Malia Jensen, Salty (2011)
From The Porland Mercury:
Elizabeth Leach’s 30th anniversary continues with a continuation of their group show The Shape of the Problem, and sculptor Malia Jensen presents a new video work, Salty, in which she gave a herd of cows a salt lick in the shape of a human breast, and documented the results.
I saw this exhibit at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Porland, OR this weekend. It was part of a larger group show called “The Shape of the Problem II.” Salty was separated in its own space.
Salty is set up to include a photo series, a video, and the actual breast sculptures made of salt. I chose to go around and see the photos first, then the sculptures, and finally watch the video.
The photographs were divided in a series with the following titles: “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Western Scene,” and “High Noon.” Jensen aims to evoke images of Western films and the pioneering imagery of the “Manifest Destiny” era of American history.
The photos depict pastoral scenes that showed the cows grazing. Much like paintings of wild horses, or a herd of buffalo in the Wild West era, the cows had a beauty in their group formations, and in their natural setting. However, this was upset by the appearance of tags on their ears, an obvious imagery of our human dominion.
As found on Wikipedia, salt licks (or mineral licks) are natural formations or deposits of salt and other minerals, which animals consume (or lick) to obtain minerals they need, but may otherwise not have access to with their normal diet.
The sculptures themselves were made of salt, but appeared much more durable, almost marble-like in their smoothness. The sculptures presented were the actual salt licks used in the video, and it is evident by the appearance of dirt on the sides. Some of the breasts were more worn than the others, less defined in the nipple area.
The sculptures seem to refer to Classical Greek sculptures of goddesses, though severed from the rest of the body. Perhaps this is a commentary on the cows themselves, and their common fate of being chopped into a hundred pieces for human consumption. In the video, rather, it is the chopped-off human form which the cows consume.
This commentary via role-reversal is made more evident when one watches the video projection. Unlike the photo series, which bring a sense of pastoral pleasure, the video is disconcerting. It begins with the artist driving up to the herd and placing one of the salt licks on the ground. At first, the cows pay it no mind, but soon become curious. After a few minutes, one of the cows begins to lick the breast, and joined by another cow.
Watching the video gives one an eerie sense of sensuality and disgust. As humans (and more specifically, Americans), we think of the human breasts as serving two purposes: the production of milk for infants, and as a symbol of sexuality. When observing the cows lick the human breasts, both of these purposes are muddled, and what follows is the uncomfortable sense of observing something that one is perhaps not supposed to be seeing. The sound of the cows moaning the the background add to this sense of displacement.
The lopped-off human form used for cow consumption of minerals reverses the current system of human hegemony. We are accustomed to our role as the consumer. Cows serve our purposes. In Jensen’s Salty, we see the opposite: the cows consume us, or a representation of us. A human breast in the wild, repeatedly licked by cows’ tongues.