There are two of Hirst’s “tank” series that seems to hover closer to true abjection, as the works stimulate more disgust through the use of live animals and sensory information beyond sight. Most of Hirst’s works functions primarily on the sense of vision, they, like most works of art created in our scopophilic world, are designed foremost to be seen. Yes, one could touch the glass, and there maybe the faint smell of chemicals or death, like that found in natural history museums, but the works are primarily oriented towards vision. However, his works A Thousand Years and Let’s Eat Outdoors Today both function differently that the other “tank” works because of their use of the senses and through their reliance on tactile empathy. A Thousand Years is a tank work, however, rather than being filled with dead animals and preservative fluids, the tank holds live flies, a decapitated cows head, and a bug zapper. A time dependent piece, the work features the life cycle of the flies as they eat the cow’s head slowly defleshing it, lay their eggs in it, which become maggots and eventually new flies, and then eventually fly into the bug zapper, where they themselves die and drop to the floor with the cows head. The work becomes a type of vulgar closed ecosystem, where the rotting flesh gives birth to new life. Let’s Eat Outdoors Today is another tank, this one set for a picnic with chairs, table, and foodstuffs, but also overwhelmed by flies that have hatched from maggots that were originally contained within a steel barbecue in the tank, a clear reference to the disgust attached to food stuffs past their prime.
The first sense beyond sight that both of these works engage in, and is particularly tied to the abject, is taste and eating. Kristeva notes that some of our earliest experiences with abjection have to do with food prohibitions. She famously linked the spitting out of slightly soured milk that is offered by our parents to the spitting out of, or formation of, our own egos. The works strongly reference food, both in the cow’s head and the picnic stuffs, but also in the flies and maggots who are consuming in from of our eyes, it implicates our sense of taste. The works present a scene that if encountered in another space, might call for the heaving of our guts to try and expel the fictional ingestion that has occurred when we see disgusting things like rotted food and carcasses. The strong link between carcasses and food, a fact we ignore and push away to maintain our clean and proper selves, is made explicit here.
We eat dead things to stay alive; things that, even if chilled and kept “safe”, have begun to decompose. The eating of dead things seems as if it would violate a number of taboos surrounding both death and food. However, since it has for most of human history been necessary to consume dead animals to stay alive, we have found ways of coping with this paradox. We cope by turning the dead animal into chunks of flesh that do not resemble the former being they constituted. Or by preserving meat in a number of ways that both literally and figuratively and literally preserves the meat (smoking something into jerky both literally preserves it and also distances it visually and tactilely from the animal it once was). Even the packaging of meat in clean, often white, plastics that give the flesh the appearance of having always been hermetically sealed, helps to distance it from it’s messy origins in the farm yard and its time in the butchers. However, these dead things remind us not only of our own eventually demise, but that our life is predicated on the demise of many other beings, from the animals we eat to the bugs we squash to maintain our comfort. Moreover, we actually enjoy the deaths of other creatures, or at least find them productive, because their demise gives us the opportunity to contemplate and reject death, a process that re-establishes and firms up the borders of our own egos.
For a cultural and feminist analysis of meat, see Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat.