May 2, 2017
What constitutes art? As it relates to cattle – and specifically how they are slaughtered so we can eat – has been a media focus in Tasmania lately. The fellows in the photo are some of the lucky ones. They are essentially a neighbour’s pets and as such will be able to chew the cud and live out the term of their natural life.
But even they were undoubtedly rescued from a one-way trip to the abattoir, the inevitable fate of countless young steers across the country, and almost certainly the fate that recently befell the youngsters on another property close by. We always know when this forced separation occurs because of the noisy grief and distress that is expressed by their mothers. It’s a heart-rending and unrelenting lament that can last up to 48 hours non-stop. Anyone who doubts animals are incapable of feeling emotion, would surely change their minds after hearing these stricken mothers who are obliged to suffer this forced separation from their offspring every year.
But the question that is exercising the minds and sensibilities of so many Tasmanians of late, is the inclusion in the forthcoming Museum of Old and New Art’s (MONA) Dark Mofo program of: “a performance ritual involving a dead bull, its entrails and 500 litres of blood”, by the artist Hermann Nitsch.
Butchering a bull in public is unquestionably a confronting and controversial artistic concept – so it’s not surprising the event has unleashed a torrent of outrage, and a petition calling for it to be cancelled. Arguably this is exactly the response the artist wants. Certainly it’s got people thinking a bit more closely about where their meat comes from, and how exactly animals are killed, and then sliced up, jointed, carved, chopped and packed into the plastic-wrapped trays that line supermarket shelves. Put like that it should make one think.
According to an editorial in The Mercury (21/04/2017) Nitsch sees himself as: “ ‘an animal protector’ who hates factory farming and feels he is actually on the same team as the animal activists who protest his actions.”
For the record I don’t eat red meat; I stopped eating it several decades ago. I won’t be going to see this performance either – assuming it does ultimately go ahead in June. As for it being art, well it’s not my idea of art certainly, but throughout the centuries artists – be they painters, sculptors, musicians, or writers – have pushed boundaries, caused a sensation, challenged the way we see the world, and held up mirrors to societies of the day. There’s no denying this chap has been spectacularly successful in prompting the Tasmanian community to reflect on the issue of meat and how it’s produced.