A new exhibition fleshes out man’s relationship with meat

GERMANS’ love of meat is well-known. The country has one of the highest per capita meat-consumption figures in the world, with the average citizen chomping down . In Berlin there’s a museum dedicated solely to the Currywurst, the classic sausage dish served everywhere in the Hauptstadt on crimped paper plates. Human-sized, grinning sausage mascots can be spotted all over the city outside fast-food stands. Many in Germany consider eating meat, and pork in particular, a key part of national identity. Election posters for Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right party, featured a piglet and an Islamophobic slogan, promoting prejudice against Muslims’ culinary rules.  

The complicated significance of fleisch for Germans is contained in the word itself. Meaning both “meat” and “flesh”, the term designates human bodily matter as well as what goes on a plate. It is these tangled connotations that a new exhibition at the Altes Museum digs into, utilising the breadth of the State Museum’s historical and ethnographical collections to dissect the obsession with bodily tissue. It takes a cross-cultural approach, organised around themes of “Food”, “Cult” and “Body”. The 70-odd artefacts on display span Chinese tablets from the 2nd century BC to contemporary American performance art and a “Percy Pig” cuddly toy made this year. 

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It is only recently that Western consumers have become separated from the meat they eat. Photos from the 1970s show “meat carriers” walking down a Berlin street with hacked-open carcasses hanging around their necks like travel pillows. A huge butcher’s hook from 1600 hangs solemnly in a glass case as a reminder that this grisly, wrought-iron object is how dead flesh has been stored for much of human history: it makes today’s supermarkets, with their packaged sausages and frozen lamb chops, look bloodlessly sanitised by contrast. This change in the visibility of animal slaughter informs Christian Jankowski’s humorous work “The Hunt” from 1992, in which the performance artist took a bow and arrow into a supermarket to “hunt down” his weekly shop. A frozen chicken, toilet paper and margarine all get pinged with Mr Jankowski’s arrows, but his hunter-gatherer approach only takes him as far as the till, where the cashier patiently puts through each of his pierced purchases.

As well as considering attitudes to the meat industry, the exhibition also looks at what is done with meat once it is on plates. Abisag Tüllmann, a German photographer, created a series of photographs entitled “Wurst Essen” (“Eating Sausage”). They show, as if in a how-to guide, the four stages of the process from holding the ketchup-dipped pork package to the crumpled napkin on the paper plate at the end. Here cultures unsurprisingly differ. Also on show is a delicate wooden meat fork from the 19th century used by high-ranking dignitaries on what is now Fiji to eat cooked animal meat (as well as, disturbingly, the flesh of their killed enemies). They were not allowed to touch meat with their bare hands. 

The exhibition ranges beyond food to explore other pleasures of the flesh, as in a collection of Roman phallus pendants. Two statues both in gold—a Venus or Fortuna from the mid-16th century and a “muscleman” from the 18th—are juxtaposed. The male is sinewy and defined; the woman buxom and rounded. The dichotomy is a reminder of the sexual attraction of flesh as well as the need for nutrition, for filling flesh out. 

And while the “right” kind of naked flesh can be a sexual turn-on, it can also be a reminder of human decay. A wooden engraving of Death from the 16th century shows the figure grasping at a young woman, nude except for her jewels: his skeletal frame seeks out her feminine youth. It is a symbol that has cross-cultural appeal. A small, pre-Columbian clay sculpture from Peru depicts a woman masturbating the figure of Death, his hand reaching for her mouth. Even when it belongs to the very symbol of decay, flesh is portrayed as craving life, youth and fertility. The exhibition takes the visitor full circle here, from dead animal meat being consumed by humans for nourishment to their own flesh being consumed by the insatiable, finalising forces of death. 

There is an odd little idiom in German that reads: “Everything has an end, apart from the sausage, which has two”. This exhibition, which makes strong, sinewy links between concepts, takes the viewer from one end of that little flesh-filled package to the other.