that were mocking the dress, saying it was not only wasteful, but a health hazard (one drawing had little flies around the dress).

  • Pamela Caserta says:

    Provided that the curing process goes as planned, the dress should last for the entire exhibition (3 years!)In order to see it while it’s fresh, you will need to check it out this weekend.

    There are many ways to interpret waste, and it depends on the eye of the beholder. Sacrificing 60 pounds of beef in our meat-loving society in order to poignantly present the issues that woman are challenged by may not be a waste at all. Perhaps the dress may even make a few people choose to eat less meat, thereby not only challenging the way people think about women’s issues, but also health, animal and ecological issues. Truly they are all intertwined.

    Joan Rothfuss, the curator of Midnight Party, has written some really informative comments on the meaning of the work, which I’m sure will interest you. Please take a look at the card catalogue for the exhibition when you visit the Walker.

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