Meat Joy

All good clean fun asks Anna Dezeuze

‘It might be a serious disaster, it might be vaguely interesting, or it might reconstitute some of the motivating energies that were in Meat Joy.’1 Talking a few days before the re-creation of her 1964 performance Meat Joy as part of the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s recent ‘A Short History of Performance’, Carolee Schneemann was expressing an anxiety common to most artists participating in this series.

For most of the artists who each presented in turn a single event from the 60s or 70s – Jannis Kounellis, Bruce McLean, Hermann Nitsch, Stuart Brisley, the Kipper Kids and the Bernsteins – going back to these early works was at best an ambivalent experience. After she had accepted the curator’s invitation, Schneemann referred to this event as ‘an experiment’, a ‘strange adventure’ and maintained that she is usually ‘not in favour of re-enactments’.

Schneemann’s unease was not only due to the fact that she had ceased to organise collective performances in 1970, and had given up solo performances five years later, preferring instead to create installations and projections. As a public debate at the start of the series demonstrated, what was at stake was the very definition of what has now been assimilated into the history of modern art as performance art. At this debate, devoted fans of performance art expressed their concern that a re-enactment would take away the authenticity, spontaneity and radicalism of performance art in the 60s. One of them accused the series of being commercial and nostalgic, arguing that historical performances could not, and should not, be recreated. Schneemann agreed with him: re-creations by others of historic pieces such as her own Interior Scroll or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, she said, were usually ‘inane and vitiated’.

Why then, while we do not have any problems about going to see a Warhol retrospective, or an exhibition of minimalist art, is this category that we call performance art still conceived of as somehow different from other artistic trends which emerged at the same period? As I sat down with around 300 other people to watch Meat Joy, the thrill I felt was, at least partly, a direct result of this strange status that performance art has acquired. This ‘unique, evanescent, energised, physicalised event’, as Schneemann described Meat Joy, was only known to me, as to almost all present, from photographs, from a rarely projected film and from Schneemann’s published score. Here, finally, was the opportunity to see the work for myself.

Recapturing the original relation between the work and its context is always difficult when viewing artworks of the past – from the Elgin marbles to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica – especially so here, as performance works are essentially time-based rather than object-based. If they have not been performed since, they are fixed in that mythical moment of their first presentation. Moreover, performances such as Meat Joy never occurred in institutional spaces, and existed outside the art market so that, unlike Minimalism and Pop, they have not been assimilated as easily into the museum. The mythical status of the original performance is usually intrinsically linked to the artist’s own body which has come to guarantee its value as art – in fact, the more the artist suffers for his/her work (physical hardship is the hallmark of many best-known performances), the more easily it can slip into Romantic conceptions of the artiste maudit.

This is why performance art, more than any other art form, has been a breeding ground for myths, either used positively to create a heroic ‘history of performance art’, complete with censorship and fatal accidents or, on the contrary, used negatively to demonstrate that performance art is one giant freak show. While recent trends in art history have gone beyond these myths through more critical analyses, reactions to ‘A Short History of Performance’ clearly demonstrated that attitudes to key issues such as the very presentation of performance art still diverge widely.

Meat Joy is illustrated in most histories of performance art by photographs of its third enactment in November 1964 at the Judson Church in New York. In these photos, young women and men, scantily clad in bikinis adorned with feathers and covered in streaks of paint, lie on the floor in close physical contact with each other. Amongst the mass of human flesh – formed by embracing couples and the collective, indistinguishable heaps of writhing bodies – are strewn whole raw chickens, sausages and fish, held by performers or lying on or next to their bodies.

Through close-ups taken from above, the photographs show us the performers’ faces, their eyes often closed, apparently laughing out loud or screaming, grimacing or resting. Excess and ecstasy, sensuality and abandon, joy and disgust are the impressions given out by the pictures, by Schneemann’s notes, and by all discussions of the piece. When Lawrence Alloway spoke in 1980 of a ‘Dionysian cul-de-sac’ in which Schneemann’s work has unjustly been sealed off, it is these pictures of Meat Joy which immediately come to mind.2

Viewing the performance at the Whitechapel revealed to me four crucial points which contradict this Dionysian reading of the work: the ‘meat’ part of Meat Joy is only the ending of the piece – the ten performers go through different actions for at least 45 minutes before a woman dressed as a waitress starts throwing the meat and fish onto them. Lighting effects and music are all-important elements of the piece, especially at the beginning (and I wonder whether The Supremes could ever have be called Dionysian); the performers’ movements are very carefully choreographed and, finally, this is in fact a much funnier piece than is often thought. The conjunction of these four elements provides an exit from Schneemann’s supposed ‘Dionysian cul-de-sac’: Meat Joy is obviously more than a group of half-naked people with some chickens thrown in.

