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Art installation critiques the dehumanization of fat people

Via Jezebel.

A Portland Press Herald review, MECA students deftly open door to new horizons, describes it well:

The most impressive, ambitious and unusual work in the show is Rachel Herrick's "Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies." It's a one-room taxidermy-style installation not unlike the "Back to Nature" vignettes that have charmed generations at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

Herrick has a professional hand. Everything in her "Obeast" piece is top-notch, from the phenomenal taxidermy-style, life-size Obeast on her grassy pedestal, to the wall images mapping the evolution of the Obeast from a walrus, to the glossy museum brochure and the slick informational kiosk complete with artifacts and videos. (The "museum's" terrific website is part of the work:

Because the Obeast is an obese young woman, I was mortified when I first saw the installation, because I could have been looking at one the most offensive works of art I had ever seen. I hadn't seen the name and did not know that the artist was a woman. I can't remember the last time my moral sensibilities had been so thoroughly challenged.

Through the photography and the videos, however, it became clear the Obeast is the artist herself -- an obese woman who looks exactly like her self-portraits in the "museum."

Allergic to self-pity, Herrick subtly relates that obese Americans have to deal with people who routinely confuse physical largess with diminished mental capacities. Part of the joke is that Herrick plays no heavy-handed card, and leaves bigots to twist in the wind of ignorance -- never the wiser despite her razor-sharp educational and informational professionalism.

With this work, artist Rachel Herrick seeks to

satirize the social stigma around fatness through the legitimizing tropes of science.

I've got to say, I found the website provocative even though I looked at it already knowing the intention.

Body of Knowledge | Fat Teenagers "Burdened for Life?"

wriggle99 June 2nd, 2011 | Link | I didn't notice until you

I didn't notice until you pointed it out. I wonder whether that's pointing to the hinterland of sex fat women can occupy, due to how much size, unexpectedly, affects what is deemed feminine to many, i.e. petiteness. I'm thinking of 'shorty' widely used in rap/hip hop paralance for woman, for instance.

buttercup's picture
June 2nd, 2011 | Link | Love it

Do check out the website. There's a full rundown on plumage, sexual dimorphism, artifacts, etc. Really amazing. I think it's a brilliant concept that will likely fly over many heads.

chondros June 2nd, 2011 | Link | Er . . . does this sort of

Er . . . does this sort of "satire" really work on anyone who doesn't already share the perspective of the satirist? Are there parallels for this type of work as a way to raise awareness about dehumanization and discrimination? Successful parallels?

sannanina June 2nd, 2011 | Link | Anyone else notice that (in

Anyone else notice that (in the image here) the gender symbol used is the male symbol ( ♂ ) instead of the female symbol ( ♀ ), even though the depicted person is a young woman? Subtle nod to the desexualization of fat women, or just an accident?

From the additional material on the website it becomes pretty clear that it is intentional. The "male" and the "female" are both the artist, the female is her with glasses, the male with bright make up.

richie79's picture
June 2nd, 2011 | Link | Unlike Mark Wentzel's fat

Unlike Mark Wentzel's fat Eames chair, which was clearly intended as topical commentary on the alleged link between obesity and sedentary lifestyles, this is quite ambiguous and as such the message people take from it will vary greatly according to their own viewpoint and preconceptions. The fatphobes who now form the majority of the population will likely delight in the depiction of fat as subhuman, their deeply-held prejudices comfortably reinforced. Some will no-doubt interpret the artist's deliberate use of her own image (as opposed to some headless Corbis fatty) as indicative of the now-obligatory self-loathing all fat people are expected to internalise. Others will see it, as you do, as biting satire. I just hope that 'obeasts' (worryingly similar to 'hambeasts', a common slur in Britain) doesn't join 'diabesity' and 'globesity' in a swelling lexicon of scare neologisms and screaming headlines.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

Viola's picture
June 2nd, 2011 | Link | I'll check it out, even

I'll check it out, even though I'm not so much a fan of satire these days. I feel like either it creates ideas that most people might not have thought have before, and might reject outwardly, but on some level internalize; others might wholeheartedly embrace the images. The photo caption refers to it as self-deprecatory, and this is how I see it. It might exactly encapsulate how I feel about myself, the bitterness I have in hating my body while trying to embrace fat acceptance and the idea I have a right to exist in this body. So seeing it out there, well, it's scary. The longer I live, the more I feel like it's best not to be too personal in expressing pain, because it's so often mocked or dismissed.

strawberry June 2nd, 2011 | Link | Did anybody else find it

Did anybody else find it ironic that the obeast sighters in the videos were frequently out of breath?

wriggle99 June 3rd, 2011 | Link | Viola, The photo caption


The photo caption refers to it as self-deprecatory, and this is how I see it.

