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June 1996
An Unforgiving, Compassionate Eye

Book Review by Cat Clyne



Pictures and text used by permission of Four Walls Eight Windows.An Unforgiving Compassionate Eye

Sheep bleat after their throats are cut. They writhe. Every part of my being says to stop it, save them, which is impossible. I think of "art" and how I am going to draw it all. Will anything change when people see? This "art" thought comes so quickly after the failed rescue thought, as an attempt to comfort myself, like the idea of the "spirit" of the animal going on to another place. I feel sick and my legs are shaking.

The downer is too heavy to get up. She cries as a chain is attached to her leg, and a winch drags her along the ground to a truck. I can see her skin rubbing off, and her bones grinding into the pavement. I can see the white of exposed bone and blood. She can’t lift her head up, so her head, ear, and eye start to tear on the stone. I watch the man operating the winch, and he looks impatient. I start to think of school songs, so my eyes still see but my brain is occupied...As she reaches the truck, the cow rolls over, exposing her udders, which are full of milk. This is the total degradation of a life.

Dead Meat by Sue Coe (Four Walls Eight Windows) 192 pages. $22.00 paperback; $45 cloth. Black and white and color illustrations throughout.
Dead Meat is a record of the blood, sweat and tears that artist Sue Coe experienced and witnessed over the past decade. Coe took it upon herself to embark upon a project where she gained access to slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants throughout North America and her native England, drawing and writing down what she saw, heard and experienced. Back in the studio, Coe blended together her drawings and notes to produce intense, horrific and stunningly moving images of factory farming reality. Dead Meat incorporates reproductions of this artwork interspersed almost randomly with narratives written by the artist. The treasure of Dead Meat, perhaps, is the reproductions of selected pages from Coe’s actual journals, where one has a rare look at the mind and perspective of the artist. Coe, currently a resident of New York, has been a regular contributor of politically conscious illustrations to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and The Nation. In 1994 she had major solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and at Galerie St. Etienne in New York City.

Although much of the art in Dead Meat is in dark tones of black, brown, gray and white, with shocks of bloody red, there is no easy black and white. The theme throughout is complexity. To be sure, Coe’s art reflects the immense suffering of the animals — cows, horses, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens — and their fate as animals destined for slaughter: the fear, the misery, the sheer horror. But also addressed is the pain of the humans involved, their faces — sad, tired, frustrated, and angry. Confronted by such painful images, one is drawn to wonder: why do we do this to each other? What does this do to the doer? And what has brought us all to this point? In a most subtle way, Coe’s images beckon the viewer to always keep in mind the challenging question of the responsibility of society as a whole for the horror recorded.

Let’s take as an example the piece "Debeaking."

In a dark room, a man crouches at a long table over a weird machine. On the floor to his left is a wire garbage basket filled with white fluffy chicks, their black eyes opened wide. On his right is a garbage basket with a few chicks with red splotches on their faces. A single light bulb illuminates his gnarled hands. In his right he holds the head of a chick to the machine which cuts off her beak, her feet tense with pain. In his left he holds poised another chick to immediately follow. On the floor just to his right a little chick stumbles, her head bent while blood gushes to the floor. Little bits of orange beak are scattered about the table in front of the machine and in the man’s lap. In the background sits a radio partially in view (blaring Led Zeppelin, perhaps). Two circular images are superimposed: at the bottom, a close-up of a debeaked chick, her mouth beginning and ending in a bloody stub, her eye half closed in agony; at the top, a portrait of two grown hens, with mutilated snouts, their eyes gleaming wild and angry.

This scene is horrible enough for the hens, but on closer inspection, the viewer is drawn to reflect on the man. He’s a large dark figure, his humped back to us. All we see of his face is a closed, tired eye. The rest is obscured by a hulking shoulder and baseball cap. We begin to wonder how it feels to do that all day long — crouched over a machine, grabbing helpless baby birds and crunching off their beaks? Even the loudest music could not drown out the misery.

Coe is an important artist because in her art there is a sense of urgency, almost desperation, that something very real is at stake here. She is a prophet trying to "wake us up." "My quest — to be a witness to understanding collusion — has become like a mirror facing a mirror," she explains. "I require witnesses. Reality has to be shared for it to be understood. Yet it is a contradiction: to witness what is concealed forces one into more isolation and solitude." What is at stake in Dead Meat is not only the very lives of the animals, but also our naiveté. By revealing the daily horror that goes on behind the forbidding walls of stockyards and slaughterhouses, Coe’s art bears witness to the unseen, the unheard — making it finally known. The images give voice to the voiceless, thus ripping away the fragile levels of denial that we as a society operate under. The art itself bears witness to the travesty that is the entire business of meat, suddenly making us responsible for an everyday "norm" in our society — factory farming. But we are dissociated from the very source of food. Through neat little packages in supermarkets and an enormous meat and dairy industry that understands the power of silence, all the animals are removed from sight and sound, rendered invisible.

