tofuuday by emily au

Thesis Statement

Of Earth and Flesh
Of Earth and Flesh
plays with the idea of the abject, which is concerned with the disruption of the distinct categories between self and other, of life and death. As Kristeva notes the abject is a threat to the perception of a clean and moral reality, viewers react accordingly to the abject subjects through discomfort. My vessels exist in a space between life and death since unlike real meat, their ceramic nature is permanently imperishable, never given the capability to rot. Through removing meat’s capacity to decompose, my work defies death and asserts itself as unnatural, as abject. Yet, the vessels are not truly part of the living either as they directly mimic something dead: the animal corpse. The flesh my vessels emulate have never known life and yet, they perform as a direct simulation of the butchered animal body. Thus, the vessels Of Earth and Flesh reside in between human concepts of life and death, while simultaneously defying both. They challenge the preconceived notion of the binary of alive and dead, separating themselves from convention, cleanliness and comprehensibility.

Meat and the animal exist as liminal as their bodies go through transitions, first holding life then into cold flesh and into nourishment for human bodies. The nature of raw meat is fleeting as it either gets cooked for human consumption, or must perish and return back to the earth. Thus the state we see meat in, whether at the grocery store or at home, is certainly short-lived. My vessels freeze time, as I never give them the ability to rot or be cooked. Instead, I manipulate the “flesh” in order to immortalize meat and the animaI, creating something with the purpose of being looked upon and adorned. Rather than being slayed for the purpose of eating, I carefully carve and construct my ceramic meat to create vases for the intention to be viewed.

This project blossomed from my own abjection towards raw meat, induced by my lifestyle as someone who follows a primarily plant-based diet. When engaging with Of Earth and Flesh, the audience is given the chance to introspect into how I feel when looking at the dismembered animal body. The feeling I experience when facing slaughtered animal carcasses mirrors seamlessly with Julia Kristeva’s examination of abjection. Kristeva elaborates on the abject by stating, “The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck”. This very repugnance is what I have explored through the creation of these vases and the feeling I get through my inability to disassociate the animal’s body from mine. As the popular diet in the West is carnivorous, it would be safe to assume that most of the population does not feel discomfort while walking through the chilling grocery aisles of meat. Rather, many folk have become desensitized to the abundance of carnage ready for purchase. Yet, when looking at these vessels, one may be able to feel a glimpse of my discomfort, if only for a fleeting moment. The strangeness of the objects brings the consciousness back to recognizing meat’s pre-slaughtered form, and what precisely was lost for consumption. By transforming the gallery space into a symbolic grocery store, I recreate the place where my anxiety fosters. As this meat gets to exist in the gallery: the space becomes the staged and replacement grocery store as the vessels stand-in for traditional cuts of meat in the frigid aisles. Hence, the audience takes my place when viewing the work as they may find themselves uncomfortable upon gazing at the strange and unthinkable objects, mirroring how I feel while looking at raw meat.

Using my vegetarian gaze, The Maple Wood Smoked Bacon Vessel came about as I wondered how the cold flesh at the grocery store would sustain as a vase. Through creating this piece, I became a butcher in my own right, a role I actively oppose in my daily life. Yet, I took pleasure in cutting, tearing, and manipulating the clay as I slowly embraced my new position. However, during construction, there was a contest between the clay and I, as I fought for the strips to defy gravity when all they wanted was to resist my wishes and lazily flounder back onto the table. Although I may have asserted myself as victor, the clay’s efforts are never forgotten as its rebellion is highlighted through its perpetual collapsing posture. Hues of red, pink, amber and brown are appropriated to render the bloodiness of the muscle and fat tissues from bodies not unlike man’s. Additionally, the marbling of fat is associated with value and quality as we unknowingly relate the material of meat to ceramics and fine art. The aesthetic value of meat may be common discourse in the carnivorous world, but is nonetheless vulgar as the beauty of a mutilated carcass is inconceivable and absurd to me. Yet, the shiny, glass-like glaze beautifies the vessels, solidifying them as objects capable of both offence and elegance.  

The material possesses a striking humanness as my fingers have touched and kneaded every inch of the clay. Clay presents itself as a personable material happily responding to every touch, never forgetting the last contact hands laid upon it. Thus, there is a subtle humanness referenced throughout the vessels. Accordingly, the correlation between the chunks of raw flesh I gaze upon at the grocery store and my own human vessel/body is what causes the majority of my discomfort. It becomes impossible to separate myself and thus, humanness, from the slaughtered animals, just like it is inconceivable to remove the humanity of the clay. Furthermore, the clay relates to the body through its origin from the ground. The human and nonhuman bodies’ destiny is to return to the earth through becoming soil, while soil has the ability to be transformed into mud and therefore, clay. Thus creating an infinite resource created through and by the body, flesh and decay. This work consequently finishes the cycle as I turn the clay back into the “flesh”,  immortalizing it as such. 

Clay lends itself to a multitude of parallels to meat. Firstly, clay is precisely referred to as “raw” when in its unfired state, in accordance with meat. Additionally, the clay must be fired, or essentially cooked, in order to be deemed a finished product. The act of “cooking” the material transforms it into something new, carefully referencing the essence of meat. Moreover, clay is a malleable material; its very shape can be manipulated in any means the artist sees fit. Hence, I exist as the butcher of my clay as I cut, tear and mold it through my hands and tools. 

As artist Jana Sterbak thought it would be possible to construct a garment from raw meat, I embarked on depicting my discomfort through ceramic meat objects. Thus, like Sterbak, I manipulate the “meat” in order to create something new out of animal flesh. Of Earth and Flesh is concerned about the objectification of the animal body and life. Through transforming flesh into misshapen vessels, the animal body is exploited as an object meant for human consumption. These unthinkable objects speak to abjection as they blur the boundaries of life and death, flesh and insentientness. Simultaneously, the work challenges human perception of a clear reality and disrupts notions of cleanliness, offering a new category of object which seamlessly blends beauty with the grotesque.



Kristeva, J. (1980) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection 

Daley, W. M. (2017). Revealing the Connections between Life and Art: Ceramic Artist Davis Shaner’s Place in Ceramics History. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.