Civil society – according to French philosopher Georges Bataille, as quoted in American artist Aria Dean’s ICA show – can only be maintained if we ignore the existence of abattoirs. Dean, though, has no intention of ignoring them. In fact, she wants to drag viewers, kicking and screaming, through a slaughterhouse’s blood-slicked walls.
The film at the heart of this exhibition is a CGI tour through a glistening, industrial abattoir. There are no carcasses, no animals waiting for the chop, just gleaming metal hooks and endless wipe-clean surfaces. It’s a machine left idling, waiting to fulfil its ultimate, morbid purpose. Throbs of synth noise bring emotive power to the scene, and then an instrumental cover of Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ eases through the air. It’s all gross and grim, but humorously absurd too.
The accompanying text, which includes a glossary, says the work is premised on the idea that ‘structuralised death’ is a ‘cornerstone of modern life’. Which sounds great, verbose, grandiose: but it’s a point that’s badly evidenced by the work itself, it’s poorly argued and ahistorical. And by trying to relate everything somehow back to all of Foucault, Ford, Nazism, colonialism, slavery, modernity, Hollywood, Le Corbusier and the Napoleonic era, it feels like an attempt to bamboozle viewers into realising that the work’s just not that deep.
Which is a shame, because even though the empty vitrines in the next room are entirely forgettable, the film itself has a charm to it, a funny, twisted goriness that exposes abattoirs as these hidden, dirty societal secrets, places where everyday morality is maintained by a system of stomach-turning violence. But no matter what the endless gallery bumf says, there’s just not much more substance to it than that.