Jana Sterbak in Review
by John Schuerman
The first time I met Sterbak's meat dress, Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, it blessed me with the struggle of sentience. At first I saw it from a distance and figured it for some boring abstraction, somebody making household refuse into art. So I nearly passed it by, but for the smell. So I went in for examination. Immediately my stomach lurched and its implications came cascading through me: this work was about glamour, beauty, fashion, food, vegetarianism, women, women as dolled up consumption, hunger, and personal exposure, and more that would come to me later.
So what was I smelling? Cured flanks of beef, or Charqui which is Spanish from Quechua. Quechua is a Spanish dialect alive somewhere in the Andes, where the Indians are known for their jerked guinea pig… Sterbak is Czech but distant too, now a variation from the root like this misplaced jerky, she lives in Vancouver and her art is primarily shown in Canada and the United States… But back to the flesh. It is flanks of beef stitched together with very strong thread, like dental floss -- it had to be strong for when the meat was fresh it was several inches thick and weighty hunks of it hung off at the seams or wherever the cut was imperfect. Up close you can see the striations of muscle and fat that have hardened into lusterless browns and white. It now clings to a dress-makers mannequin, headless, armless, legless, alone, and center stage. The dress is beef jerky, naturally shrunken by time to a tight fit over the womanly torso. The curing process is part of the art. It makes me wonder whether this thing will eventually disintegrate or just continue on a slow trajectory to becoming inert and devoid of its important smell.
I think it is rare, at least for me, to have so many ideas triggered all at once. I'm guessing it took about 30 seconds for all these notions to unravel, take shape and process. The social commentary is easy to get. One can hear it: "If women are just meat, might as well wear clothes that show it." Sterbak turns the woman inside out, "Here, just have it!"
A friend's response upon my asking was an immediate, "Gross! But its good art." Gross and good are primitive concepts which cannot be explained by other, more basic words. They are labels for human primal responses. (For example gross follows from that bleaaahh feeling in your gut.) Now I think her words were no accident, they are a response to this type of art. It, too, is primal -- any intellectualizing comes after the gut reaction. The work of art is not difficult to interpret and therein lies the power. It communicates. It may be a transgression of certain prescribed, moral sensibilities -- but this I am glad for.
And so what about beauty? Behind the flesh dress at The Walker, a white wall displays a photo of the dress, fresh and glistening with fat and blood fashionably modeled by a white-skinned woman. It is hard not to consider yourself as the model at least for long enough to get the feel. Imagine the cold wet meat on your skin. Feel the weight of this fifty pounds of flesh and the cool bleeding that drips down. Imagine the cow. Think about dinner, or a dinner party with your new outfit. Think about how well protected you are covered with some other creature's flesh exposed. You are living in something dead. It died for you to eat it, wear it, sell it, view it as art.
Jana Sterbak wants to make you feel uncomfortable, unsettled. An inscription to another of her works reads: "I want you to feel the way I do: There's barbed wire wrapped all around my head and my skin grates on my flesh from the inside." The work is a barbed wire dress with electric current running through circular nickel-chrome bands around the mid-section. The dress stands rigid and tall and violently electrified. Projected on the wall behind it, the inscription carries on addressing you: "…I will listen to the sound you hear, feed on your thought, wear your clothes. Now I have your attitude and you're not comfortable anymore. …You're beginning to irritate me: I am not going to live with my self inside your body, and I would rather practice being new on someone else."
Is this about the relationship between the human body and clothes? No, it is about the relationship between you and your clothes and all the eyes on you. She plays on your anxieties by fervently approaching you with images and objects and words that juxtapose the things that keep you alive, safe, warm, and well fed with some of the harsh realities to mortal existence. For sleeping pleasure she offers pillows with diseases embroidered on them in a clean, white bed. What would your lover say about you being on such a stage as this?
We are the viewers, an audience that appreciates the art, or not. We may say that it is not good art, not in the sense of something aesthetically appealing. Or we may say it is too blunt to do much for consciousness raising. But very few of us could claim "I don't get it" like many say about Picasso.
