by J.W. McCormack
Material Reality III
SPOONBILL & SUGARTOWN | JUNE 5 – JUNE 13, 2018
Artist’s talk: June 8th, 7pm
Heide Hatry’s art investigates matter and the decay of matter—more specifically, the corporality of the human and nonhuman dead. While her medium consists of flesh, meat, and ash, there is another essential component of her work that has not received recognition: the books she makes for each project, each of which are integral, not supplemental, to her larger oeuvre. Examples of these performative books (along with selected paintings and photographs) will be on display at Brooklyn’s Spoonbill & Sugartown gallery space, located at 99 Montrose Ave in Brooklyn, from June 5th to the 13th.
The four books fall under Hatry’s notion of neo-conceptual and performative art. Each is a collaboration with a stunning list of major fiction writers, philosophers, and artists. Her first, Skin (2005), is perhaps her most conceptual as its conceit—all of the artists who make work from pig skin in this portfolio of artists putatively working in the field of raw meat—are Hatry. Although she was not familiar with Cindy Sherman’s work at the time, Skin has been compared to Sherman’s works. Hatry’s next book, Heads and Tales (2009), doubled as a short story anthology, in which writers such as Lydia Millet and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge imagined the lives of eerie pigskin-graftings rendered into uncanny human likeness (notably one of these sculptures was blundered upon by the NYPD, who initially mistook it for a corpse).
Next came 2012’s Not A Rose, in which flowers lovingly sculpted with impressive realism from animal offal collected from slaughterhouses appear in what looks like a coffee table book of flowers. They are also exhibited as large fine art photographs. In this project, she examines the gulf between the clichéd beauty of flowers and the horror of the meat industry. Ultimately it is a project about ethics. Most recently, in the body of work collected in Icons In Ash (2017) she takes on the medium of cremains —the actual name given to the ashes left in the aftermath of cremation— to craft portraits of the dead on commission from the bereaved family members or friends.
Again, these images are paired with texts, including one such contribution from the art historian Hans Belting, who sees echoes of the Parisian avant-garde in Hatry’s work, quoting Carl Einstein as observing “The image…is a consolidation and defense against death. Our existence is unalterably an experience of space. It is in this sense that art serves the dead: by restoring a space for their representation.” The Carl Einstein quote perfectly captures Hatry’s own goals, which she defines in an interview with Marc Pachter, Director Emeritus of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, as “returning indistinguishable ashes to the particular…re-literalizing, trying to return to the traumas, or the site of the traumas, that have been subsumed in culture. It seems to me to be a way of keeping alive what is always in danger of being lost or forgotten, or—more pertinently—ignored.” (Selected portraits as well as the books are on display.) Working with the actual human remains—which must be buried according to law in her native Germany—she began perfecting the process by which the very substance of life is transmuted to its representation. She writes that her goal is to turn the art object into a subject, communicating the substance and presence of the dead through their residue. You are essentially looking at the essence of life when you view Hatry’s icons—the contemplative gaze of the filmmaker Roberto Guerra, the classical visage of Marie Smith, the haunting Lena Sereda who peers out from the great beyond like Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc—each of which conjures the dead in a sort of secular shamanism that reminds us that, just as in life we are in the midst of death, the dead never truly go. They merely transform and remain.
As this cursory overview suggests, her books function not only as delivery systems for her output, but as works of art themselves, each extending her ongoing examination of substance and disintegration, birth and decay, and beauty and its discontents (books themselves are, of course, inscribed on the palimpsest of dead trees). Taken as a whole, her various projects remind us of the ethics of slaughter and the consumption of meat, of death and the dead body in all its complexity. Humans and nonhumans—we are organic traces, shapes in the dirt that amount to a cosmic equality, a unified species of the dead and dying. Life persists in death even if it persists without you, and yet you remain inscribed in the pattern of things; a smudge, a blemish, an inscription. In other words, an image.
Copies of Heide Hatry’s book projects, Skin (2005), Heads and Tales (2009), Not a Rose
(2012), and Icons in Ash (2017) will be available throughout the exhibition. She will give an artist’s talk on June 8th at 7pm. The event will include the collaboration of poets, musicians, artists, and writers, Jane LeCroy, Christine Isherwood, Naief Yehya, and Addison Parks (in memoriam).
J.W. MCCORMACK’s work has appeared in Bookforum, the New Inquiry, Tin House, N1FR, Publishers Weekly, and Conjunctions, where he is a senior editor. He currently teaches at Columbia University.