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; knuckles and feces 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.
As the artist says, “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.”
Initially, 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 — as Gelder said, they are still-life photographs. 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.
—Alex van Gelder, Hauser & Wirth Gallery
Editor’s Note: This series was shown as part of an exhibition at the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in London.