GAGA GAIA AND THE MEAT DRESS


 

SIMON W MARIN

Everybody remembers Lady Gaga’s controversial appearance at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards ceremony with a head-to-toe outfit made out of raw meat, but few people actually know that it isn’t unprecedented. I was reminded of this when I recently stumbled across a book featuring a picture of Vanitas: Flesh dress For an Albino Anorexic (1987)[1] by Jana Sterbak on its cover. On the photograph, a woman is nonchalantly sitting on the floor, wearing the Czech-Canadi-an artist’s most famous piece: 25kg of steaks sewn together into a dress. The model is meditatively staring into space, her pale skin almost making her disappear behind the ample blood-red garment that captivates the eye. Even though the title of Sterbak’s work explicitly inscribes it within the tradition of Still Life painting, looking at this photograph today calls much more for a political interpretation than an art historical one. Indeed, next to Lady Gaga’s strident reinterpretation of the meat dress, the model’s passive pose and evanescent presence in Jana Sterbak’s picture appear like a silent protest. It is as if this woman were—literally—incarnating the idea of a “piece of meat,” calling out my (male) objectifying leer: “Watch yourself gazing at my (female) commodified body.” 

More than a mere fleshy envelope, the skin, with its extensions and adornments—clothes, hair styling, make up…—functions in fact as an interface. As the visible part of the body, it is a place of negotiation between the ontology of one’s physical self and all that which is external. More precisely, it is a stage where one’s identity is constantly being performed and actualized by onlookers. Lady Gaga, probably more than anyone, is perfectly aware of these mechanisms: attention economy, after all, is the key to her success. A product of late capitalist media culture, she excels at subjugating the public’s voyeuristic gaze with her eccentric looks that secure her a continual coverage. The provocation of wearing a dress out of flesh thus corresponds to a form of meta-performance, blatantly hinting at the ceaseless exposure of her persona to the insatiable, predatory curiosity of the public. In other words, the figure of Lady Gaga epitomizes the notion of the body surface as an interface between privacy and publicity where identity gets negotiated.

The problem, however, is that for many people, the power techniques prevailing in the current society don’t allow for a fair negotiation of their own individuality. Where-as, for Lady Gaga, the commodification of her body stands for obscene revenues and popular appreciation, for many others, in turn, it represents an alienating experience of systemic discrimination and threat over their integrity. The white, male-dominated, heteronormative social system in which we live—and some of us, me included, are benefitting from—has been thriving on mechanisms of control over the bodies of people who are systematically being excluded from a fabricated norm. In this exclusionary project, skin is the playground of operating discriminations.  From the perspective of the current social debates, what the vulnerability pervading Stervak’s photograph embodies is not merely a denunciation of the (social) media’s objectifying lens; rather, I want to suggest regarding it as an allegorical call to resist against the hegemony of biopower and necropolitics that—on account of skin color, gender or genitalia, as well as putatively nonconforming features and idiosyncrasies, to name but a few—have been depriving certain beings of an equal right to agency and sovereignty by systematically colonizing their skin and bodies.  

In her “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway poses the question: “Why should our bodies end at the skin […] ?”[2] The figure of the cyborg is omnipresent in her work, corresponding to the materialization of a strategy aimed at developing a new ontology of the self, that is, an alternative way of existing within the world. She advocates the em-bracing of the fundamentally hybrid nature of our bodies—both physically and metaphorically—as a mode of resistance against the contingencies of identities that are far less intrinsic than they are in fact imposed on both human and non-human beings by a system of power meant to safeguard the privileges of a dominating class at the expenses of an exploited majority. In this regard, Haraway’s rhetorical question hints at a crucial feature of this cyborgian existence, which is that not only does it entail the individualities of singular beings, but it inherently includes the reality of a collective self. Furthermore, this collective body may not be considered as a mere accumulation of individual identities. It is, rather and in essence, a symbiotic structure that emerges from the multiplicity and plurality of identities that come together to shape a collective way of experiencing the world, what Gender Studies scholar Margrit Shildrick calls “an erotics of connection.”3 This community performs a form of sensuality and empathy that refuses to blend its edges or to shut out individuals that transcend the normative pretense. 

As a form of resistance, collectivity represents a way of granting subjectivity to beings who are otherwise dispossessed from it through a systematic mechanism of objectification of their body and identity. In other words—and maybe somewhat paradoxically—, not only does subjectivity rely on collectivity; it is, in fact, fundamentally conditioned by it. French philosopher Merleau Ponty demonstrates this arguing that experience is rooted in the sensual perception of the world rather than in its rationalization through consciousness—a turning point in Phenomenology. What’s more, the primacy of the body as a site of experience implies, according to him, a constant state of interconnectedness of the self with their environment, as well as with other human and non-human beings. In other words, it is precisely the (physical) interaction among individuals that allows for subjectivity to manifest itself as a result of experience. Merleau Ponty refers to this irreducible intercorporeality in the construction of the self as the “flesh of the world.” This carnal metaphor as a reference to collectivity is a way to recall that the world is a complex organism, the essence of which implies the physicality of a constant interaction between the diversity of bodies that compose it. In line with this interpretation, Jana Sterbak’s meat dress appears like a representation of the flesh we all are part of and the model in the photographic staging would thus stand for an allegory of the world rather than an anonymous yet specific female character. I want to see it as an incarnation of Gaia, clothed in the collective flesh of the world. 

While the skin is commonly considered a boundary—a protection between the body and the exterior—it is in reality much more a porous layer where inside and outside are in constant interaction, not only biologically, but also socially. It is the site where identity gets negotiated, and therefore highly vulnerable. Like our commodified bodies, the earth too is suffering from being denied her own agency, reduced to a mere object of exploitation. In the picture, however, Gaia is wearing her skin inside out: she is showing us her bare flesh in a play on transparency, plainly displaying what’s beneath the surface. She exhibits her vulnerability openly, like a desperate attempt to defuse the colonizing velleity that make her body a site of extraction for imperialist ideologies. And yet, the invisible stitches between the raw pieces of meat also remind us of the potential power embodied by the collective self, as if the vulnerabilities of the isolated bodies became all at once the very strength of the group. It is the social, compassionate, collective body that allows us to claim the fundamental right to an equal existence for all our sisters and brothers, regardless of our respective differences. With the right level of empathy, the feeling of alienation that underlies the confrontation between the self and the other can be turned into a productive experience through which an awareness of community can blossom. And, in turn, this act of resistance that relies on solidarity, sensuality and love should ultimately clothe Gaia in a cloak of diversity—a protective layer of intercorporeality—for we are her flesh.

This text was written for the exhibition “Cette Question Qui Vous Brûle Les Lèvres“, curated by Marie DuPasquier at CAN, Centre d’Art Neuchâtel in 2019.


[1] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women (New York/London: Routledge, 1991), 178. 

[2] Margrit Shildrick, “‘Why Should Our Bodies End at the Skin?’: Embodiment, Boundaries, and Somatechnics,” Hypatia 30, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 17, https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12114. The present text is particularly indebted to Shildrick’s instructive reading of postmodern philosophy in light of contemporary identity politics theory.