PRINT March 1992


FOR JANA STERBAK, women’s clothing provides a provocative esthetic vocabulary through which to explore the construction of female subjectivity. Using the dress as a metaphor for the culturally inscribed body, the artist has created an eerie fashion show, her own special collection designed to expose and undermine the spectacle of appearance. By evoking the fashion world, Sterbak’s “garments” demonstrate that, at any historical moment, a “look” represents the confluence of psychological, social, sexual, and economic discourses that circulate around and delineate the body. Sterbak’s “clothes” serve as a map of the complex web of emotional and philosophical states of being that converge to form the very subject of her esthetic investigations.

The scope of Sterbak’s art is multivalent—encompassing a series of intertwined themes related to the body (its physicality and its psyche), expressed through use of an ever expanding array of materials. This essay, however, will exclusively discuss her three “dresses” as a frame through which to interpret the work.1 While each garment is unique—embodying its own visual style, narrative structure, and literary allusions—when brought together, they offer a glimpse into Sterbak’s curious universe, a world in which nature and culture, magic and technology, myth and history converge.

One of Sterbak’s most disturbing creations is her Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987, a grotesque perversion of a fashionable ensemble sewn together from 60 pounds of raw flank steak.2 Glistening red and richly marbled with white veins of fat, the meat dress gruesomely approximates a flayed body, a being turned inside out, while alluding with the blackest of humor to that old cliché “beauty is only skin-deep.” To emphasize the rather depraved affinity between this visceral, stylishly cut dress and the world of haute couture, Sterbak in fact photographed a woman modeling the slimy outfit. The model’s easy, languid pose reiterates the tired, but still accepted, equation of women with prime cuts of beef, an analogy that can be extended to the cultural reality that women have historically been treated as commodities, infinitely exchangeable and infinitely replaceable. A comparison could be made between Sterbak’s flesh creation and the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s justly famous Lamb Chop Hat, ca. 1937. Decorated with white silk frills of the sort used to “dress” lamb chops, the (simulated) cuts of meat on the top of the hat are meant to be seen as food rather than as mere parts of a dead animal. “In ways that are at once disturbing and comical,” comment fashion theorists Caroline Evans and Minna Thorton, “[Schiaparelli’s hat] plays on an analogy between garnishing food and the use of adornment in women’s dress, in which the ‘raw’ of the woman is transformed into the ‘cooked’ of femininity.”

Other readings, however, are suggested by the horrific process of decay made manifest in the Vanitas dress. While on display, the piece slowly desiccates, its sinewy substance shrinking into a hardened, leathery material, a blackened carcasslike shroud. As clothing may be considered a surrogate for the corporeal in Sterbak’s art, this over-mature garment brings to mind the inexorable aging of the body and our society’s eschewal of the elderly, particularly the older woman—the denial of her sexual desirability, even visibility. The work bespeaks a certain rage at this injustice; its hideous formal presence and potent message regarding the objectification of woman link Sterbak to other contemporary female artists who have taken command of the representation of the female body—Cindy Sherman, Karen Finley, Rosemarie Trockel, Kiki Smith, and Patty Martori, to name but a few.

Beyond the allusions in the meat dress to woman’s appearance and her cultural status, references to the ancient division between body and soul emerge. By linking “vanitas” and “anorexia” in the title of the piece, Sterbak sheds historical and epistemological light upon a very contemporary problem. The use of the art-historical term “vanitas”—describing a painted memento mori, an allegorical tableau that warns of the ephemerality of human existence through perishable items such as burning candles and mounds of fresh food—introduces a strangely moral dimension to the issue of female physicality. Cautioned against the essential futility of carnal and materialist pursuits, early viewers of vanitas images were encouraged to devote themselves to the cultivation of their spiritual selves. What surfaces through Sterbak’s allusion to mortality and sin is a recognition of the Greco-Christian tradition of dualism that perceives human existence as bifurcated into two discrete and antagonistic spheres: the intellect and the body or the soul and its human container. Traditionally, the spiritual realm has been privileged over that of the body, which has been alternately conceived of as an earthly prison, as the locus of all corrupt desire, or as a useless, fragile entity. In her discussion of the historic mind/body problem, feminist theorist Susan R. Bordo writes:

