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Sue Coe's Ship of Fools

March 26, 1996 to May 24, 1996

In 1494, Sebastian Brant, a judicial scholar living in Basel, Switzerland, published a cautionary tract titled The Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff). Richly illustrated with woodcuts by an unknown artist or artists, The Ship of Fools was a catalogue of society’s failings as perceived by the author on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Although drawing upon the traditional Christian repertoire of vices and virtues, Brant expanded the scope of his thesis by seeking examples from an increasingly secular world that included corrupt clergymen, misguided intellectuals, complacent aristocrats, hunters, chefs, vintners, farmers, businessmen and connoisseurs of base entertainment. These and other characters were the fools journeying on Brant’s ship to certain doom (or Narragonia--the land of fools).

In 1986, Sue Coe, a British-born artist living in New York, began what would become a ten-year investigation of the American meat industry. She visited more than forty slaughterhouses, factory farms, chicken hatcheries and research facilities, and produced over 160 mixed-media drawings chronicling her experiences. About 120 of these works, together with excerpts from Coe’s written journals and an historical essay by the journalist Alexander Cockburn, have just been published under the title Dead Meat. But Dead Meat, as it turns out, is much more than just an analysis of the food most of us eat. Coe’s drawings present a microcosm of society at large: the mechanized killing, the brutalization of weaker creatures (including not just the animals, but the economically marginalized workers) by the strong, the wholesale sacrifice of humane values and the natural environment in the interest of turning a profit. If one were looking to cast a contemporary Ship of Fools, many key characters could be found working in and around the modern meat industry.

The focal point of the present exhibition is, appropriately, Coe’s own interpretation of the “ship of fools” theme: a monumental painting (checklist no. 74) that summarizes in allegorical form the salient issues that have preoccupied the artist in the last years. The body of the exhibition juxtaposes the most recently completed work from Dead Meat (never previously exhibited) with depictions of other “passengers” on our contemporary ship of fools. As such, the show not only presents a cohesive view of modern society, but a retrospective synopsis of Sue Coe’s personal and artistic development during the decade that she devoted to the meat project.

Coe’s overriding goal is “to be a witness to understanding collusion.” Growing up a block away from a hog slaughterhouse, she began to ask herself how it is that the mechanization and acceptance of death could so pervasively take root in society. As a member of the lower middle class, she saw little difference between herself and the neighboring hogs. The upper classes receive privileges and rewards that encourage them to ignore the painful realities of those weaker than themselves. The lower classes, like hogs, cows and chickens, have nothing to offer but their bodies, usually in the form of labor. Coe always viewed herself as inert matter, likely to be slaughtered at any moment by the grinding imperatives of class, as carried forth in the labor market, the educational establishment, the military or any number of capitalism’s other byways. And yet, at the same time, Coe could not deny her own complicity in the system. “Every dollar I get drips with blood, too,” she writes.

Dead Meat allowed Coe to identify with her subjects in a personal, almost autobiographical manner that was quite different from the more overtly polemical tone she had taken in her prior work. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, she was less inclined to impose her own views on her subjects, more driven to let the images speak for themselves. This quest to observe a subject closely so as to capture its essence is evident in much of Coe’s work from the last five or so years, including her series of journalistic cycles on such topics as the criminal justice system (checklist nos. 43 and 44), Liverpool’s underclass (nos. 46-48), AIDS (nos. 52 and 53) and sweatshop workers (nos. 54-59). As might be expected, Coe’s preoccupations tend to overlap and intertwine: the slaughter of animals, the mechanics of our legal system and the death penalty are seen to exist on the same continuum; the exploitation of workers in a slaughterhouse is of a kind with that in New York’s garment district; the relegation of certain classes of humans to poverty and despair is as arbitrary and unfair as the relegation of nonhuman animals, judged inferior, to lives and deaths of unimaginable suffering. If one acknowledges (as one must) that animals are sentient beings, then it is just a matter of degree that determines which creatures can or cannot legally be slaughtered, which humans can or cannot be abused or even killed. While Coe considers it important to acknowledge the separateness of nonhuman animals, she asks, “If animals have no rights, what rights do we as humans have?”

For Coe, content and form are ideally inseparable, and thus her changing approach to content in these last years had pronounced stylistic ramifications. Seeking the most effective means of presenting her message, she became very sensitive to feedback from the many viewers to whom she frequently showed her work in slide-lecture form. She noted that people invariably reacted most strongly to the content, and that the most forceful style was almost invisible, styleless. She gave up on trying to make her mark by standing out aesthetically, and began looking more closely at the work of artists whom she felt had grasped the intrinsic nature of their subjects: not Rembrandt’s paintings, for example, but his sketchbooks; not the Dada posturing of George Grosz, but the keenly observed social records painted by Pieter Brueghel. The goal was to attain a kind of effortlessness comparable to that reached by a marathon runner or a competitive swimmer. “Halfway through the struggle,” Coe observes, “It becomes unbearable. And then suddenly you break through, and it becomes like a dream.” Style and substance merge. “If I can just get close to capturing what really existed, then my mission will have been worthwhile.”

Coe’s work today is much quieter than it once was. Earlier in her career, she believed that the dissemination of information alone was enough to foment change. Now she recognizes that change comes more slowly, as a result of knowledge derived from cumulative experience. If one thinks solely in terms of ideology, Coe explains, then one is always reacting to the latest onslaught. In the process, one misses the forest for the trees. Today it seems pointless to attack the Reagans and Bushes and Gingriches of the world. Such enemies come and go; the emphasis should not be on them, but on us. What is important is to understand how people manage to survive in our hostile environment, for the most part supporting and caring for one another. Coe believes that the communal structure that will ultimately save humanity in fact already exists, if only we open our eyes wide enough to see it. This is perhaps most obvious in the heroic efforts of people, such as healthcare workers, who stand at the front lines in the battle against human misery, but basic human goodness is also abundantly manifested in the daily efforts of ordinary people to make decent lives for themselves and others.

Along the lower margin of Coe’s Ship of Fools, rising up beneath the waves, is an endless legion of common folk: the “salt of the earth,” who plant and cook and nurture human life. Coe has turned to early Renaissance prototypes (such as Sebastian Brant and Brueghel) because she feels the village mentality of that period provides an appropriate analog for today’s post-cold-war climate. Despite the lip-service given to the global economy, both the left and the right now tend to retreat into the illusory safety of small, local communities. Basing one’s view of reality solely on one’s immediate surroundings--on one’s “village”--not only diverts attention from very real external threats, but more important, obscures the redemptive sustenance that can be achieved by connecting with human beings on a broader scale. Sue Coe’s Ship of Fools chronicles not just her own journey, but the journey that we all share. It is up to us, whether we head blindly to Narragonia, or take control of the helm.