Sheffy Bleier
The Road to Slaughterhouse

For the past several years I have been doing my shopping at the Carmel open-air food market in Tel Aviv. I always follow the same route through the market. One day I took a shortcut through a side alley. The market thronged with people, I carried nylon bags full of stuff I had bought. I was in a hurry to get to my car. Going past what seemed like a small kitchen, with the corner of my eye I saw something gray, tangled, hanging from the butcher's hook. It looked like a bathing cap, the kind that old ladies use.

I reached my car, put my shopping bags in the trunk, and then I said to myself, I have to go back to see what it was. I returned and asked the man. It's cow's stomach, he replied.

For the next few months I tried to wrap my head around his words and this stunning object. The sight of it and the sense of discovery kept exciting me and I couldn't shake it off. I knew I would photograph it. It took time to summon enough courage. I was ashamed and ill-at-ease because of my attraction and curiosity about this revolting object called cow stomach.

At long last I went back and bought four "bathing caps". They stank of shit. I cleared a shelf in the refrigerator for storage and put this thing inside a bucket filled with cold water, and sealed it hermetically with a black nylon wrap. I didn't want my son Jonathan to get disgusted, and I didn't want the refrigerator to stink. This was in 2002. I didn't have a studio then. In my living room I put up white sheet, hung the stomachs from stainless steel butcher's hook, and took a picture. This was the first frame.

I returned to the market. I didn't know what I wanted to buy from that man. He doesn't have a shopping window to display his merchandise; everything is stored in the stainless steel refrigerator, like in a morgue. I thought I would ask him to show me what's inside, what other body organs he stored there for sale. Then I saw an organ in a sink. It was even stranger and more exciting than the stomach. I asked the man about it. It's not for you, he said. OK, I said, but tell me what it is. He said, you can't touch it. Why, I asked. Because you are a young woman, he said, women cannot touch it, touching it will take all your strength away, and you can still bear children.

I wanted to buy that thing, but the man refused, saying, this is cow uterus, but I won't sell it to you.

I couldn't believe my ears. People eat this thing?! After he said that it was cow uterus I wanted it more than anything. I managed to convince him to sell it to me. I bought a cow uterus. It smelled awful. I couldn't bring myself to store it in my refrigerator, but it was stronger than me, so I went ahead with it.

And so it went. I had no idea what the next body part was going to be. I ended up with five:






I worked with them many times over a period of three years. It took me that long before I came up with a frame that I knew was right. It took me a long time to get "friendly" with them, to understand and get acquainted with their formal and material complexity. In the market, at the butcher's, they come already cut, to be sold as food. But I wanted to study them as a whole. I realized I had to pay a visit to the slaughterhouse, where I could buy them whole, even before the vet makes cuts with his scalpel for the standard veterinarian examination. With time I learned what to ask for, and tell the people there where to cut. It took me a long time to find a slaughterhouse that agreed to see me and allow me inside.

In my searches I went to the city of Hedera, where I met Dr. Walter, a regional vet, and Dr. Greenberg. For the meeting I brought two photographs of the organs. He was enthusiastic and agreed to cooperate. On this occasion I witnessed slaughter of a cow for the first time.

Since then I saw dozens of them. To me they seemed like a terrible, ancient, mesmerizing ritual. Slaughterhouse is a hallucinatory place. It is very hard to watch. On my car trips from Hedera back to Tel Aviv, hauling the merchandise in my trunk, I often thought why I was doing it, and about the passion that guided my actions with such power. I felt I had embarked on a sort of symbolic journey: starting from the lowest, the most primitive rung of the cultural ladder, all the way up to the high culture of museum or gallery space.

I would bring the organs to my apartment, put them in the tub, rinse them, and prepare them for photographing. I often asked myself out loud, Sheffy, what the hell are you doing?!. But always it was stronger than me. Technically, photographing those things at home, in my small living room, posed serious problems. Finally, I realized I had no choice but to rent a studio. I called this particular set of photographs Body of Love, because for me the questions they raise are questions of love.