Plato, Augustine, and, most explicitly, Descartes provide instructions, rules, or models of how to gain control over the body, with the ultimate aim of learning to live without it. That is: to achieve intellectual independence from . . . its illusions, to become impervious to its distractions, and most importantly, to kill off its desires and hungers.4

If realized, such radical attempts at bodily repression can initiate a false sense of omnipotence; command over physical desires is often confused with power in and of itself, providing a sense of control in a world where many people, especially women, have little real agency. It is this illusion of omnipotence that provides the connection between “vanitas” and “anorexia” in the work, which Sterbak has herself described as a “moralistic piece.”5

The anorexic female body, as victim of self-induced starvation and intense self-discipline, personifies this desperate attempt at control of a personal world rife with paradox. And Sterbak’s meat dress, which literally shrinks, seeming almost to subsume itself, serves as a visual analogue to the anorexic’s misguided attempts to use mind against body in response to her inability—or refusal—to satisfy our culture’s demands of its women for self-restraint, acquiescence, measured ambition, maternal aspirations, and bodily perfection.6

Two years later Sterbak made two mechanized crinolines, Remote Control I and Remote Control II, that speak, more literally, to the ways in which social control has been enacted upon the body through fashionable clothing. In 1856, the cage crinoline was invented. A monstrous, dome-shaped structure of concentric, calibrated hoops worn under the skirt, it greatly exaggerated the hips of its wearer, rendering her relatively immobile, incapable of any independent gesture, and certainly unfit for physical labor. At the height of the crinoline’s popularity, in 1863, Charles Baudelaire published a homage to women’s fashion in his Peintre de la vie moderne (Painter of modern life). Associating woman with the realm of nature, in which he proclaimed one could “find nothing but frightfulness,” Baudelaire dismissed the female as “incomprehensible,” but promised redemption through the beautification of her being. Through fashion and cosmetics calculated duplicity—woman transcends the natural. “Fashion,” proclaimed Baudelaire,

[provides] a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a . . . repeated attempt at her reformation . . . . Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical . . .: she has to astonish and charm us . . . she is obliged to adorn herself in order to be adored.

One is compelled to ponder what Baudelaire was afraid he would find under “the muslins, the gauzes, the vast iridescent clouds of stuff in which [woman] envelops herself.”7 His near contemporary Sigmund Freud would have argued that it was precisely what could not be found that would prove so frightening. Perhaps what has been construed as modern woman’s narcissistic penchant for fashionable clothing is really the flip side of man’s seeming need to veil the “lack” embodied in femininity, the unknown of the other, the treacherous “dark continent” so close to nature.

To extend the metaphor, woman can be colonized by fashion, by standards of beauty that render her, like Michel Foucault’s “docile” body, “subjected, used, transformed, and improved.”8 It is in this light that the cagelike form of Sterbak’s metal crinolines comes to symbolize woman’s cultural oppression, her incarceration by an externally imposed value system. The larger-than-life-size mobile structure resembles a prison into which its wearer is lowered, suspended, and then transported by a radio-operated remote-control mechanism. Though the woman inside is able to operate the mechanical dress herself, gliding around the room by her own volition, the device can be, and often is, manipulated by unseen hands. When this occurs, its wearer relinquishes her will, becoming an automated puppet, a mechanized doll. The woman is thus metaphorically transformed into an automaton—that archetypal, artificial being constructed by man as a technological other to assist and accompany him through life. The mythology of automata—Gustav Meyrink’s Golem and Karel Capek’s robot, for example—is essentially utopian, representing man’s quest for a perfect world order in which all labor would be assumed by unfeeling, synthetic creatures.9 However, such hubristic acts of creation, in which man usurps the life-generating faculties assigned to God, inevitably backfire, rendering man the victim of his fabricated double. Through Sterbak’s allusion to technological procreation, an interpretation of the phenomenon emerges that pertains directly to the inequity located in sexual difference. In appropriating the act of creation, inventors of automata displace woman from her role as child-bearer, thereby making patriarchy autonomous.10 In this oblique utopia, man expropriates the act of conception and becomes, in essence, the matriarch, but through the rationalism of science, not the disorder of nature.