I think your whole comment is astute, satire does seem to have lost its bite somewhere along the way. The "self deprecatory" remark especially grabbed me as it always does when it comes up with regards to fat people.

It is virtually impossible not to be "self deprecating" and fat that is all that is allowed us or makes sense to those accepting the mainstream mindset and we all have absorbed it to some degree, fat and thin alike.

We've been trained to be effectively self annhilating so how can that assessment even make sense when there is no contrast of acceptably balanced self respect to be self deprecating about?

vesta44's picture
June 3rd, 2011 | Link | Being of a satirical bent

Being of a satirical bent myself, I got the satire behind what she's doing with her exhibit/website/etc. The thing that bothers me about it is that most fat-phobes who view it will not get it all - it will go right over their heads, and they will use it to reinforce all their nasty stereotypes about fat people. This isn't going to enlighten them or educate them or shut them up - their minds are closed too tightly for that. If even science can't change their minds, how the hell is satire going to do it? And fat people telling those fat-phobes that they just don't get it and are too bigoted to get it isn't going to change anything either.

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

DeeLeigh's picture
June 3rd, 2011 | Link | Vesta, I think that you did

Vesta, I think that you did a great job of articulating what's problematic about it. It's maybe a bit too close to the mark. I can just see the assholes going out on expeditions looking for "Obeasts," taking pictures, posting them on line, etc. On the other hand, it's already happening. Hell, it's being done by professional photographers looking for headless fatties. So in that way, it's illuminating.

wriggle99 June 3rd, 2011 | Link | To be fair Vesta, I'm not

To be fair Vesta, I'm not sure it's the job of an artist to do anything but express their muse, or whatever-I'm missing the art gene I'm afraid.

As far as I can grasp satire is exaggerating things to show up inconsistencies, the things that are felt to be wrong unjust etc.,

From that point of view, this work just doesn't feel satirical, as we are treated as if we are beasts (well, people like to pretend we are) they'd love us to become extinct, that is their dream as they never cease telling us, so that makes this feel more of a sideways look, than anything.

I hate to say it, but fat phobes are far more satirical and dare I say artful, with their endless lurid fantasies about fat people, that regularly surprise and shock, that's the problem any artist has.

And what about your "all day job" invitation for Sharma? Now that's what I call entertainment. Laughing out loud

vesta44's picture
June 3rd, 2011 | Link | wriggle99, I've always seen

wriggle99, I've always seen art as an enlightening, educating type of thing - whether it's literary, textile, painting, sculpture, whatever. All art teaches us about the people/cultures that created it - the way they think, what they value, what they find beauty in, etc. The Obeast presentation certainly says something about our culture, and none of it's positive, at least not from my perspective. I realize that artists need to follow their muse, but when it comes to fat acceptance and art, does following one's muse have to give the haters more ammunition to use against us? It's not like they don't already have enough, why add fuel to the fire? And I would hate to have to extend to the haters the "all day job" invitation that I extended to Sharma - I don't have enough days left in my life for the haters to take on that job, even if I lived for another 50 years (so many haters, so little time).

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

wriggle99 June 4th, 2011 | Link | I realize that artists need

I realize that artists need to follow their muse, but when it comes to fat acceptance and art, does following one's muse have to give the haters more ammunition to use against us?

Exactly, it seems no matter what, people commenting on society's view/s on fatness just clumsily underline what we are told endlessly, when that's merely a trojan horse hiding a whole lot of other things people don't want to say.

What we are told is the least of it.

You'd think artists would be really excited by that sort of thing. But perhaps they just aren't getting it.