In between the "uterus" and the "udder", the photograph Jonathan was born. I saw Jonathan in my mind's eye, and was filled with great anguish. I feared an ominous, self-fulfilling prophesy, but I couldn't stop myself. All this took place in the living room, in the evening, before his bath. It didn't matter how many times and days I photographed afterward, the pink version, the baby-blue version. Not a single one of them managed to bring back the spell that happened with the first click, in the first frame of the first roll of film.

After the Body of Love series I was too exhausted by working with body parts, organic materials, large scale, weight, and endless photo sessions. I felt a need to go back to working on a smaller scale, on a table. This is how the series Still Life was born.

When looking at the act of slaughtering, I saw it as a simulation of a sexual act, aggressive and violent. Slaughterhouse is a place of men wielding large knives. They strip the cow's skin, cut inside the flesh, penetrate into the cow's body, separate its organs, and they do all this with mesmerizing and horrifying skill.

There are no women there.

Then I hanged myself upside down. Like a cow. This was how the photograph Self-Portrait came into being. Between myself I called it the suspended woman.

I worked over six months on the suspended woman. I suspended a mannequin about my height by its legs from the ceiling. I sew padded strips. The strips were tied to rings which I connected to the ceiling with a specially designed device. For the background, I reconstructed the living room in my parents' apartment from the days of my childhood. The walls there were covered with flower-patterned wall paper. I was attracted to the red one, which seemed too bold at first, but I went ahead with it. The set was filled with objects that had been emptied. I eliminated them one by one until I was left with a lamp-shade and a carpet, ready to photograph, but there was no one who could photograph me, suspended and naked. During an accidental conversation with my younger sister she agreed. Nava arrived on the appointed day. She was very businesslike. Perhaps this is how she hid her embarrassment. I told her which button to press and how to tie my legs and then pull me up by the ropes. I rested my hands on a barstool, and Nava pulled, and slowly I lifted off from the floor. I was  very frightened at this moment.

I faced the camera, and left my panties on, because I was a little embarrassed to take them off. Nava said, you look awful. I said, that's great, this is how I want it.

Nava photographed.

I went back down to the floor. We took a break. My feet were cold and blue. Nava suggested that we photograph me again, but with my back to the camera. Even though this wasn't what I had set my mind to, I agreed. With my back to the camera I felt more comfortable to take my panties off.

Nava was right.

When later I looked at the slides, I realized that the right frame is the one with my back facing the camera.

From there I went on and suspended myself many times, each time with a small change or nuance. Illit Azuali, who is a professional photographer, did the photographs, and Alma Schneor, my assistant, tied me and pulled me up and down, and fear turned into love.

I knew I would return to the slaughterhouse. I also knew which organs I wanted to photograph. I wasn't interested in the familiar and associated with the color of meat. I wasn’t interested at all in the liver, the heart or the lungs which are familiar to us. During my numerous visits to the slaughterhouse, I was surprised to discover all kinds of strange organs, which cannot be immediately associated with the cow's body, or with any body, for that matter. I took them all into my studio where I handled and prepared them for photo sessions. I called them Organic Gardens.

The slaughterhouse became a routine place for me, and so did the work with the organs. At that time I met an "angel" who enchanted me and stirred me up. In time we became soul mates. His otherness and being different stimulated me. I knew I would photograph and I knew how. I affixed the camera to the ceiling, but it took a long time to get there. The moment of taking the picture took place two years later. I called it Angel.

When a cow is suspended upside down, flayed, the knife cuts its belly open. At that moment a rounded, steaming thing bursts out of its body. It is huge and beautiful, pink and milky. This warm thing spills out onto the floor, and the cow's belly remains hollow. It is a simulation of birth.

I couldn't drag this thing which weighed one-hundred kilograms, so I came with a studio to the slaughterhouse. I set up lighting equipment  and a background in an empty building right next to the slaughterhouse. A worker with a wheelbarrow emptied its contents on the pink floor. I called it Internal Landscape in the Pink Outside, or pink picture, as I call it.


Sheffy Bleier

June 2009

Translated from the Hebrew by Jerzy Michalowicz