‘African butchers don’t use electric saws as Europeans do but cut up the meat by hand which produces a variety of styles. The slaughterhouse was in the open air and in front of it a small market where they would sell the still warm meat. I worked there on and off for one year producing my Meat Portraits. I consider these portraits still lives.’ – Alex Van Gelder
Hauser & Wirth is presenting Alex Van Gelder’s first exhibition in London. Van Gelder’s Meat Portraits is a series of visceral photographic studies of animal remains from a slaughterhouse in Benin, which upends traditional notions of portraiture. Van Gelder photographs raw meat and entrails, either as he finds it in the marketplace, or after arranging it into contorted compositions, as if staged for a formal portrait. Sinewy ligaments are stretched against planes of taut, semi-transparent flesh, ripped, sagging muscles hang loosely and knuckles and faeces jut and spurt from between incisions in the animals’ skin. Whereas portraiture delves into the soul of the sitter, Van Gelder’s Meat Portraits literally delve inside their subjects, exposing the findings in an unrestrained portrayal of corporeality.
On first encounter, the Meat Portraits revolt and nauseate, but there is a strange beauty underlying their initial impact. Van Gelder is concerned with the transitory state between life and death and, although the series is named Meat Portraits, he considers these still-life works. This distinction highlights that the carnal remains in the Meat Portraits are now lifeless objects as opposed to living organisms. Bloodied and still pink, the redness of these objects acts as a sign of recent life. In this way, the Meat Portraits are reminiscent of the traditional African deathbed portraits that Van Gelder collects, where a photograph of the deceased is placed alongside their bed, around which the family gathers to pose for a photograph in a ritual to commemorate the passing of a loved one.
In ‘Meat Portrait #010’, innards drape sacrificially, bulging and engorged, from a metal shelf set against a rock face. A group of blue-green flies can be seen busily digesting the inanimate shining mass of colours and shapes, another sign of ongoing life amidst decay. Van Gelder’s hulking slabs of meat are unceremoniously pictured on the floor, resting on a scrap of cardboard or a patch of dirty tarmac. In the more deliberate compositions, cracked and dirty basins create a frame for the ambiguous animal parts, with an impervious black surround, like a shroud, echoing the darkness of death.
In a playful turn, within some of the portraits it is possible to discern a human profile or ghoulish face. In others, anatomical clues have been completely removed to create a distilled image. In ‘Meat Portrait #037’ Van Gelder depicts an assortment of offal laid haphazardly in a blood-stained bowl to give the impression of wet cloth, as if it were a basket of clean laundry waiting to be hung out to dry. Other compositions are more figurative and veer towards taxidermy, resembling anatomical studies that might be found in a surreal zoological museum. Equine jaws are prised open and meticulously presented for scientific study – though the cadaver is left unclean, with cavity-ridden teeth and bacteria and rancid debris still collected on its tongue.
Two additional series by Van Gelder will be displayed in this exhibition: Organized Crime and Painted Paint. For the Organized Crime series, Van Gelder has further dismantled animal carcasses. In these works there is an explosive sense of violence and butchery, jaws wrenched out of place and eyeballs askew. The distinct and jarring textures – of muscle, bone, skin, tooth, and fur – create abstract compositions in a cacophony of colour and noise. In Painted Paint, Van Gelder photographs containers full of blood and guts and other remaining slop from the animal’s emptied carcass, calling to mind a pot of paint, the sponge and froth on the surface brimming with potential.
Alex Van Gelder lives and works in Paris. Based in Africa for several years, Van Gelder is a collector of twentieth-century African photography. Works from his collection were exhibited at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland in 2006, and Phaidon published ‘Life & Afterlife in Benin’, a book of the collection, to accompany the exhibition. Van Gelder’s previous artistic projects include a portfolio of 18 photographs of Louise Bourgeois’s hands in the final years of her life, exhibited at Hauser & Wirth Zürich in 2011. At Bourgeois’s invitation, Van Gelder photographed her at her New York townhouse to produce the series. More than purely a portrait project, Bourgeois considered this collaboration to be an extension of her own work. The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, ‘Alex Van Gelder – Louise Bourgeois. ARMED FORCES’, published by Ediciones Polígrafa and Hauser & Wirth.