By Gary Lain
All rights reserved.
A young man with long, dark hair enters a supermarket.
It is 1971. Older-model American cars, with a few European imports, fill the parking lot. A jet flies high overhead, soundlessly, its white contrail stark against the hard, blue sky.
The young man prowls the supermarket aisles, passing the arrayed products— Alpo dog food, Crest toothpaste, Tide detergent. He notes their spatial arrangements, geometries and colors. He reads them as markers of the commodity culture.
Circling back towards the store front, he sees a young woman at a pay phone near the entrance.
It is 1971. People send each other letters, cards, photographs via the US Mail service. While on vacation they send postcards from Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge. (Alcatraz Island has not yet become a state park and popular tourist destination. The abandoned prison complex, where imprisoned mobster Al Capone was stabbed by another inmate, is occupied by activists of the American Indian Movement.)
The young man passes down the frozen-food aisles, the corn and peas, popsicles, Tater Tots and orange juice behind frosted glass. He thinks of the ICBMs targeting Havana, Hanoi, Moscow, perched on super-chilled columns of rocket propellant.
He arrives at the meat counter, chicken and lamb chops, bacon and hamburger in refrigerated bins. He picks up a sirloin steak and stuffs it beneath his shirt.
The young man leaves the supermarket. He is photographed from outside of the glass door exit, eyes cast down, fluorescent lights reflected on the glass.
This is the first photograph in the sequence.
He walks to his car, drives home. In his garage he drops the steak into a chest freezer with the meat from previous forays.
The young man is engaged in conceptual art. Conceptual art is non-material, privileging idea over object. It is egalitarian, the low cost of materials requiring no government or corporate sponsorship. And because it is process-oriented, conceptual art resists commodification.
So shoplifting meat is art? Given the right context, yes.
Why meat? The meat invokes its means of production, which is wasteful, inefficient, environmentally unsustainable. The slaughter and butchery of the cattle is barbaric, and is performed by non-union, poorly paid labor, often by non-doc- umented workers under harsh conditions.
When not working, the young artist goes to exhibitions (he sees David Cort’s Mayday Realtime, an unmediated video recording of an anti-Vietnam War demonstration), reads, goes to the movies.
After several weeks of expropriating steaks, he defrosts them on the kitchen counter of his North Hollywood apartment. Friends come by, someone brings a jug of red wine, a joint is smoked.
The artist is photographed from the wrist down, clutching a steak in his right hand—the image describes an overdetermined sense of aggression. This is the second photo in the sequence.
At rush hour, he takes the steaks to the Hollywood Freeway, tossing them beneath the wheels of the oncoming cars and trucks. During a long gap in the traffic he runs onto the roadway to stand over a pummeled slab of meat. He is photographed crouching with left knee bent, thigh parallel to the road, left hand resting on his knee, his right hand clenched along second finger joints, a grimace on his face with eyes closed, as if a shout has been arrested. This is the third pho- tograph in the sequence.
The fourth and final photograph is of oncoming traffic. A barren California hillside borders the background on the right-hand side. A semi-truck is cropped along the left front edge. Right and center of the image, a Chevrolet Impala rushes towards the viewer—two men occupy the passenger and driver’s seats, perhaps the artist and an accomplice making their escape. The sky behind them is gray, flat, empty.
*Note: this text is based on an actual 1971 “performance,” Meat Theft/Disposal Piece, by the artist Alan Sekula.
Gary Lain lives in San Diego, California with his wife and two young sons. He has published fiction, reviews, and essays in Fiction International, The Journal of Experimental Fiction, Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Texas Review, American Book Review, Belphegor, Crash Test, City Works, and online at Locus Novus, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Sixteenth Letter.
This story is included in Issue #45: About Seeing. Copyright © 2012 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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