We’re introducing Night Mode … Try it out with the sun/moon icon at the top left. Or change font settings with the ‘A’ to make the site work for you.
Got it
The ICA will be on general strike on Fri 20 Oct. Read more
0 / 256
Exhibition Guide
Institute of Contemporary Arts

8 February – 5 May 2024

Abattoir is the first UK institutional exhibition by New York-based artist and writer Aria Dean. The presentation includes two artworks related to the artist’s investigation of the essential link between slaughter and industrialisation. Presented in the main gallery is Dean’s Abattoir, U.S.A.! from 2023, a film installation featuring a short animation with immersive audio; the secondary gallery contains a new sculptural presentation with text by the artist. Across both spaces, Dean proposes with her characteristic concision and humour, an interpretive angle on the foundational place of death within modernity.

Abattoir, U.S.A.! addresses its subject in a seemingly straightforward way: the film traverses the corridors and chambers of an imagined slaughterhouse. Death, that quintessential candidate for symbolism in art, is here approached materially, via the architectures of a killing maze. The secondary gallery minimally contains four large vitrines and an accompanying wall text. The vitrines are empty save for a single word marked on their red velvet lining with a branding iron. The brand, a tag of ownership usually burned into living flesh, emphasises the palpable lack of a body. With both the film and the vitrine installation Dean does not offer bodies, or objects, or images to be looked at; there is nothing there. Rather she presents a container, specifically one that doubles back on itself.

To make sense of things, we must above all consider the structure in place. Dean uses the idea of the abattoir as both a material and analogical framework for understanding structuralised death as a cornerstone of modern life. This interpretive emphasis on structure is part of the artist’s broader artistic project understanding modern subjectivity; specifically how representation, aesthetic systems, and perceptions of history map onto questions of race and power. French philosopher Georges Bataille described the slaughterhouse as a site that must necessarily sit outside of what we deem ‘civil society’ in order to uphold that society. We literally and conceptually situate animal slaughter on the outskirts.

In Dean’s US context, the way an industrialised slaughterhouse establishes and perpetuates a particular relationship between human, animal, and machine resonated with the structuralised violence against Black Americans. Here in the UK at the start of 2024, the capacity of the analogy to accommodate broader architectures of modernity – colonial-ism, industrialisation, fascism – became clear. Against a contemporary backdrop of systemic violence and subjugation, the concept of the abattoir remains as poignant as it is absurd.


Though popularly understood as a disposition of heightened or exaggerated affect – whether in film, theater, text, or embodied by a person – melodrama is also a specific historical form and technical category in film. The classic melodrama structures itself around binaries such as hero and villain, good and evil and generally finds virtue triumphing over vice. Further, the melodrama’s general goal is to produce ideological and neuro-psychological effects in the spectator through techniques as seemingly mundane as the close-up, or emotionally resonant music cues. The melodrama is the basis of the time-worn Hollywood film formula as well as the model for all film genres. However, it is also the basis for fascist film form as well; its American iteration, as the melodrama par excellence, was used as the blueprint for the propaganda melodramas produced by The Third Reich Cinema in Nazi Germany. In the post-war era, the conventions of melodrama remain baked into cinematic discourse. Efforts have been made to deconstruct and ironize melodrama in the German context, most famously by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was massively influenced by Douglas Sirk (Hollywood director known for his melodramas, who also happened to be German-born, working as a film director in Germany until the rise of the Nazis at which point he and his Jewish wife escaped to the United States).


Fordism refers to a system of economic, social, and technological activity organised around mass production. The concept is named after Henry Ford, whose Ford automobile factories relied on an assembly line model of production – the method which would come to be known as the central characteristic of the Fordist model. However, the assembly line predates Ford, finding its roots in the slaughterhouses of the 19th century and their streamlined methods for swift and hygienic ‘dis-assembly’. It has even been said that Henry Ford was struck by the idea for the Ford plant’s assembly lines during a visit to a Chicago meatpacking plant.


The question of ornamentation is a recurring concern in architectural history, and central to the development of Western architectural style over the centuries. Perhaps most famously, Adolf Loos railed against ornament in useful objects in 1913 in ‘Ornament and Crime’. For Loos, ‘ornament is wasted labour and hence wasted wealth’. Many years before this text, the problem of ornament in industrial building was debated, specifically in relation to French slaughterhouse design in the Napoleonic era. Prior to the 19th century, animal slaughter in Western Europe and America was a largely unregulated practice, taking place in small butcher shops, alleyways, and private residences. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, French architects and civil authorities began to explore not only regulating butchery as an industry, but doing so by removing it from sight almost entirely. By the Napoleonic era, this was written into law (the abattoir shall be ‘completely removed’ from all ambitions to Architecture and ornamentation). As a result, the slaughterhouse was prohibited from being thought of as an architectural typology, but at the same time – through its lack of ornamentation and rational, function organisation of forms – is exemplary of something not unlike the modernist design sensibilities that would emerge after World War I.

International Style

The International Style was a European architectural tendency that emerged after World War I and by mid-century had come to dominate architecture in the west. The category is ambiguous, but is largely used to describe design that follows a rationalist program of architectural modernism, like that put forth by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and Le Corbusier. As architectural historian and theorist Reyner Banham explores in his book Concrete Atlantis, The International Style was directly influenced by American industrial buildings, which European modernists fetishised for their supposed honesty of form (à la Louis Sullivan’s adage ‘form follows function’). Architects adopted the structures and iconography of American factories, grain elevators, and the like as a language through which to express their techno-utopian desires. As much as the International Style was influenced by American industry, it also carried with it some socialist utopian ideas about labour and collective living. The intermingling of these forms and ideas had varied results, many of which were skewed toward a technocratic model for life, as in the work of Le Corbusier.


Achille Mbembe developed the concept of Necropolitics in his essay and book of the same name; it is, in short, a theory of politics and sovereignty that centers on ‘the right to kill’. The idea is an elaboration of Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘biopolitics,’ reconfiguring it to emphasise the power to decide who dies and administer death, over the power to grant and administrate life as the primary operation of power in modernity. This view creates an umbrella concept through which slavery, colonialism, genocide, labour struggles may be yoked together and read as a complex of forces with a shared goal, not as competing negative orders to struggle against. The abattoir is a site where necro-power is exercised at a seemingly mundane, rote scale – against animals, in order to define the contours of the human. In this sense, the abattoir is a ‘reality-generating’ site. It participates in the generation and maintenance of a humanist reality, as well as a technocratic, securitised, capitalist reality where ‘vast populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead’.

Aria Dean, 2024


Aria Dean (b. 1993) lives and works in New York. The selected writings of Dean were compiled in Bad Infinity, published by Sternberg Press in 2023. Recent solo and two-person exhibitions and performances include The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2023); Greene Naftali, New York (2023, 2021); CAPC, Bordeaux (2023); REDCAT, Los Angeles (2021); Artists Space, New York (2020); Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Geneva (2019); and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (2018). Significant group shows include the Whitney Biennial: Quiet as It’s Kept (2022); the Hammer Museum’s biennial Made in L.A. 2020: a version (2021); the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (2019); The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland (2019); Tai Kwun, Hong Kong (2019); Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2018); Swiss Institute, New York (2018); and the de Young Museum, San Francisco (2017), among others.

Her writing has appeared in publications including Artforum, Art in America, e-flux, The New Inquiry, X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Spike Quarterly, Kaleidoscope Magazine, Texte zur Kunst, CURA Magazine, and November. Dean’s work is in the collection of the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, Netherlands; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Event programme, tickets, and and information on educational and youth tours available at ica.art/aria-dean-abattoir