Immediately after seeing the poster for All Cannibals? posted near my apartment in Berlin, with a disturbing image of skeletal children who have seemingly tied one of their companions down to a chair, I knew a visit to the exhibition was a must. Housed in the Me Collectors Room Berlin, a private institution dedicated to primarily showcasing the Olbricht Collection as well as select works from other collections, All Cannibals? is a large exhibition of more than a hundred works beginning immediately in the gallery’s foyer. The works presented span centuries of artistic and scientific production, ranging from antiquated ethnographic illustrations to contemporary works -- all either directly or conceptually addressing cannibalism.
All Cannibals? is the product of a collaboration between Me and la maison rouge in Paris, with German art history expert Dr. Jeanette Zwingenberger working as the chief curator. According to an interview that Me conducted with Dr. Zwingenberger, the inspiration for the exhibition came from the observation that many contemporary artists from the past ten years have been employing imagery or motifs of cannibalism in their work. By contextualizing the more than forty works of contemporary art with the historical art and “scientific”/anthropological documentation, Dr. Zwingenberger looked to unpack what cannibalistic imagery is referencing in modern society, and how that fits into a broader timeline of the West’s collective fascination with cannibalism and consumption.
While many of the older, anthropological works employ explicit images of cannibalism that easily fall into an orientalist narrative of the “savage” man-eating “other,” the contemporary works, while extremely variant in appearance, approach cannibalism as the “imaginary, subjective, biological and social-political relation to oneself and to the other, from the perspective of ingestion,” in the words of Dr. Zwingenberger. The name of the exhibition itself -- taken from the theory posited by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss that, “We are all cannibals. The simplest way to identify with another is still to eat them” -- immediately positions the viewer to try and understand himself as a cannibal, implicating him in a historically unsavory narrative that points to themes of over-consumption, exploitation, and self-consumption.
A large portion of the more contemporary works depict images of breast-feeding, often in a violent form, or the mutilation of the female breast, arguably pointing to the first cannibalistic human relationship. These graphic works, like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #255, 1990, in which a stoic female figure is issuing milk violently from her breast, work to dislodge the typical associations of fertility and femininity tied to imagery of the female breast and breast-feeding by positioning the relationship between the mother and child as the first, and most highly dependent moment of consuming an other.
It is moments like these, where seemingly banal images and human relationships are re-imagined as somehow cannibalistic, that are the real strengths of the exhibition. While personally, the leaping back and forth between centuries was at times overwhelming, the scope with which Dr. Zwingenberger approached the subject is impressive. It is difficult to recall another recent exhibition that used both Goya etchings and Chapman Brothers’ drawings to explore the same theme that holds so much historical weight while maintaining its contemporary resonance. Any potential skepticism regarding the project of the exhibition is perhaps warranted, but a visit is absolutely necessary, if not only for the opportunity to see such a tightly curated selection of centuries worth of work by some of the world’s most respected artists, often works that have rarely been shown previously. While I cannot say that I left convinced that “We are all cannibals,” I can say I left extremely satisfied, having departed what at first seemed like such a strange and grotesque show, yet ended up being so visually and thematically intriguing.
~Collin Munn, a writer living in Berlin.
(Images: Wangechi Mutu, The Partician New, 2004, Mixed-media on mylar, 185 x 118 cm; Courtesy: Galerie Zidoun, Paris; Jérôme Zonder, Jeu denfants n°1, 2010, mine de plomb sur papier, 160 x 160 cm; Courtesy Jérôme Zonder & Galerie Eva Hober, Paris; Toshio Saeki, Ohne Titel, ca-1970, Nylon auf Holzrahmen, 70 x 54-cm; Courtesy Galerie Da-end, Paris; Cindy Sherman, Untitled #225, 1990, Olbricht Collection, Berlin.)