What we may have here is something that taps into a dull, social rhythm, one that has meaning attached to the major overtones of everyday life: food, clothing, self-image, socially defined roles. And we get it, we can dance to it. It is like playing the Sex Pistols or early Cramps records for three year olds: they get the rhythm and they dance to it.
Jana Sterbak's work is profoundly personal. That is why and how she grabs us. In Golum: Objects of Sensations, 1979-1982, she has carefully crafted a set of internal organs -- lead hearts, a bronze spleen painted red, a lead throat, a rubber stomach, a bronze tongue, a lead penis etc.. In exhibition, our vital parts are splayed out, simple and naked in some sort of embarrassed minimalism across the gallery floor. Once again she has gotten right down inside us, this time touching and kneading our very organs. In the work Catacombs, 1992, the deep personal implications continue as we ponder the meaning of a partial human skeleton composed of high-grade chocolate. We all like chocolate don't we? These edible human remains are scattered on the floor of a room that either is very old or has been carefully crafted and disintegrated to appear that way.
After review of the works discussed thus far we should have no trouble placing Jana Sterbak's portrait of her lover within the deeply personal, mortal-body context of her art. Where Van Gogh paints himself, Picasso paints his mistress, and Man Ray prints the palm of his hand, Sterbak produces the smelly essence of her partner. Perspiration: Olfactory Portrait is a glass vial of synthetic perfume created through scientific methods to approximate her lover's unique scent.
The themes of thought triggered by Jana Sterbak are many and the intended ones are hard to distinguish from those that come along for the ride. I doubt that Sterbak would value her messages above the others that people experience. She knows she is unleashing the power of imagination and allowing a free draw from the pool of both intended and conjured images.
Jana Sterbak is a conceptual artist whose work operates at two levels. First, there are the primal, gut level reactions. These are the initial wake-up calls that the works activate, the unavoidable facing of one's fear, humanness, mortality. With regard to these first reactions, I had a lot of fun exposing people at my office to an 8 ˝ x 10" color photo of Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, in raw form being modeled by a woman. At first they could not figure out what she was wearing, but after a few seconds they would turn away shocked and rant a little about their feelings of disgust and uneasiness. But they were interested -- and it had meaning.
Second, her art offers intellectual inquiry for those who are so inclined. To see this, one can look to the many articles written by critics that range in their musings from fascination with the dialectics and contradictions they interpret (such as freedom and constraint, protection and exposure, beauty and aging) to a set of staunch feminist statements. There seems to be no end to the depth of the philosophical inquiry that the critics claim to be hers. At least the intellectuals are having fun. Or we can look at the basis of her inspirations. Several of her works are rooted in Greek mythology. The three Sisyphus works (1990, 1991, 1993) are spherical cages cut in half in which a man is confined. He can propel himself by rocking and twisting. In a way the cage protects him, but in another it leaves him unstable and forever in need of action. According to the myth, Sisyphus was a clever and devious man who fooled the gods on many occasions, but finally is condemned to spend eternity rolling a large stone up the mountain. When he reaches the top it tumbles back down and he starts over. Another work that was discussed earlier, Golem: Objects as Sensations, is based on the Golem myth from Czech folklore. Golem was a homunculus made from clay and magic to protect the Jews from religion-crazed Christians. In addition, at least two more of her major works originate from the story of Medea, the sorceress that was exiled and loses her place to another woman. In an incredible act of vengeance she sends wedding presents of a crown and a robe for the other woman who is instantly consumed by flames upon putting them on. Sterbak's pieces are an electrified crown and a dress.
Jana Sterbak, States of Being, National Gallery of Canada.
Jana Sterbak, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina.
Jana Sterbak, Louisiana Searkatalog 3.
Jana Sterbak, Velleitas, Richard Noble, Fundacio Antoni Tapies.
Walker Library Artist Reference file.
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