Pig-Part Art in 'Heads'

Artist Heide Hatry channels Victor Frankenstein as she stitches together pieces of pigskin to make female figures. And like Frankenstein’s monster, the masquerade of life she creates never takes on fully human form, instead leaving the viewer in shock and disgust. Hatry’s current exhibition, “Heads and Tales,” is on display at the Pierre Menard Gallery at 10 Arrow Street until March 17. Hatry fashions each of her figures out of untreated pig meat, skin, and eyes. She then dresses and paints them with makeup before modeling them for photography. Video footage of this process streams on the back wall of the gallery. In one section of the film, Hatry cuts out pig eyes; in another, the artist rolls cleaned skins and stacks them into a box. Time-lapsed and silent, Hatry’s movements are industrial and determined, as if the hands on the screen stripping meat belonged to a taxidermist rather than to an artist. Hatry’s work may take its roots in dead flesh, but in her display, the skin is endowed with a kind of life. Each figure is accompanied by a biographical narrative, written by a contemporary female author and inspired by the portrait. Text and image hang side by side like open pages of a book, imbuing the silent figures with history. Meet “Mistress Victoria Chi,” a dominatrix who leaves her S&M dungeon after she falls for a client mid-whip. She shies from the camera, her black hair brushed over one eye. By her side, “Violette Nozieres” stares wistfully at the ground. Her head is decorated with a black satin band, her face delicately concealed by a piece of lace. The accompanying biography explains Violette’s tragic life: raped by her father in her teens, she was sentenced to death for killing him several years later. Violette’s tale is not alone in its violence—mistrust and anger, rape, and bodily destruction inundate the stories displayed. Even the presentation of the text itself is challenging. Words, set in uniform lines, cram the frame. As the viewer reads the narratives, he must fight to distinguish the story from his own reflection in the gleaming glass. To create further discomfort, Hatry graces the gallery with a pig flesh example of a sculpted bust. The bust lies on a butcher’s table, attached to stuffed clothing to give it the appearance of belonging to a full body. Just as mascara and blush color the photographed figures, traces of makeup tint the greening putrid flesh. Black boots, peeking out from under the sheet, sparkle like the Wicked Witch’s red footwear in the “The Wizard of Oz.” The smell of rot and formaldehyde permeates the entire gallery. But repulsion alone does not drive Hatry’s art. In a statement about her work, she compares sculpting animal parts for her images with a photographer’s preparation of a model for a photo shoot. The resulting portraits are eerily similar. The taut expressions of the pig-skin figures are reminiscent of faces fastened by Botox injections; the flesh-strip lips pucker like mouths making kissing motions at the camera. One portrait, “Crazy Broad,” which features a figure dressed in a fur coat and paparazzi-shielding glasses, could almost have come out of the pages of “US Weekly”—were it not betrayed by the flat stare of pig eyes. By crafting these physical representations of women and then invoking their back stories, Hatry suggests that when a woman surrenders agency over her body, she relinquishes agency over her life. Pig flesh complicates the idea: no amount of makeup will turn “Victoria” or “Violette” into an attractive woman; no back story, however touching, will prevent the skin’s inevitable decay. Maybe Hatry is using Babe’s cousins to say that it’s useless to be a babe. Or maybe she just likes pig. —Staff writer Madeleine M. Schwartz can be reached at mschwart@fas.harvard.edu.

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