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Aria Dean wants you in the hot seat—or cold storage. Her intentions aren’t subtle: you enter her exhibition at the Renaissance Society through aluminum double doors with rubber-trimmed circular windows and step onto a field of black industrial rubber flooring blanketed in nonslip nubbins. Natural light is restricted by a low, hulking perimeter wall, and artificial light ebbs and flows from a giant screen looping the New York-based artist’s ten-minute animated journey through an empty slaughterhouse. Welcome to “Abattoir, U.S.A.!”.

From the Latin battare meaning “to beat up” or “to bang,” the French word “abattoir” was coined in the early 19th century to name the final destination of animals bound for slaughter. Abattoir, U.S.A.! (the name of both the exhibition and the film) sees double. The vertiginous sense of watching one abattoir inside another creates a fluidity between the virtual and physical developed by the artist in other recent installations including Suite! (the wry exclamation is a signature, too) at REDCAT and King of the Loop at the Hammer Museum, both in Los Angeles. 

The immediate gallery-as-abattoir metaphor is borrowed from 20th-century philosopher Georges Bataille, heavily cited in Dean’s artwork and writing on art theory. Bataille proposed that the museum and slaughterhouse were not so different, both relying on the illusion of objectivity to produce violence, one typically ideological, the other literal. These violences are distinct. As Bataille wrote in 1929, the modern slaughterhouse in particular is “cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship.” 

In early 19th-century Paris, however, slaughter was still being performed in backyards and butcher shops. The spiriting away of the city’s abattoir was still in its early stages when urban improvements fell to Parisian bureaucrat-turned-urban-planner Georges-Eugéne Hausmann. Hausmann infamously razed the city’s medieval structure and erected La Villette, an iron-and-glass mega-slaughterhouse unveiled at the 1867 World’s Fair. 

La Villette could be the initial setting of Dean’s animation, which opens with a camera panning through her digital environment, passing from a blue sky framed by gray beams to brick and scrolled metal trim. Created using the 3D animation graphics software Unreal Engine with animator Filip Kostic and modeler Maya Lila, the interior has a smooth, video game appearance that melts through 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century abattoir. On its initial sweep, the camera skirts an architectural bull’s head ornament, familiar to Chicagoans as the icon crowning the Union Stock Yards.  

Visitors enter Aria Dean’s Renaissance Society exhibition through aluminum double doors with rubber-trimmed circular windows and step onto a field of black industrial rubber flooring blanketed in nonslip nubbins.
Credit: Robert Chase Heishman

Historical easter eggs are not marginal to Dean’s project. Abattoir, U.S.A.! is part of her larger mission to track the slaughterhouse’s influence on modern architecture and design. The fact that industry inspired architects is well known: American grain elevators informed the development of the modern “international style” via Bauhaus giant Walter Gropius and father-of-modernism Le Corbusier. Less known are Corbusier’s unrealized abattoir designs, and the rumor that they might have provided the template for his famous social housing experiment Unité d’habitacion

Dean, however, is not an architectural historian. Her writing has focused on art and politics, especially the relationship between Blackness and representation, minimalism, and poststructuralism. In two essays, “Notes on Blacceleration” and “Black Bataille,” she positions Afropessimism, through the writing of scholar Frank B. Wilderson III, at the heart of debates around aesthetics, capitalism, and the human. Wilderson’s work focuses on racial capitalism and the ramifications of the Atlantic slave trade, arguing that American society fundamentally depends on Black death, and, moreover, that Blackness is necessarily excluded from liberal ideas of the “human” subject. Dean is interested in how modern architecture encodes and maintains the contours of this subject, constituted in the negative by its exclusion—those left outside. For Wilderson, the outside is the unthinkable position of Blackness. Bataille, too, wrote about the outside, in his words, the l’informe or “the formless.” The abattoir concretizes these ideas in a physical place where architecture and technology delimit human, animal, and machine. The animal ultimately faces the absolute violence at the heart of the modern: some beings have the right to live, others do not. 

