Two incarnations of "Vanitas: Flesh Dress"
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Two incarnations of "Vanitas: Flesh Dress"

Longtime blog readers may recall a 2006 interview with assistant curator for Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald — who was then the Walker’s new program manager — in which she mentioned modeling a dress made of meat, a work titled Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Anorectic Albino by artist Jana Sterbak.

That artwork, also part of the Walker’s collection, is currently on view in the new exhibition Midnight Party, an occasion that prompted Steinwald to dig up a 1991 article from Montreal’s Gazette that features her in the dress.

Interestingly, the Gazette article concerns objections to Sterbak’s piece based on food waste and hunger. Yet 20 years later at the Walker, despite being in another recession (or arguably just emerging from one), complaints about the work so far have been related to animal cruelty, in addition to the perennial comments about it being gross/disgusting/etc.

Those different objections may actually stem from the two versions of Flesh Dress Sterbak created. The Gazette notes that the meat used for the National Gallery of Canada’s Flesh Dress would decompose and fall off its hanger (Steinwald did not model the dress for the duration of the exhibtion), then be replaced by a new dress every five or six weeks. The Walker’s Flesh Dress is designed for longevity, with cured meat sewn onto a dress form; instead of falling apart, it gradually dries and shrinks (a good thing, since Midnight Party is on view until 2014). One might liken it to picking up the latest “disposable fashion” from H&M or Old Navy versus investing in a couture piece by Chanel or Givenchy.

For Steinwald, the experience was especially memorable, and not just because she donned a meat dress when Lady Gaga was just a preschooler. “The outrage [over Sterbak’s work] hit the papers the same day that Martha Graham’s death was in the papers,” Steinwald remembers. “As a young dancer in training, it was a thrill to have my picture next to hers.”

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