Coe’s work recalls the best of the German Expressionists, in her social and political awareness. The expressions on the faces of the slaughterhouse and stockyard workers evoke the twisted figures in the works of George Grosz and Otto Dix. In Coe’s "Electrocution," a man looks up, caught in the act of electrocution, while holding two prongs to the base of the neck of a pig lying helpless on the floor. The man’s face is contorted, eyes stressed, mouth agape in a confused frown. His expression reflects, all at once, guilt, horror and confusion. One can almost hear him groaning. Another man leans away from the action, suggesting an accomplice to murder. But then, of course, that is exactly what it is: murder.

More important, perhaps, is the resonance in Coe’s art of Käthe Kollwitz. Coe seems to have had a sort of laying-on-of-hands from Kollwitz in more ways than one. In the exhibition "Sue Coe’s Ship of Fools" at Galerie St. Etienne last month, there was a series of drawings of Coe’s dying mother. Like the exquisite charcoal drawings by Kollwitz in "The Last 11 Days" series, Coe’s paper seems to emerge out of the dying hands which at the same time embody the grief of the artist bearing witness to her mother’s death.

The joy of the exhibition is that it reflected the growth of the artist, something Dead Meat fails to attempt, even though it reflects a decade of work. Coe’s early works portrayed a simplistic Marxist black and white polemic of good and evil. Over the years, her art has shown a depth and complexity, reflecting broader social issues. Again, like Kollwitz, Coe uses primarily black and white tones to convey simple images. But it is within this apparent simplicity that the force of the art lies.

"Goat Outside Slaughterhouse" portrays the side profile of a young black goat. Her mouth is turned down in a barely perceptible frown, her brown eye stares out sadly, nervously. A tag with the number 698 is neatly attached by a hole punched through her ear, like a piece of merchandise in a store. It is not the number that makes her so precious and unique; it is her life. This piece invites the viewer to feel the utter hopelessness of the goat’s situation, the realization that she is a piece of merchandise.

The shocking images of butchers killing animals with knives and guns, and distorted bleeding bodies hanging on hooks over an assembly line brings to Coe’s mind images of the Holocaust. Coe addresses her ambivalence about the use of this reference. "Is this the comforting measuring rod by which all horrors are evaluated?" she asks. "My annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that the suffering I am witnessing now cannot exist on its own. It has to fall into the hierarchy of a ‘lesser animal suffering.’ " She contends that millions of murdered humans "deserve to be more than a reference point," and admits, "I am annoyed that I don’t have more power in communicating what I’ve seen apart from stuttering: ‘It’s like the Holocaust.’ "

The Holocaust is a very important reference, when used carefully and with great sensitivity. It is a reference which can succinctly bring Coe’s narrative full circle.

Coe begins the book’s narration by describing her childhood living near a pig slaughterhouse. "As a child, I thought they would slaughter all the pigs they had, then stop. I didn’t understand the regularity of it." The power of the Holocaust as a reference is the undeniable horror it invokes in people. However, regarding factory farm animals, the reality of the nightmare lies in the fact that the difference between factory farming and the Holocaust is that one is a perpetually sustained industry of mass murder and the other was the planned genocide of a people with the end result being the "final solution." When the "boss" of a meatpacking company in New Jersey recollects an accident in which a truck flipped over, killing 250 goats and sheep, he moans "All that money...lost." But he smiles and says, "they still keep coming...How can there be so many?" This is precisely the crux of the horror: they do keep coming with banal regularity, to feed an insatiable appetite. There is no final solution, no end.

It is perhaps ironic that an essay by journalist Alexander Cockburn follows a preface to Dead Meat written by renowned animal advocate Tom Regan, where we are invited to take responsibility for the suffering of animals by abstaining from meat. In his essay, Cockburn fires through an eclectic history of the destruction of the environment of the Americas by greedy capitalist Europeans; contends that humans are "essentially vegetarian as a species;" and makes weak connections in a recounting of animal advocacy during the Nazi regime. Cockburn wraps things up on a "personal note" by admitting that he eats meat and giving a genealogy of the corpses he has recently consumed, naming them and pointing out that they came from a friendly local farm — a flimsy attempt to justify his complicity in the suffering of animals. This essay unfortunately undermines the message of Coe’s book and Regan’s preface which is that meat equals suffering. Cockburn overlooks the fact that the animals he ate were named by humans and would have opted for a gentler fate. Coe’s artwork, however, makes up for the weaknesses of the book. She very well may have intended Cockburn’s essay as a further reflection of complexity.

I recommend Dead Meat as required reading and viewing for vegetarians and meat eaters alike, because it attempts to address very complicated issues. The reasons why non-vegetarians should read it may seem obvious, since it forces the reader to make connections between animals and meat. The reasons why vegetarians should read it may seem less obvious. Dead Meat certainly validates vegetarianism; however, that is not the most important reason. Coe tries very hard to make connections with the people involved in the meat industry. She quotes them, gives them names, faces and personalities. She finds herself concerned for their wellbeing as well as that of the animals. Coe opens the door not only to the beginning of a comprehension of the endless nightmare of factory farming; she also opens the door to vegetarians to develop an understanding of and a sensitivity for the people involved in the meat industry. In this, Coe creates the possibility of dialogue. Only through an attempt at understanding, on both sides, can the situation as a whole be bettered.

Cat Clyne is a long-time vegetarian and animal advocate. She lives in Manhattan with her feline companion, Leon.


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