Perfectly meaty

‘We try for purity but still we’re glorious blobs of meat.’ Michael McClure

I really love this quote. I picked it up in a book about the Beat generation in the Mona Bookshop. It’s from a piece called ‘Love Me For the Fool I Am’. It illustrates our collective striving for a utopian ideal (of the body, of a society, of a sexual encounter) and contrasts it with the ridiculous and gross reality of our meaty forms. It’s a delicious idea, to think of human bodies as so many slabs and slices of flesh. That being said, I don’t enjoy zombie films. I find the cultural framework they utilise to fetishise the body intellectually titillating, but visually disgusting. In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, one character is talking about either making out or having sex as a young person (it’s ambiguous; it’s postmodern rooting). He says, ‘We were kids. It was too early in the cultural matrix for actual screwing’ (it’s on page 80, if you care). This is one of those perfectly drawn moments in the novel, and I think it’s very similar to the quote from McClure. There’s imperfection there, an inadequacy of experience determined by our own ability (or inability) to understand our own warped subjective moment in time.

Matrix, 1999, ©Jenny Saville/Licensed by Viscopy Copyright, 2012

Eye of Sauron, scene from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy.

There’s lots of rape in the museum. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m a guy, so maybe that’s a really awful thing to say (particularly after US Congressman Todd Akin’s recent and painfully insensitive remarks about ‘legitimate rape’). I’m also gay, although I’m not sure that’s important here or not. In the context of the museum, with its many artistic representations of sexual violation, I think rape extends its trajectory beyond any one and highly traumatic sexual event; we all become complicit with the ‘rapist’ (whomever that might be) in our position as viewer, as voyeur. The cultural matrix expands for us. We can look at things and our looking is condoned. The model in Jenny Saville’s Matrix lies back, sex bared in fleshy, meaty strokes (with undeniable similarities to the Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings films – tell me you don’t see it) as our eyes rake the body spread on the canvas. Sidney Nolan’s Leda and the Swan paintings are beautiful depictions of horrific events; Nolan makes rape beautiful. But it’s an ambivalent and undecidable beauty, much like the myth of Leda and the Swan is both hauntingly archetypal and quietly violent. If anything, artistic representation runs the risk of paralysing sex within its own physicality. It can lock a body upon the wall, splayed, static and open for scrutiny, like a lepidopterist’s moth or a cadaver. Dead things. Silent. Bloodless. Think of Cunts and Other Conversations, with over a hundred vaginas ranged along a dark corridor like so many dinner plates, excised from any body, intelligence or human presence. I think it’s necessary to consider the politics of looking at images of bodies, sex and rape. If you don’t, you run the risk of becoming just plain fucking creepy. You end up just seeing the meat.

A while back I went to see Prometheus, the much awaited not-a-prequel-ok-it’s-kind-of-a-prequel follow up to the 1979 classic Alien. ‘It was so … what’s the word? Rapey,’ my friend Amy said afterwards. (Just to be clear, ‘rapey’ is not actually a word.) We sat in a restaurant on the waterfront, trying to finish our desserts whilst periodically pawing at our throats as we remembered particularly gruesome scenes from the film. The Alien films beg their audience to fixate on moments of violently hybridised human/alien sexual encounter. (Think of that iconic scene in Alien, when the alien first explodes out of John Hurt’s ribcage as a bloody, penile muppet in a kind of visually reversed penetration.) In Prometheus, a worm-like alien bites its way into one of the character’s spacesuits, before burrowing its way into the character’s mouth. His eyes roll back in his head as the audience in the cinema groans with disgusted pleasure.

Scene from ‘Alien’

Scene from ‘Prometheus’

It was a disgusting scene, but Amy and I were talking about it with a kind of horrified relish. This awful depiction of death by face-rape was somehow enjoyable, even titillating. I’m still not sure what to make of our reactions to the film. I know our viewing of this sexual violence is condoned (the Alien films are a staple of pop culture), but I can’t work out how to move beyond that initial reaction. A comment on masculine sexual anxiety and the male’s inherent fear of penetration? I’m not convinced. A deep-seated desire to watch violently sexual fantasies play out on the silver screen? Let’s hope not. Maybe it’s just too early in my cultural matrix for this kind of screwing.

