Written Response: Not yet Earth: The work of Madeline MacKay

Not Yet Earth: The work of Madeline MacKay
By Kelly Campbell, 2018

While I live, my body is flesh. When I die, it will be meat. My consciousness will cease to exist, but my corpse will persist. It will be buried in a box in the ground. The chemical bonds that hold the organic materials of my meat together will be broken down, their energy released and repurposed to suit the needs of whatever living thing consumes my remains. Just as I digested the meat of countless plants and animals to fuel my earthly vessel while I was alive, my carcass will pass through and become part of thousands of bugs, bacteria, and plants, until it is unrecognizable as what it once was. It will become part of the environment; traces of me will be spread throughout the soil, the air, the grass. I will no longer be a single entity, but a small piece of everything. I will be the earth, and the earth will be me.

While poetically compelling, the process of rot and decomposition is often viscerally disgusting in practice. A dead body is sad. A decomposing body is repulsive. Why?

Troubling the line between what is self and what is not in the context of the body creates disgust. For example: on your head, your hair is beautiful, luscious, and thick. You toss it from side to side as though you are in a shampoo commercial. Enjoy this moment, puny human, for several weeks later, balled up in the drain, removed from and perversed of its original context, it is revolting. That you used to find it so appealing makes its present state all the more vile. Look at what it has become! Look at what you have become.

I am watching a video. A thin person with long brown hair, wearing a white t-shirt and underwear, arranges irregular strips of a stringy grey material in a muddy puddle. The video is titled Meat Drawing. Without this titular designation, I doubt I would recognize the pale flesh in the artist’s fingers as such. 

The creator of and performer in this work, Madeline Mackay, doesn’t think of meat as food – she’s a lifelong vegetarian. I’m not. Is this why I find the video so difficult to watch? I rarely look at meat this long even – especially – when I’m eating it. Raised on fish sticks and chicken nuggets, I prefer my meat pre-butchered, shredded, dyed, and pressed into familiar shapes and textures. The wet crunches of tendons between my teeth and the jiggling wetness of fat on a bone makes me lose my appetite. I didn’t grow up thinking of meat as dead creatures and I don’t like to be reminded.

While it is true the meat we see comes from an animal intended for human consumption – the sinew, fat, and skin in Not Yet Earth‘s video and print works were pulled from a butcher’s trash and cut into strips by the artist – to fully understand the discomfort and impact of the work we must look further than meat’s relationship to food. Juxtaposed with the artist’s living body and a muddy pool, the meat shreds are forced into relationship with both. Recognizable as an indistinct part of an animal body, but not yet unrecognizable enough to be part of the earth, the flesh exists in a transitory state.

The artist was compelled to create this work after contracting a flesh eating disease wherein her immune system attacked her own blood platelets. In reference to her illness, she states, “I have never been more aware that my flesh has an existence that is independent of mine.” Sickness, much like gore and guts, has a way of forcing one to recognize the disconnect between a sense of self and the bodily vessel within which it is carried. The body and the mind become two distinct parts of the self, one over which we might have dominion and another over which we do not. Mackay’s artistic investigation into dead meat manipulates this unique substance in an effort to regain control and understanding of the materials of which she is made. Through observing this work, we gain a new understanding of self – what we are made of, where what we are made of ends, and what happens when what we are made of is no longer us, but not yet something else.

Kelly Campbell is an artist, musician, and songwriter. Their artistic interests include labour, gender, colour, craft, disposability, horror, fantasy, and cute pictures of animals. Find them on the internet @kellygrub.

Kelly grew up in so-called Nova Scotia, territory of the Mi’kmaq people, and currently resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which sits on land lived on, travelled over, and protected by Anishinaabe, Néhiyaw, Dakota, Dené, and Métis people long before Kelly or any of their ancestors knew it existed.

Martha Street Studio gratefully acknowledges the Canada Council for the Arts, the Manitoba Arts Council and Winnipeg Arts Council for their dedicated support of our professional programming.

July 9, 2019