Nina Haagen’s Carnivore Couture

by Bart Plantenga

Years before Lady Gaga wore her scandalous meat dress to the 2010 MTV Awards there was Bart Plantenga’s 1990s story “Nina Haagen’s Carnivore Couture.” It details an outrageous evening at a Lower Eastside club [was it Club 57?] where an MC-dominatrix named Blossom Deerie presented the evening’s “Carnivore Couture” fashion show by Nina Haagen [not that one], a stagiare of various Fluxus artists. The evening also featured the Pasolini Giblet Boys, Serena Delauney, Ulrike Meinhof and the band Robotobo’s 6 Blue Nipples. This is an enhanced re-edited version of the story.

  • Rollo W., National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side

I’m on my way, hurled outward, into the streets wearing my hand-washed underwear, dried stiff on the radiator for this special evening. I pass the collapsing buildings, held upright by logs wedged in under their chins. Curbs are lined with sacks of dust and doll parts. Pedestrians lost in the solipsistic intrigue of their own bad habits. I have sharpened my agility by playing video games and pinball machines, the names of which I cannot remember. It enables me to better dodge the hordes.

In the walkable distance between where I live and where I hang you pass through sacred precincts: one where the New York Dolls are God, holy zones devoted to Kiss, Blondie and the Ramones. But the largest Lower Eastside district is ruled by those who believe the Velvet Underground to be of divine origin. Where one district ends and another begins is not always clear.

I’m on my way to Histrionic Personality Disorder or HPD. HPD was the illegitimate offspring of erstwhile Club 57, a hole in the wall next to a parish on St. Mark’s Place. It achieved a certain reputation not because of its one-legged strippers or bronzed snake handlers, midget Radio City Rockettes, or trashcore bands who bang their foreheads into garbage cans rigged with boom mikes. No, it was once known as the killing floor for performance-artist-entertainment junkies. This is where Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson, and Karen Finley all did what the PR departments of their dreams directed them to do – go pretty far with a formula that consisted of attitude + talent.

I am on the HPD guest list tonight. In NYC, guest lists ensure a haughty sense of entitled freedom, signify status and mobility within a rigid, sequined caste system. HPD was already packed and frenetic as an anthill on fire – everyone reeling and incensed somewhere between firewater, smoke, needle, and fame. These are the last of the art warriors who seem to land on earth with no family, no emotional vocabulary and a raison d’être they must cobble together from rumor and misunderstanding. In HPD, they can cop that seamless faith of gesture with impunity – something to do with the business of art, or the anti-business of anti-art.

HPD: I saw crotch leather and chrome, sneers and mockery, Prozac and Ecstasy, boobs and bad shoes, and pretty faces that said “eat or be eaten.” The many Bedouins of the night convey their haughty impoverished glamour in classic squalor to lend their lives a sense of heroism and make their pursuit of renown for renown’s sake seem less tautological. Weird thing is, they were actually nice people although they did their very best to make you think otherwise.

Blossom Deerie traipsed out on stage dressed as an outer space dominatrix, Barbarella comes to Alphabet City in an aluminum Spandex bodysuit detailed with two winking-eye pasties and a chastity belt with the menacing jaws of a shark painted on it. Blossom could shake anyone’s tree because she’s HPD’s eternal “impressariette,” intrepid hostess, matchmaker, busybody, troublemaker, poison-pen author – and dominatrix in select NYC slave caves. She could name names and that was always part of her power; she had learned that information was dominance.

She had turned to collagen replacement therapy and attitude and that could sustain her – or anyone, really – as she danced in silver barbed-riveted knee-hi boots, her partner a vibrating Double Dong Dildo (3D™) that looked like something plumbers use to unclog industrial drains. She danced writhingly with Mr. Double Dong to “How Lovely To Be A Woman” and that obscure nugget, “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.” The purpose? Well, to celebrate the liberating effect of the vibrator. [She had already informed me twice that “Dominatrix” had been written for her by Ike Yardley, brains behind the “band” Modimatrix].

Duke Snider, poet distiller extraordinaire who had rewritten “War and Peace” as a chain of 16 haiku – Tolstoy in 272 syllables! – can of beer in hand, was cackling hysterically, clinging to Blossom’s every thrust and gyration, the way beer foam clung to his mustache.

