Meat-dress sculptor wins Governor General's art award

Jana Sterbak, the Montreal sculptor and performance artist best known for her controversial meat dress, is among the artists to be honoured with a 2012 Governor General's Award in visual and media arts.

Canadians honoured in visual and media arts field

Jana Sterbak, the Montreal sculptor and performance artist best known for her controversial meat dress, is among the visual artists to be honoured with 2012 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

Sterbak’s sculptures created from raw flank steak, including Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, caused a stir when they were exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in 1991.

The Canada Council for the Arts announced the eight newest winners of Governor General's Awards on Tuesday in Toronto. Each will receive a $25,000 cash prize and a special medallion created by the Royal Canadian Mint.

The visual and media arts winners are:

  • Margaret Dragu, Vancouver: A former dancer who captivates audiences at galleries and museums with works that reflect on feminism and the environment.
  • Geoffrey James, Toronto: A photographer known for his images of parks and gardens, who also has created essays on subjects such as the asbestos-mining landscape of Quebec and the urban landscapes of Toronto and Paris.
  • Ron Martin, Toronto: An abstract painter who represented Canada at the Venice Art Biennale in 1978.
  • Jan Peacock, Halifax: A video artist who explores a combination of narrative and performed actions in her videos and installations. She also teaches at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
  • Royden Rabinowitch, Waterloo, Ont.: A sculptor who also works in Ghent, Belgium, and Cambridge, England. His sculptures reflect his thinking on modern physics and ontology, a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being.
  • Jana Sterbak, Montreal: An internationally known sculptor, video and performance artist who explores the human form and sexuality in her works.

Also honoured on Tuesday:

  • Charles Lewton-Brain, Calgary, Alta.: An artist, goldsmith and educator at the Alberta College of Art and Design who has invented new techniques for jewelry-making and written extensively about pushing metalwork to its limit was handed the Saidye Bronfman Award for crafts.
  • Diana Nemiroff, former curator at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and now director of the Carleton University Art Gallery, for her "outstanding contribution" to the visual arts. The honour is awarded annually.
Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, by Jana Sterbak, is displayed in Paris in 2011. Sterbak is one of the 2012 winners of the Governor General's Award for visual and media art. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty )

Nemiroff was the curator who chose to display Sterbak's work at the National Gallery in 1991. The work had drawn very little attention when it was first displayed in 1987 in Montreal, but the National Gallery exhibit appeared during a recession when it drew criticism as a waste of food.

The controversy over the dress included objections from prominent MPs and also sparked an Ottawa city councillor to order a health inspection.

The Sun newspapers printed a cartoon image of the dress and suggested readers cut out the image, smear it with foodstuffs, and mail it to Nemiroff, resulting in weeks of letters to the gallery containing rotting material.

Art is meant to push limits, Sterbak said Tuesday after receiving her award.

"I think all successful artwork has that element, although none of us set out to do this. We don't view our role as such, but I can say that all successful work questions the adopted norms. This is the role of art," she told CBC News.

Spending on the arts

"In reference to Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, the controversy was generated not so much by the work itself, which had been shown a number of times prior to the controversy. It was directed more by spending on the arts and this is a recurrent event in our culture and every culture."

Nemiroff defended Sterbak’s work as a darkly absurd take on sexuality and decay. She acknowledged it was a "provocative object," but also noted that other pieces of art use foodstuffs such as grains, bread and potatoes, without creating such an outcry.

Vanitas was acquired in 1993 by the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, Minn., and has recently been shown at the Tate Modern in London and in Paris’s Centre George Pompidou.

Halifax-based Peacock acknowledged the ever-present issue of government support of the arts through the Canada Council, which arises whenever controversial art is mentioned.

"Visual arts are essential. I don't know any culture that could exist without it," she said, dismissing the idea that arts funding should be cut in an economic downturn.

Artists contribute 'meaning'

"People's experiences and memories and day-to-day lives don't go away just because there's a financial crisis. Artists are in the business of focusing on that kind of material and trying to bring some reflection and meaning to the day-to-day and work with things that everybody can identify with," she said.

Dragu said the Governer General’s Award is the first prize she has ever won for her unusual work and "a huge honour." She described her art as rooted in the body.

"My art practice is centred around my body, in part because I started as a dancer and choreographer, and I also think the body is the key to most experience," she said.  

"If I'm making something — a performance or a video — I'm hoping you can experience it in your body in your heart and your brain and in your spirit, in your psyche. I want a full experience."