-Luke Hortle

Luke thinks that he might be a writer, but wonders if the term might also be synonymous with ‘wanker’. He has recently discovered fennel, the New Yorker and Girls (the tv show). He works at the Mona Bookshop.

7 thoughts on “Perfectly meaty

  1. The politics of ‘rapey’ – love it.
    Art does offer that rare opportunity of looking at the looking of something and a legitimate space to open up discussions about otherwise taboo subjects – such as the titillation of alien ‘face-rape’ and other violent sexual fantasies. This is a really valuable function, I think. Ultimately, discussion, arguments, critical thinking at complex level – this is what makes us more than just meat. But because we are able to think, it also makes it possible to consider ourselves as meaty objects – which has its own complications in a world where objectification is ever-present but also highly controversial. On one level I think it’s a great reminder that we are all just blobs of meat – it brings us all to the same level, it’s humanising in a strange way.

  2. For some reason, it reminds me of that moment when you realise that you’re naked in front of your cat. Something bizarre happens. You look at the cat. The cat looks at you. You realise you’re naked. The cat’s always been naked, but also clothed in its animalness, the very fact of it being not human. Your nakedness matters only insofar as it actually doesn’t matter at all; you’re both animals, and to be frank, the cat couldn’t give a flying fuck that your bits are out.

    To look at someone or something, or to be looked at yourself, is always political. By this, I mean that there’s power at play here, there’s no neutral standpoint for the looker or the lookee. You have to wonder, what would you do if the model in Jenny Saville’s Matrix could shout back us, “What the fuck are you looking at?” or alternatively, croon “Come on. Look at me closely. You know you want to.”

  3. About the Sauron connection–nice one–but:- there is a more relevant and famous art historical precedent with Courbet that Saville would have been aware of along with all the in-your-face porn juxtaposing genitalia with a candid face.

    Tantrics in india indulge in transgressing almost all taboos in order to be ‘free’. For example, they have sex with corpses in order to annihilate reactive clinging to sensate experience. Does Saville intend this, to annihilate or to just expect us to balk at the vulgarity, tease a certain standard of Taste? Is MONA only teasing for the same reactivity?

    As a comparison to Saville, Marcel Duchamp, aware of Courbet and as he claimed all the ‘retinal art’ that proceeds with Courbet, spent a life emancipating from ‘retinal art’ by elaborately negotiating for neither like or dislike but an ‘anaesthesia’…His last major work, exhibited after his death, portrays a figure with legs apart baring all. Its almost Courbet like.

    The difference is though the allegory or metaphor. Duchamp’s exposed cunt was no ordinary living room gloat but a quest for a certain or uncertain something with regards all the history of human striving and endeavour.

    Part of the point of ‘anaestheisa’ is I suppose not succumbing to ‘creepiness’ or egoic participation but seeing ‘things’ from a space of wisdom or understanding.

  4. About the Sauron connection–nice one–but:- there is a more relevant and famous art historical precedent with Courbet that Saville would have been aware of along with all the in-your-face porn juxtaposing genitalia with a candid face.

    Tantrics in india indulge in transgressing almost all taboos in order to be ‘free’. For example, they have sex with corpses in order to annihilate reactive clinging to sensate experience. Does Saville intend this, to annihilate or to just expect us to balk at the vulgarity, tease a certain standard of Taste? Is MONA only teasing for the same reactivity?

    As a comparison to Saville, Marcel Duchamp, aware of Courbet and as he claimed all the ‘retinal art’ that proceeds with Courbet, spent a life emancipating from ‘retinal art’ by elaborately negotiating for neither like or dislike but an ‘anaesthesia’…His last major work, exhibited after his death, portrays a figure with legs apart baring all. Its almost Courbet like.

    The difference is though the allegory or metaphor. Duchamp’s exposed cunt was no ordinary living room gloat but a quest for a certain or uncertain something with regards all the history of human striving and endeavour.

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