That’s a lot to fit into ten minutes. The elegance of Abattoir, U.S.A.! lies in its simplicity—not much is needed to show that something is deeply wrong here. In the first act, Dean’s camera adopts a first-person point-of-view, swiveling toward an infinite row of holding pens and turning a sickening backflip scored to a swell in the electronic soundtrack by Evan Zierk. The camera enters a slow trod along a curving metal pathway braced with rust-red beams, occasionally pausing to glance around, oblivious to its final destination. Dean alludes to death here through dark art-world jokes. The scale and geometry of the pathway echoes the monumental coiled steel sculptures of minimalist Richard Serra and the steel beams bracing the corridor resemble those used by land artist Michael Heizer for his construction-material sculptures, especially Collapse, a menacing 40-foot-deep pit filled with massive girders. Heizer’s work only seems deadly, Serra’s has been—the collapse of Sculpture No. 3 in 1971 resulted in the death of art installer Raymond Johnson. Death haunts the art world in the other direction, too. La Villette is now a fashionable cultural space housing exhibitions and film screenings. 

The curved route to slaughter is, in real life, the design of animal scientist Temple Grandin, whose Big Meat-sponsored slaughterhouse video tours (an influence and inside joke, Dean confided at her opening) extoll the calming quality of a gentle path obscuring the macabre activity beyond. Dean’s thick references validate the sheer dread that slowly builds to terminal claustrophobia at the site of the guillotine-ish “stun box,” where animals are anesthetized with a bolt gun shot to the head before exsanguination. Compared to the abattoir film genre, from the recent EO and Cow to the vernacular PETA slaughterhouse exposé, the empty landscape of Abattoir, U.S.A.! creates an especially strong emotional response—less empathy than immediate and jarring atmospheric awareness. Were the film to end at the stun box, it might land on an empty note, like the trailer for a scared-straight Abattoir Simulator. Instead, the deluge. The stun box ushers in a hellish second act of strobing yellow and black blots that throws the gallery into visual chaos. (The gallery advises that individuals with photosensitive epilepsy or fragrance sensitivity practice discretion.) It’s an obliterating death. The end of life, the end of vision, and the end of the sensible culminate in structuralist purgatory, mimicking improperly developed film or the eye left sightless at the receiving end of a sucker punch. 

The death of the subject resurrects the third-person view. In Dean’s final act, the camera swings over a blood-drenched kill floor and floats around, flying through the same aluminum doors installed at the gallery’s entrance toward a row of swaying meat hooks keeping time with a wordless electronic pop melody. The hooks rock happily of their own accord, ending the film on an artificially sentimental note suitable for Okja or Homeward Bound. The upswing is artificial and ironic, and the long line of ready and willing hooks are a reminder that we’ve just witnessed a process through its absence, the millions of animals executed at a breakneck speed missing. 

A big, complicated nothingness writhes at the heart of Dean’s entire project, a nothingness where the subject should be. In the real world, the state of nothingness works in favor of the abattoir, which thrives on a reality so central yet so unbearable that it must be banished to a massive cultural, social, and emotional blindspot. There is also the bleak, instrumental state of nonbeing that defines Wilderson’s Afropessimism and Bataille’s “formlessness.” These nothings have different properties but no shape, no texture, no color, no form, but it is these nothings that will follow you, far beyond the abattoir doors. 

“Abattoir, U.S.A.!”
Through 4/16: Wed-Thu and Sat-Sun noon-6 PM, Fri 1-7 PM, Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis, Cobb Hall, 4th floor, renaissancesociety.org/exhibitions, 773-702-8670

Interviewees: Alma Weiser, director of Heaven Gallery; Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum curator of modern and contemporary art at the Block Museum of Art; Asha Iman Veal, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography; Teresa Silva, executive and artistic director of the Chicago Artists Coalition; Edra Soto, artist and codirector of the…

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