If Sterbak’s meat dress and iron crinolines make an equation of woman with the attempted colonization of her body, her early I Want You to Feel the Way I Do. . . (The Dress), 1984–85, allows for the possibility of female agency, although she locates its potential in a realm outside society. Like Sterbak’s other costumes, this freestanding transparent garment, with arms outstretched as if ready to embrace, is anything but benign, for spiraling around its metal-mesh armature is a live, uninsulated nickel-chrome wire that, at regular intervals, radiates with heat. A written soliloquy describing the agonies of obsessive love appears behind this seductive, yet menacing, gown:

I want you to feel the way I do: There’s barbed wire wrapped all around my head and my skin grates on my flesh from the inside. How can you be so comfortable only 5'' to the left of me? I don’t want to hear myself think, feel myself move. It’s not that I want to be numb, I want to slip under your skin; I will listen for the sound you hear, feed on your thought, wear your clothes.

Now I have your attitude and you’re not comfortable anymore. Making them yours you relieved me of my opinions, habits, impulses. I should be grateful but instead . . . you’re beginning to irritate me: I am not going to live with myself inside your body, and I would rather practice being new on someone else.

A testimony to the dangers of parasitical devotion, the calcined dress also mocks the conventional assumption that woman’s desire is all-consuming and, when frustrated, utterly vindictive. As if to expose this stereotype, Sterbak, through her text, relates I Want You to Feel the Way I Do . . . to the most wicked and vengeful woman in literary history, Euripides’ Medea. Deeply in love with the Greek hero Jason, Medea spurns her father and slays her own brother in order to assist Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. When after a liaison Jason rejects her to marry another, Medea, outraged and jealous, sends a poisonous wedding dress and crown to the new bride. Euripides describes the reception of this lethal gift in the most horrific of terms:

A double plague assailed her. The golden diadem on her head emitted a strange flow of devouring fire, while the fine robes . . . were eating up the poor girl’s white flesh. All aflame, she jumps from her seat and flees, shaking her head and hair this way and that, trying to throw off the crown. But the golden band held firmly, and after she had shaken her hair more violently, the fire began to blaze twice as fiercely. Overcome by the agony she falls on the ground, and none but her father could have recognized her. The position of her eyes could not be distinguished, nor the beauty of her face. The blood, clotted with fire, dripped from the crown of her head, and the flesh melted from her bones, like resin from a pine tree, as the poisons ate their unseen way.11

To wreak further revenge upon Jason for his betrayal, Medea then murders her own children.

Sterbak’s allusions to Medea, however, are intended as more than a grim retelling of the story. Medea was a powerful woman, a sorceress, whose history represents the pagan roots so repressed in our culture. The witch, like the hysteric and the anorexic, incarnates the antithesis of order—she is absolute excess, desire, and madness—and she thereby threatens the foundations of patriarchy.

