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10.31.11

The Art of the Pig

Just in time for Halloween, New York artist Elaine Tin Nyo is partnering with a hipster butcher to break down a half pig in a Chelsea gallery. Blake Gopnik watches the gore.

Under the glare of clinical floodlights, above concrete floors all ready for hosing, sits a newly flayed pig’s head, one bloodied eyeball staring out above a lolling tongue. Nearby, a grinning butcher wields a meat ax, his apron spattered with blood. A dozen people laugh and drink and ogle the sight.

It’s the night before Halloween, yet despite all the gore, no one seems to have noticed the date. The audience is here to witness art, as presented by New Yorker Elaine Tin Nyo, at Postmasters gallery in Chelsea. Its cement floors are intended for avant-garde sculpture; its bright lights shine on walls full of radical drawings. But for this one evening, the aesthetics don’t reside in the objects on view, but in “the production, the gathering of the people—the creation of an experience that is commonplace and also intense,” Tin Nyo says. “There’s something very powerful, being in the presence of something that was once alive and isn’t anymore.”

Tin Nyo’s piece, the latest in a line of food-related works, is called The Fourth Leg, and it’s a collaboration between her and a hipster butcher named Gaetano Arnone, who cuts meat at the nearby Dickson’s Farmstand, purveyor of flesh to the gallery crowd. The idea is that he will break down a half pig, before viewers, while she records the event. Arnone says he’s carried our beast from his store, not realizing the toll 92 pounds of pork would take on his shoulder. “Someone with a Volkswagen Jetta had half a pig on their hood for a minute,” he says.

Art is telling people the truth… even if that truth involves flying brains, the crack of bones and the sucking sound of meat pulled from meat.

Arnone is 33, hirsute and handsome, his dark looks inherited from Sicilian ancestors. (He grew up in Southern California, and says his profession makes him a babe magnet: “‘You must have strong hands’—you get a lot of that.”) He runs his fingers over the dead beast, now stretched out on a table, and explains that “butchery is a beautiful thing, but it starts with a very violent act.” Our subject (or victim) would have been alive until a few days before, he says, and was probably nine or 10 months old. “This pig looks pretty nice, but I’ll see how stubborn it is when I cut it up.” (A row of nipples tell us that “it” is, or was, a “she”.) Later, after we’ve watched him do his cutting, and occasionally lent him a hand, Arnone proclaims her “a gentle animal,” since she allowed us to disjoint her without too much brute force. Aside from a wrench or two to break through the spine, speckling some viewers with offal, the butchery’s mostly a delicate act. With a few efficient gestures, Arnone extracts the tenderloin, proclaiming, “This is the work that I love.”

In the tone an oil painter uses of acrylics, Arnone explains that he is a “seam cutter”—a wielder of sharp knives—rather than a “breaker” who pulls meat apart with a hook. “I love animals, so I see them being cut up like that, I feel pretty bad,” Arnone says, as he saws this animal’s leg off. He studied in Tuscany with the great Dario Cecchini, whom he calls the Willy Wonka of meat. “This is my first foray into art,” Arnone says. Although for this night his trade makes him part of a cutting-edge performance, he’s normally more drawn to tradition. He was at the Metropolitan Museum, looking at a miniature butcher shop that had been buried with some Egyptian potentate, “and it looked strikingly like the butcher shop where I was trained in Italy.”

Some members of Arnone’s audience are also divorced from any avant garde. They have come for purely culinary reasons, they say, thinking that they might want to do butchery at home, or because they feel a moral obligation to see where their food comes from. But Elena Berriolo, a book and installation artist, also understands the aesthetic issues at stake. “I am here because I think what Elaine is doing is telling people the truth. And art is telling people the truth.” Even if that truth involves flying brains, the crack of bones, and the sucking sound of meat pulled from meat.

Tin Nyo is a slender Asian woman, fashionably dressed, who looks at least a decade younger than her 49 years. She says that her work is about “creating experiences for people that hopefully they can reconsider later, and hopefully will change their lives in some way…. We’re left with some knowledge and some respect for something we didn’t know about”—not a bad description of almost any work of art worth its salt. (Or its balsamic reduction.) Tin Nyo doesn’t mind that many of her guests don’t know, or at least don’t care, that they’re involved in an aesthetic moment; she likens them to museumgoers who cross a floor piece by Carl André without knowing that they just walked on art. “That’s the person you want to reach with that ‘Aha’ moment.” The next day, in an email, she writes, “I was raised Catholic (with a Buddhist father)… I’m not religious now but I think Catholic mysteries inform the structure of these food/meat pieces.”

This artist hasn’t always worked with food. She’s also built a public sauna on a frozen lake and taught ballroom dancing to strangers. “It’s about those intense bodily experiences that are also banal,” she says, and about the complex social interactions that go with them. That puts her work dead-center in a new movement often called “relational aesthetics,” but Tin Nyo also likes to place herself in the great tradition of “genre” painters, from Johannes Vermeer to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin—without forgetting Bartolomeo Passerotti, one of the very first artists of the everyday, who happened to specialize in images of butcher shops. Yet how often have even Passerotti’s greatest admirers spent four hours studying his painted meats?—the way we’d spent that time, in an unheated room, engrossed in the Art of the Pig.

Tin Nyo likens her performance to any art that wakes us up to the world: “You see a beautiful photo of the sky, and you think ‘My life is beautiful. It’s all free.’” And then, maybe, you cut an animal’s tongue out.