Cannibalism has never been so fashionable. Or so banal. At the start if the year an enterprising Covent Garden ice-cream parlour went all-out for column inches with a crude, cynical, but ultimately impressively effective PR stunt. In case you missed, Icecreamist’s Baby Gaga was launched as the world’s first mass-market ice-cream to contain real breast milk, farmed from a pregnant human female. For just £14, Londoners were invited to, effectively, lick their way to cannibalism.
Whilst hardcore cannibalism, the act of eating the human flesh of another, is one of humanities most fundamental taboos, so forbidden, in fact that according to Freud, it doesn’t appear in dreams, it is also a key aspect of collective human experience. It has been observed by the earliest anthropologists as playing a key ceremonial role in so-called ‘primitive’ societies. The human infant is nourished by the mother in a cannibalistic relationship with its mother, through the act of breast feeding. The ceremonies of the Christian church revolve around the key issue of transubstantiation, the (literal or metaphorical) body of Christ keeping you (or otherwise) in eternal life. It is everywhere.
Cannibalism is also pure box-office. It gets people through doors and puts bums on seats, talking as it does to the profoundly dark side of the human animal. It forms a key part of the collective imagination and has fuelled works of popular culture as diverse as films from Cannibal Holocaust to Alive. This crowd-pleasing factor is something la Maison Rouge is clearly banking on for its first major show of 2011. As a fairly small independent gallery, staging provocatitive, challenging shows is something it does well, recent shows have included a retrospective of the controversial creator of ‘le happening’ Jean-Jacques Lebel. In such a way, la Maison Rouge is a refreshing a antidote to the Palais de Tokyo, increasingly swamped by corporate sponsorship deals.
Despite sounding media-friendly, the overall premise of Tous Cannibals is actually disappointingly vague, its unifying theme is ostensibly that it illumates a quote from legendary anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss that, “We are all cannibals. After all, the simplest way to identify oneself with the Other is still to eat him.” The show, curated by German art historian Jeanette Zwingenberger seems unable to decide if it is tacking cannibalism (following Lévi-Strauss) from an anthropological or aesthetic perspective, leaving the overall show a little jumbled; it aspires to be both an examination of the role cannibalism has played in our society and how it has been artistically reflected, it ends up being a somewhat gaudy, bloody blur.
Whilst the collection as a whole, then, is underwhelming, there are a number of interesting works that warrant a visit. Notably, Ralf Ziervogel‘s DD, a huge panoramic drawing on paper that shows a huge network of humans fused cannibalistically, sexually and revelling in unrelenting cruelty. Ziervogel’s drawing posts a funny but simultaneously bleak, almost overwhelmingly so, picture of contemporary society that evokes Sade’s 120 Journées de Sodom or Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Hell series.
Alongside the inevitable Jake & Dinos, and the even more so Goya, the childlike quality of much of the art depicting cannibalistic acts is consistently troubling. The contrast between a supposed, primitive innocence and unthinkable (yet ever present) horror being particularly horrifying. As well as Ziervogel, Japanese artist Aida Makoto‘s watercolours Edible Artificial Girls, Jérome Zonder‘s nightmare fusion of childhood and the ‘adult’ perversions of hardcore pornography and torture as well as the suitably-named Sandra Vasquez de la Horra‘s monstrous pencil drawings will lve long in the memory and haunt your 4.30am dreams.
Tous Cannibals isn’t subtle, it is bloody, brash, even crude. To which end it seems appropriate that a focal point of the show is Jana Sterback’s Robe de chair pour albinos anorexique, last seen in the Pompidou Centre in 2009, but most recently evoked in the popular imagination on the haunches of the contemporary queen of the bloody, brash and crude, Lady Gaga as a ‘meat dress’. Has la Maison Rouge provided an insight into the banal contemporary omnipresence of cannibalism or is it propgating that banality? Does the meat dress belong to Sterback or Gaga? One thing is for sure; they missed a trick by not selling the breast-milk ice-cream…