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Interpreting the Work of Sandy Skoglund:
Food as an Art Medium
Department of Art Education
Ohio State University and
Getty Center for Education in the Arts
Spirituality in the Flesh
Sandy Skoglund created Spirituality in the Flesh as a project for Artforum
magazine in February 1992. She created a grisly image of a woman and
her environment completely covered with raw hamburger. Sandy
Skoglund wrote a six-line text to accompany the image. Write six lines of
your own to accompany Spirituality in the Flesh. Compare yours with the
"The body is buried in animal flesh. A russet field of ground beef
surrounds folds of blue velvet. It is the hour before decomposition
begins. The glowing, moist field will turn dark and crusty, as the oxygen
molecules in the room begin to invade the bits of fat and muscle. Yet the
appearance of the torn tissue is far from the violence that made it. Its
color is not bloody; the stench is gone. A muted calm overwhelms the
grim evidence. Although the event is over, we see it still. Death is
arrested as the enemy approaches--and it is a photograph."
Share your writing with the rest of us.
How does raw hamburger affect the meaning of Spirituality in the Flesh?
What cultural meanings do you associate with raw hamburger?
Can you draw connections between the woman and raw hamburger?
Why raw hamburger?
In the United States, hamburger is a very ordinary meat product. It
connotes the American lifestyle of fast food chains, backyard
barbecues, and life on the run. There is nothing extraordinary about
hamburger, yet Skoglund took this most commonplace food and created a
shocking image. Why are we repulsed? Is it because the hamburger is in
a raw state? Who hasn't seen raw hamburger? Would cooked
hamburger be less offensive? But who has seen it smeared over a
body? Who has been enveloped by walls of raw meat? American culture
has sanitized meat consumption with packaging and has separated it
from the animals that are killed to provide it.
Does a meat counter at a supermarket disgust us as much as Spirituality
in the Flesh?
Critic Arlene Raven finds two cultural perspectives in Spirituality in the
Flesh. First, she comments on the connection between women as meat
to be cannibalized and devoured with the eyes, and second, she notes
references to mortality and the brevity of life.
Sandy Skoglund characterized Spirituality in the Flesh as "grisly" and
representative of "very dark energy" which she contrasted with the
benign energy of her earlier animal sculptures (Gathering Paradise, Fox
Games, Revenge of the Goldfish, Radioactive Cats, and The Green
Sandy Skoglund's text for Spirituality in the Flesh describes the "hour
before decomposition...as the oxygen molecules...begin to invade the bits
of fat and muscle." She continues, commenting on the denial of the
violence that made the hamburger: "it is not bloody; the stench is gone. A
muted calm overwhelms the grim evidence. Death is arrested as the
enemy approaches--and it is a photograph."
How does raw hamburger compare with traditional art media?
Is raw hamburger similar to wet paint?
Raw hamburger might be thought of as resembling a sculpture medium
that can be molded and shaped into three-dimensional form. Skoglund's
method, however, relates more to that of sculptor George Segal, who
casts human forms in plaster. Segal covers the human body with plaster
and after removing the plaster cast, he leaves it untreated and in its
"raw" form. Although Segal's sculptures do not have the grisly aspect of
raw meat, there is a certain similarity with Skoglund's process of coating
the human form with a foreign substance.
The difference in the substances, however, is of enormous importance.
Animal flesh is not unlike human flesh. It can sustain human life. Skoglund
admits, "For me, meat is a way of talking about dead animals and people.
It's still alive, but it's not alive, it's flesh but it's not human flesh."
Spirituality in the Flesh is resonant with the work of contemporary British
artist Damien Hirst. Hirst makes sculptures that incorporate blood, rotting
flesh, flies, dying butterflies, sawed-in-half cows and other dead
animals. Critic Jerry Saltz observes that Hirst uses shock to make
aspects of life and death visible. This is not unlike the effect of
Skoglund's Spirituality in the Flesh.
What practical problems would raw hamburger present?
How much hamburger would you have to buy?
How would you apply it to the walls and the woman?
How long could you work before the meat would begin to decay?
How long could you leave it up?
What would you do with the hamburger after the piece was finished?
How much hamburger did Skoglund need?
The artist purchased 80 pounds of hamburger meat for the installation.
When buying the hamburger, she lied to avoid becoming involved in a
conversation with the butcher about being an artist and explaining why
she needed that much meat. She pretended that she was having a big
barbecue. Skoglund associates lying to obtain the hamburger with the
negative energy that surrounds Spirituality in th Flesh.
How long could you work with raw hamburger?
Spirituality in the Flesh was somewhat like a performance piece for the
camera in Skoglund's studio. She said that the installation was made and
photographed in one day. The next day she and her assistant cleaned
and she said "it smelled like four people had died in that place the next
Sandy Skoglund used raw bacon for Body Limits. What knowledge can
you transfer from what you now know of Spirituality in th Flesh to form
interpretations of Body Limits?