But some other guy, with circles the size of bedroom slipper soles under his eyes who was famous for transforming heroin addiction into a kind of mental sculpture sniped: “This bitch’s got more’n one screw loose. She’s a 7 on the RECTUM scale!”

He may have meant it all as an ironic, backhanded compliment but still … You slag everything within view and you can effectively postpone addressing your own hyper-ineffectuality. The canvas and palette for performers around here was basically sardonic détournement and triple-entendre satire so that every act is excused, covered, conceptualized, sneered at and otherwise justified and any criticism turns into praise and praise is rejected and the rejection of praise becomes praise itself. Worn inside out.

When the carping reached Blossom’s ears, her response was simply: “Let barfing dogs lie, I just can’t hate OR pity people anymore.”

Blossom was from Gissum, Ohio where housewives make artsy-craftsy things out of styrofoam and pipe cleaners for charity, drink cheap white wine in wood-paneled basements. “When I got here I had to take night courses to find out what things meant.”

Blossom was now also just about past child-bearing age. But having a child in the City meant persecution, biological entrapment, guilt, shame, social immobility, and status demotion. To be rendered mother was to be cast as unhip martyr, a cripple even. The more it became an issue the less likely it was ever going to happen. But now in the twilight of her brash agelessness where the haughtiness of youth is about to give way to either more soul or more despair, she quipped: “You can only float on your face for so long.”

On stage, Serena Delaunay’s 11-year-old son read from the “CIA Counterinsurgency Manual” as Serena disassembled an acoustic guitar once owned by Johnny Thunders that she had won in a poker game, Herman Herpes did his thing, he made a quiche — live on stage! Totally DEE-lish. Cassius Cloy and Sonia Hennep performed their “Dead Elvis Kissing Booth,” a combination necrophiliac love altar and spook house act.

Ulrike Meinhof performed her “Striptease — No Lip Please” in a field of champagne glasses filled with schoolgirl urine while stripping Velcro-fastened velour lips off — one at a time — to Handel’s “Messiah.”

A loud band followed: Robotobo’s 6 Blue Nipples did their best Sonic Youth imitation, remangling 70s TV theme songs, filtered through post-mod-neo-hippie noise burying all claims to melodic nuance so no one could even guess the sources of their material. Sonic Youth’s faithful celebrants ruled the southeast corner just below Tompkins Square, while, not coincidentally, Robotobo’s 6 Blue Nipples already ruled a 3-block area further east. The guy in the Village Voice called them “the MC5 with Ersatz Mozart on lead guitar!” This was good because a band these days needed to project honest dishonesty or confusion mysticism.

The stage went dark. Underemployed groupie-actress-hairdresser-cashiers looked as if they were being eaten from inside out by the anxiety that surrounds renown, dancing in ways that mocked the clichéd gestures of fun — the pony, the jerk, the boogaloo — dancing away the heartache, the landscape, the hollow ring, tried to make the noise sing.

The stage lit up a blood red — time for “Nina Haagen’s Carnivore Couture Show.” Slabs of beef hung from hooks skirting the stage. New York Doll devotees and RISD and SVA post-doc-Talking Heads art alumni snarled into the drinks that made them just unbecoming enough to feel comfortable. Being unimpressed feels so good.

Muscular men in abattoir-white aprons or beef-bone codpieces carried women out over their shoulders the way they might have delivered sides of beef in the Meatpacking District in the 1950s. The women were dressed in a variety of fanciful Hawaiian hula skirts made of sheer delicatessen-thin slices of dried beef. Others flaunted olive loaf bikinis, bologna berets, bacon bowlers, wishbone earrings, pigskin shoes with horse-hoof heels and dazzling jackets of an overlapping prosciutto, salami spangled mail and bras made of the scrotal sacks of Friesian bulls!

Meanwhile, a screeching horde of “Radishes,” East Village radical vegetarians, had somehow managed to barge in past the doorman [bribe? or his revenge for being shot down once by Haagen?] began pelting the stage with garbage-found tomatoes to protest the “frivolous fauna abuse.” The bouncers, men steroidally rendered almost too male to function as men, strong and gentle eunuchs, escorted the “radishes” out as they chanted “EAT BEEFSTEAK TOMATOES NOT BEEFSTEAK!”

And then out came Haagen’s liverwurst ensembles, ham culottes, pig intestine belts, pig knuckle buckles, beef-bone codpieces, and an amazing array of cocktail sausage fringed skirts. Yum Yum. The models seemed to enjoy the titillating feel of meat against skin, scandal next to sin.

