Meat Mirror

Grotesque, Gothic beauty drips from THE WALLS this month, as 'Meat Mirror' - a collaborative effort between Lisa O'Neill and Queensland College of Art Adjunct Professor Jay Younger - animates contemporary debate around the surveillance and regulation of women's bodies by social media.

Meat Mirror, which moves to the Gold Coast this month after premiering at the Brisbane Art and Design Festival, emerges from a set of social conditions unique to our particular moment in human history. As Louise Martin-Chew, who writes the show’s exhibition text, notes, the performance-activated video installation responds in part to a 2018 Four Corners expose of the beauty industry, called ‘Beauty’s New Normal.’ Four Corners, in this instance, had looked especially at the normalisation – and indeed, the increasingly urgent social prescription – of cosmetic surgery in Australia, and this too is Meat Mirror‘s preoccupation. Younger and O’Neill, however, also take up a more particular concern with the place of social media in this dynamic, as well as a longer historical scope which is explored through Meat Mirror‘s aesthetic regime, if not its ‘plot.’ 

O’Neill, whose performance activates Younger’s video work and installation, appears draped in white. Fabric falls from her shoulders, and gathers around her upper legs, in a manner reminiscent of Edwardian and post-WWI women’s dress. Early in the performance, she lifts a flower from the pool in which she performs, and pins it into her hair. Younger has cited, as a reference for the project, MGM’s aqua-musicals – and, especially, their star, Ester Williams. Williams – once an Olympic swimmer, and then a movie star – had a body intensely observed by the public as it moved, then, from something functional to something beautiful; something that needed to be looked at, and that needed to be thought of in aesthetic terms. In O’Neill’s dress – and indeed in her movement, as she swims and dances about in the shallow pool – we’re invited to think about cultures in which the visuality of women’s bodies was their primary feature, beyond the most apparent (because the most current) manifestation of this state of affairs on social media. O’Neill’s performance, like Williams’s, is camp, gaudy, glamorous and saccharine. She is endlessly available to be looked at – by us, but also by herself, as she gazes into her reflection in both the pool and the mirror set behind it. It is recognisably contemporary, and obviously historical. 

But beyond the glamorous, here, there is the grotesque, and even the Gothic. Very quickly, O’Neill’s white outfit becomes not that of the 1940s Hollywood starlet, but something closer to Miss Havisham’s horrific wedding dress, worn in endless mourning, and as a symbol of bitterness and living death. With images of bodies undergoing cosmetic surgery set behind her, O’Neill evokes the deathliness which might attend to our living flesh – or, at least, be constantly nipping at the heels of it – as bodies become simple meat beneath the observer’s gaze and the surgeon’s knife.  O’Neill’s skirt inflates on and on as she performs, too, and the grotesqueness of this is telling: as the body becomes something other than straightforwardly ‘human,’ what kinds of fear and disgust might attach themselves to it? 

The racial exploitation, and histories of subjection, which lurk beneath practices of cosmetic surgery today (most notably, in the Brazilian But Lift, which is Younger and O’Neill’s main concern) is implied, if not directly explored in the work. Most interestingly, the Orientalism which runs beneath and across the surface of early twentieth-century American glamour can be read in O’Neill’s outfit, while the fetishisation of Black bodies to which we can attribute many of today’s popular cosmetic procedures is plain to see in the modifications made to O’Neill’s appearance throughout the performance. 

The work is a collaborative effort not only between O’Neill and Younger, but between a large team of sound and set designers, as well as a pair of emerging practitioners who worked as mentees on the project. This effort has grown out of an earlier collaboration between Younger and O’Neill, L’Amour Fou, which explored experiences of domestic violence through dark humour. It also builds directly on Younger’s ‘aquatic/video work’ against the stream as always, 2017. 

The analysis of social media which Meat Mirror undertakes also operates within Instagram itself, in a final, self-referential component to the work. @meat_mirror, run by the team, sends up the surveilling and sluicing of women’s bodies at the hands of social media within the very platform that the project seeks to critique. Both online and in the gallery, we can here observe ourselves at our most horrific and transfixing, on the edge of a dangerous divinity. 

Meat Mirror
5-20 June 2021
THE WALLS, Gold Coast

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