That makes US the avant garde! Cool

sweetygrrl June 4th, 2011 | Link | Fortunately, a majority of

Fortunately, a majority of the audience conciously going into a gallery exhibition or engaging in the website will be doing so knowing this is an art instillation, and as such, the piece isn't meant to be taken at face value. Isn't artwork supposed to challenge ideas in a way that is personal to the artist and asks the audience to engage themselves and their thinking in new ways? Despite the possible negative responses, opening up the dialogue and actually confronting the day to day discrimination that the artist faces in such a satirical way, she is "on exhibition" every day when she leaves her house, based on the stereotypes and external perception she already faces, in this way she is acknowleding that fact and taking control of that perception - pointing out it's dehumanizantion in a way she can control and forcing that same audience to see her as a person who is intellegent enough to be well aware of the bias against her. By flipping that control, she is actually mocking the whole base for that bias by creating a very complex and intellegent history of "obeasts" that makes the audience responsible for helping propogate that perception. Isn't it positive to take the daily ideas and perceptions we all face everyday and control them in a way that challenges the audience that promotes that dehuminization when they realize not only is this "beast" intellegent, she is making them question thiers by attacking those sterotypes and making her audience see what they are alleging her to be in such an exteme and literal way that the responsibility is on them. Pointing out and making perpetrators of hate feel foolish and ashamed for their own behavior can only be beneficial. Someone has to put themselves out there, she has taken control of the way she is put on display instead of accepting to be put on display each day by the outside world with no recourse. To do nothing is to be the stereotypical, quiet, shy "obeast" who is too big to be seen, has no voice and is something to be hunted an stared at when encountered. As an art piece, this is a great one, and as an artist, the risks she is taking are better than the alternative, which is to do nothing.

DeeLeigh's picture
June 6th, 2011 | Link | Fortunately, a majority of

Fortunately, a majority of the audience conciously going into a gallery exhibition or engaging in the website will be doing so knowing this is an art instillation, and as such, the piece isn't meant to be taken at face value

The fact that the reviewer from the newspaper "got it" as soon as he saw the artist's picture gives me hope that you're right.

vesta44's picture
June 4th, 2011 | Link | That's one way of looking at

That's one way of looking at it, and one I hadn't considered. However, just because a lot of us don't do similar things doesn't mean we don't do anything or that we accept the haters' attitudes toward us.
As an example, I'm a DEATHFATZ woman who is 57 years old and I don't sequester myself in my house, nor do I avoid people. I go shopping, I go on trips with my husband, I go swimming and wear a swimsuit in public. I go to baseball games. I do my grocery shopping and use a mobility cart to do it and I don't give a rat's ass what people think about what goes in that cart. If anyone has the brass balls to say anything to me about how I'm dressed, the fact that I'm using a mobility cart, what I'm buying for groceries, etc, they get told that it's none of their damned business, that I'm a human being and entitled to have exactly the same respect and freedom they have and they'd better get over themselves because I'm not going away any time soon.
I'm too old to really care anymore what the haters think, and if they don't like looking at my fat ass, they can look elsewhere. It's not my job to educate them - you can't educate people whose minds are closed, and most fat-phobes have minds so closed it would take more than dynamite to open them (a nuclear bomb might do it, but I kinda doubt it). However, I do consider it my job to get out there and show the fat-phobes that they aren't going to win this war - that fat people aren't going to disappear off the face of the earth, that we are going to have lives in spite of them, and if they don't like it, they can just suck it. They will get just as much respect from me as they give me - no more and no less.
That's the statement I make with my life every day. It's not one that gets publicized or draws a lot of criticism, other than from trolls, but it's just as valid as what the artist is doing with her work. And every fat person who lives their life "fat at the world" is making the same statement - they aren't just doing nothing, they're risking their sanity every day that they step outside their doors and have to deal with the fat-phobia and keep a smile on their faces and hold their heads up with pride in themselves and their accomplishments. To me, that makes all of us performance artists.

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

sweetygrrl June 5th, 2011 | Link | vesta, you are 100% right.

vesta, you are 100% right. If you encourage one more person who holds their shame over their life to start living, your impact is just as great if not greater. Having two family members who opted for wls because they couldn't, I hope someone else is inspired by you happiness and everyday living to opt for life instead of slow starved "living." I wish more were like you.

strawberry June 4th, 2011 | Link | Sweetygrrl, I like your

Sweetygrrl, I like your interpretation, but I suspect a more common reaction will be from people who don't feel that "obeasts" should get the same respect and forbearance that endangered species do. Exhibit A: PETA. I also foresee the viewers nudging each other and saying, "If you gain any more weight, you'll be an obeast too!" And some will see it as an imaginative metaphor for the inevitable downfall of the human race in its own fat, and fancy themselves Art Connoisseurs for that insight.

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