Blossom whispered to me from the corner of her mouth in her best Dorothy Parker: “Nina’s from Alsace: 1/2 German, 1/2 French, and 1/2 Ethiopian and that’s a LOT of woman.”

The Pasolini Giblet Boys followed in their ox-tongue loincloths crawling in on all fours and eating their way through some of the more provocative outfits hanging from the ample frames of the models.

Nina’s “coup de grease,” her “chef de left oeuvre,” however, was her collection of “steackhaché manteaus,” consisting of clear sacks quilted into down jackets and vests stuffed not with duck feathers but with raw hamburger. MMM, shake and bake.

And for an encore, her assistants led in a dozen blindfolded “butcher-eyed” volunteer homeless people from the Mission around the corner. You could watch as they felt their way through her fashion abattoir, felt the seams, the “fabrics,” the fit. You could watch as they on bended knees hungrily gnawed the meat off the models until they were naked except for the glisten of meat drippings. And then audience members were allowed to line up behind them, with even me, a vegetarian, queueing up because “I too prefer women to vegetables.” [I used that line about a dozen times and to me it was funny every time].

Afterwards, Haagen’s assistants gathered the utilizable meat and donated it – 200+ pounds! – to the 3rd Street Soup Kitchen.

“D’you see me queueing up? A vegetarian? Tha’s because I too prefer women to vegetables.”

“Buy me another drink so you’ll seem bearable.” Faye, famed glamour grumpelstiltskin and long-ago-ex demanded as she sidled up with a groan. She had just ditched her boytoy, Franklin Benjamin, “a one-drink drag who screwed so much that his considerable D-I-C-K exploded. But he assured me it’d been rebuilt and works better’n ever. His foreplay’s still a bit rough, like a butcher trimmin’ fat off a pig …”

“He’s got his work cut out for him.”

“You naughty! This is waterweight. When I get my period…you’re not even a haircut to me. I’ve made love to a thousand guys …”

“Why are you countin’?”

“I’m more woman than most can afford. We live in a quantifying world. [Silence] Nobody even noticed my paintings.” Faye’s art was good and, we were told, in tune with the direct holistic dexterity of the integrated folk artists who document everyday life in their respective lands. Folk, she was always on a trip about Folk and Genuine and having a direct link to the Primitive Authentic.

“Maybe they’re too small.”

“They’re fuckin’ 10 fucking feet by five fucking feet!”

“Maybe it’s the lighting.”

“Maybe it’s that bitch, Blossom.”

“Oh, she told people to ignore your paintings?”

“No, she wouldn’t let me hang’m where I wanted. And yuh know what, that Haagen’s a pretentious piece of Euro-Trash, you bet.” Faye was a real artist, the kind who gets to wait until she’s dead before she’s appreciated.

“I thought you had to be European to be Eurotrash. Anyway, I could live off one drag of her cigarette.”

“Your’re a lush for an accent. Anything with more’n two orifices. I mean it could be Lassie …”

“Lassie don’t smoke.”

“You know I was very aware of all the bullshit dynamics and awareness makes me nauseous and that’s why I get hysterical.”

We wandered outside, through a neighborhood where sex regularly goes to bed with murder – on TV, anyway. Faye was suddenly no longer herself. And that was good. Her face: a flicker of wish-filled faces scarred with mouths of ecstasy I’d cut from magazines and memory. She was adorable especially when she was busy obliterating that very quality.

“I dreamt you became like the men in the Melody Strip, men whose laps I’d sit on, with butcher hands who put 20 dollar bills inside me, men who’d just as soon be eating, or knifing or fucking me.”

“That’s flattering.”

I remember I climbed down off her loftbed to get her a rose petal glass of mineral water and two pills, the kind that made her forget.

“I wonder if I took all of’m, I’d forget everything — forever.” I remember her saying.

“Yep, clean slate.”

“Swimming and sleeping is where I’m safe and happy. Swimming and sleeping. Swimming and sleeping… [Walking in silence] Do you think my art is good?”

“Depends what you want it to do.”

“I want it to do everything we’re no longer capable of.”

“That’s no small feat. That’d be like ‘Guernica’ painted on a bed …”

We parted ways, each heading for a place that every time you entered, you for a moment wondered whether you actually lived there or had just walked into the neighbor’s place by mistake.

Nina Haagen’s Carnivore Couture

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