To achieve empowerment through excess—through a Dionysian abandonment of all restraint, through a celebration of chaos—is to exist in, or at least to conjure, a realm of utter transgression. Described by Georges Bataille as the informe, this realm demands the collapse by fusion of all binary thought. The dialectic of signification is thus disrupted, the logos (phallogocentrism) is threatened, and meaning itself cannot be produced. For Hélène Cixous, this dismantling of oppositional thought, this erosion of the Symbolic, is woman’s path to subjectivity.12

To think and speak without reference to the other is the enterprise of the sorceress. Her language, her mutations of meaning, her infractions of the social, may be enacted as spectacles that render the seamlessness of convention invalid, but it is just for this reason that she must be silenced and punished. Enacted upon her body and worn like a scar, society’s oppression of the sorceress—the hysteric, the anorexic—is a wound that fashion simply cannot hide. In essence, it is this suffering, this power, that Sterbak’s three dresses so vividly unmask.13

Nancy Spector is Associate Curator at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.



1. The catalogue accompanying the recent Jana Sterbak retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (8 March–20 May 1991) presents an excellent visual survey of the work. The introductory essay, “Jana Sterbak: States of Being,” by Diana Nemiroff, offers an insightful overview of the art that takes into account both the artist’s literary interests and feminist concerns. The interview with the artist by Milena Kalinovska discusses the significance of Sterbak’s Czechoslovakian background to her work.

2. The first version of this dress was made in 1987; it has subsequently been refabricated nine times for different exhibitions. The life span of the piece depends upon the length of the show, but as the meat is salted and cured, it could virtually last indefinitely.

3. Caroline Evans and Minna Thorton, Women & Fashion: A New Look, London and New York: Quartet Books, 1989, p. 141. Another relevant analogue is Meret Oppenheim’s disturbing sculpture Ma Gouvernante, Mein Kindermädchen, My Nurse, 1936, in which a pair of women’s shoes, bound together, are presented upside-down on a serving platter, the high heels adorned with white paper frills.

4. Susan R. Bordo, “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture,” Feminism & Foucault: Reflections on Resistance, Boston: Northeastern University, 1988, p. 93.

5. Artist’s statement, in Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, The Impossible Self, exhibition catalogue, Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1988. p. 67. Sterbak commented that “in this century . . . we are concentrating our energies to overcome the boundaries of the physical.”

6. Over the past 100 years, the dictates of femininity have, more and more, been communicated through images rather than through the written word. “We are no longer are told what ‘a lady’ is or of what femininity consists,” observes Bordo. “Rather, we learn the rules directly through bodily discourse: through images which tell us what clothes, body shape, facial expression. movements, and behavior is required.” Bordo, “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault,” in Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, ed. Alison M. Jaggar and Bordo, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1989, p. 17.

7. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon Press, 1964. p. 33 and pp. 30–33.

8. Michel Foucault applies this notion of docility to the development during the 17th and 18th centuries of disciplines designed to create a “mechanics of power . . . [a] policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures and behaviors.” See Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 180–82.

9. Sterbak has acknowledged her debt to fellow Czech Karel Capek, who first used the term “robot” in his play R.U.R., 1920. The artist’s interest in the fabricated other is also evident in the title of her multipart work Golem: Objects as Sensations, 1979–82, which consists of individual body parts—heart, spleen, throat, tongue, etc.—fashioned from various metals.

10. In Capek’s R.U.R., women become barren once the robots infiltrate society. See Sharon D. King, “A Better Eve: Women and Robots in Capek’s R.U.R. and Pavlosky’s El Robot,” in Women in Theatre, ed. James Redmond, Cambridge: at the University Press, 1989, pp. 99–107.

11. Ten Plays by Euripides, trans. Moses Hadas and John McLean. New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p. 58.

12. Hélène Cixous, “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays,” in The Newly Born Woman, ed. Cixous and Catherine Clément, trans. Sandra M. Gilbert, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

13. For an insightful analysis of the sorceress and the hysteric as paradigms for understanding femininity, see Clément, “The Guilty One,” in The Newly: Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 10. In her essay “Jana Sterbak: Objects as Sensations,” accompanying a 1986 exhibition at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Canada, Jessica Bradley evokes the history of the sorceress as described by Clement in her discussion of Sterbak’s I Want You to Feel the Way 1 Do . . . (The Dress).