By Richard Gehr
Published April 25, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

It's easy to understand artist Sue Coe's aversion to meat. Raised next door to a Liverpool slaughterhouse, she consumed cold lard sandwiches for breakfast and recited mind-numbing Bible passages in school, eventually escaping into the "malignant fantasy world" of her art. "Dead Meat" documents with paintings, drawings and notes the six years Coe spent surreptitiously researching slaughterhouses in pursuit of what has become forbidden knowledge: the grisly details of the process by which some six billion warm-blooded creatures find their way onto American plates each year.

"The Bible," begins Alexander Cockburn's beefy introductory essay, "is a meat-eater's manifesto." Cockburn blames Cartesian thought and manifest destiny for the swift transformation of the teeming wildlife ecologies -- from California to the Amazon region -- into denuded cattle pastures. Industrial capitalism's frenzied animal slaughter had a strong impact on the world's most famous vegetarian, Adolph Hitler: "For the Nazis their death camps were, in a way, romanticism's revenge for the abattoirs and the hogsqueal of the universe as echoing from the Union Stockyards of Chicago." Cockburn is less empurpled when describing the substantial influence wielded by the hog and chicken industries on contemporary American politics.

Coe's bleak art -- ranging from heart-wrenching portraits of "downed" animals, swinging carcasses and faceless workers, to satirically symbolic paintings in the tradition of Hogarth -- lacks the visceral impact of, for example, George Franju's brutal 1949 documentary about a Paris abattoir, "Le Sang des Bjtes." On the other hand, her gut-wrenching eyewitness descriptions of the torturous storage and transport, slaughter, dismemberment and disposal of animals -- live chicks plowed into the ground as fertilizer! -- justifies her characterization of the process as nothing more nor less than the decimation of a life form. Only mad cows and Englishmen could persist in gorging themselves mindlessly on dead mammals after viewing this particular death industry through Coe's infuriated eyes.

Richard Gehr

Richard Gehr has been writing about music, books, film, television, and other aspects of popular culture for more than two decades. He has contributed to several books and written for Rolling Stone, Vibe, O, the New York Times Book Review, and Spin.

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