Meat Joy presents itself as entirely theatrical. For the first 15 minutes at least, the performers completely ignore the audience, sitting at the back of the stage, eating, drinking and chatting amongst themselves. They seem far away, and the soundtrack of Schneemann reading in an American accent from a French exercise book barely manages to retain our attention. When the music kicks in, however, things start to rock quite literally, as crumpled balls of light white paper are thrown down onto the stage by two performers standing on a mechanically elevated balcony, to the sound of Tutti Frutti. It is when Schneemann is closest to the visual arts that the work is most successful as she explores a vocabulary of movements using simple means found in the painter’s studio: paint brushes, plastic sheets, pots and buckets of paint, paper. The mound of crumpled paper for example is used to create a space for the performers, who hide in it, wear it as costumes, or create small crinkling sounds in the silence by gently stirring in it. As three women lie entirely covered in paper, their protruding legs making slow movements in the air to the chorus of Baby Love, the paper comically becomes like the swimming pool water for three absurd synchronised swimmers or the froufrous of horizontal cancan dancers.

Schneemann, like Happening artists Allan Kaprow and Jim Dine, came from the tradition of painting and collage. She sees herself as a painter, referring to the influence of Paul Cézanne and Willem de Kooning and her materials as ‘a physicalised extension of body energies and sensations’. The raw meat is just another type of visual prop, like the paint and paintbrushes. The stickiness of the fish, the weight of the chickens are important to Schneemann. As performers shift from painting to pouring paint over each other by the bucket, Abstract Expressionism feels very close. The energy of the performers’ movements, to which the artist often refers, oscillates between an echo of Jackson Pollock’s gestural dance on the canvas and the minimalist, everyday activities explored by the Judson Dance Group with which Schneemann was closely associated at the time. Meat Joy brings together the spontaneity of the former with the carefully structured choreography of the latter.

Schneemann extended the collage technique of the visual spectacle to the soundtrack, whose broken, fragmentary nature was even more prominent in the 2002 realisation. ‘At that time, that music was fascinating and fresh. Now it is nostalgic and it has its own clichés built into it.’ Rather than changing the music, Schneemann decided to make the extracts shorter and overlay them more; the fading fragments of popular hits emerge and recede like distant voices from the past.

The only other element which Schneemann deliberately changed was the clothing of the performers. Instead of reverting to the state of nudity, which was initially planned but given up because of censorship problems at the time, Schneemann was in no doubt that performers in 2002 should not be naked. The naked body today, she argues, ‘doesn’t have that sense of connectedness to nature or to your own nature in a sense of something revelatory and spontaneous’. We are today ‘more prurient’, ‘more conservative ... more fearful and ... more cautious’. The nude body is either too dramatic and expressionistic, or pornographic: ‘it’s not casual, not casually pleasurable.’ While accepting that the meaning of nudity undeniably changes from one period to the next, I was not the only one to be left unconvinced by Schneemann’s arguments – to see naked bodies enacting Meat Joy would have enhanced the relation between human and animal flesh and brought out the sensuality of the piece.

It is easier to re-enact Meat Joy today than certain other performance works because it was never a site-specific piece and it never relied on the presence of the artist as a performer, since Schneemann’s involvement as a participant was always secondary to her role as a director of the piece. In this 2002 performance, she chose to play the serving maid instead of the ‘central woman’ and she used young performers for the piece; the changing and ageing of the performer’s body was not a central focus as in other re-enactments. What the performance at the Whitechapel brought home most clearly, however, was that, like all theatre, dance or music performances, the conditions of the presentation and the abilities of the performers are also important.

‘Normally I find people in the street, in cafés. I spend time looking for the participants because I get a buzz, I feel something from how that person is eating or talking or walking.’ Unlike the 1964 performances, Schneemann did not choose the performers for Meat Joy herself, and I do not think she would have got this buzz from them. No doubt it was the rigidity of the bodies and the slight embarrassment sometimes perceived in the performers that emphasised the playful rather than the sensual aspects of this performance of Meat Joy. There were times at which the performers looked like a bunch of awkward, giggling teenagers messing about, while the older Schneemann looked on benevolently.

The results of the week’s intensive rehearsals which Schneemann required from the group were more apparent in the discussion after the performance, during which the performers stood by Schneemann in a united front against all critiques. The rehearsals, in which actual meat was never used, consisted of exercises aimed both at overcoming taboos and creating a context of trust and ‘intimate familiarity’. The exercises were no doubt useful to consolidate the group and may have served as self-explorations for individual performers but that, unfortunately, was lost on the audience.

The intimacy between performers and audience which many of us expected seems to be mostly the result of those 1964 close-up photographs taken while standing literally over the reclining performers – no such point of view is possible for a sitting audience. Schneemann explicitly denies any desire to get the audience involved in Meat Joy. After a nearly fatal experience in the Paris performance, in which a man from the audience stripped, joined the performers and started to strangle Schneemann violently, the artist’s resistance can be understood. But, she argues, there was never any intention to introduce people who had not attended the rehearsals and were thus not ‘sensitised’ to deal with the situation. The very part of the performance in which there was some involvement of the viewers, as one performer started flinging small pieces of chicken at us, was in fact not intended by Schneemann. Fortunately our shyness as an audience kept the performance from turning into a food fight, much to the disappointment of some. Although acknowledging that there can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ audiences, Schneemann concluded that ‘they’re like the fish and the chickens – if you think about them, it’s not going to work’.

It is of course impossible to deny that the audience for Meat Joy today is very different from the one in 1964. The work, Schneemann reminded me, ‘raised its erotic, revelatory pleasure principles in the midst of tremendous resistance’ at the time, both from outraged conservatives and from many artists – painters, minimalists and conceptualists alike. The historical context in which Meat Joy was created is important, and it is in this sense that Schneemann may conceive it now as a kind of oeuvre de jeunesse – at 20 years of age, this was her first openly sensual public performance, inspired by an invitation to Paris and the ‘erotic tradition’ that, like the Americans travelling to Europe in Henry James’s novels, she found in French art and literature. Acting in a pre-feminist arena, Schneemann wanted to ‘get that nude off the canvas’,3 trying to find a language to situate herself as a woman and a painter within the predominantly male world of American painting in the 50s. In this sense, Meat Joy can be seen as an intermediate phase between Schneemann’s 1963 Eye-Body, a series of photographs in which the artist posed nude in her studio, and her best known solo performance, the 1975 Interior Scroll, during which she read a text slowly extracted from her vagina.

Schneemann’s references to ‘pleasure principles’ betray her interest in psychoanalysis, in particular the writings of Wilhelm Reich, who claimed for example that ‘it is sexual energy which governs the structure of human feeling and thinking’. This Austrian émigré, whose books such as The Sexual Revolution and The Function of the Orgasm were burnt in the United States during Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt, was also a hero for many Beat poets, with whom Schneemann was familiar. The title of Meat Joy was inspired by Beat writer Michael McClure’s Meat Science Essays, which demonstrate above all the shared biological connection among all human and non-human creatures. Emphasising the ‘beastliness of mankind’, McClure went so far as to invent in his poems a Beast Language of growls and roars. Without insisting too much on this analogy, I would like to suggest that Schneemann’s Meat Joy is similar to McClure’s Bea(s)t Language: its energy as a radical, subversive piece has dwindled from the raging lion’s roar to a cat’s purr – sensual, playful, but hardly frightening.

Schneemann’s later 1967 group performance, Snows, which incorporated projections of photographs of the Vietnam war, would probably appear to us now as much more clearly political than Meat Joy. While Schneemann’s importance as a model for women performance artists has long been acknowledged, Meat Joy’s wider contribution to the 1960s sexual revolution needs to be retrieved from a moment in social history which has come to stand for a whole range of changing attitudes to sexuality, from Cosmo to feminist and gay liberation movements and, by 1972, Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat. But maybe it is its undidactic, sensual playfulness that is Meat Joy’s strength: compared to Nitsch’s two-hour long humourless, pseudo-ritualistic Orgies-Mysteries Theatre staged three days later at the Whitechapel, Schneemann’s work is fresh and fun.

1. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from an interview with Carolee Schneemann by the author in London on April 13, 2002. I would like to thank the artist for her help.
2. Lawrence Alloway, ‘Carolee Schneemann: The Body as Object and Instrument’, in Art in America, March 1980, p21.
3. Carolee Schneemann, ‘Interview with Kate Haag’, in Wide Angle, 20, No1, 1977, reproduced in Schneemann, Imaging her Erotics – Essays, Interviews, projects, MIT Press, 2002, p28.

‘A Short History of Performance: Part One’ was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London from April 16 to 21, 2002.

Anna Dezeuze is finishing her doctorate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

First published in Art Monthly 257: June 2002.

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