Drawing upon the language of early internet meme culture, Shir Cohen and Olivia Sterling explore the aesthetics of hate through body-horrific illustrations. Retrieving their iconology from far-right groups, these artists add their layers of meaning to famous images or ‘memes’ used in political messaging. In Rage Comics, meat is a threat to hegemony and an illusion of our shared bodily fallibility.
The title of the exhibition, Rage Comics, refers to the digital cartoon strips originating in the early 2010s. Still circulating in our contemporary digital fabric, primarily amongst right-wing head groups, are images of satire and cruelty. These constitute mass media and signify what Maggie Nielson calls “Art’s trashy cousin” in The Art of Cruelty.
Cohen and Sterling transplant the reductive and dehumanising language often used against marginalised groups, creating a new vocabulary. Sterling critiques the racialised language of far-right parties such as UKIP in large-scale canvases. The torsos of busty, vital women grind meat into limp, white sausages. We are invited to laugh nervously at Sterling’s gruesome subversion of dominant power structures. Cohen’s alphabet of animal-human hybrids uses body horror equally critically. Borrowing the language of hate, these artists inject their exhibition with the spirit of Zizek’s ‘Imp of Perversity’. Here, METAL speaks with the two artists about their practice.
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Olivia Stirling - Portrait: Brynley Odu Davies.
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Shir Cohen - Portrait: Kate Bickmore.
Hi, Shir and Olivia - Congratulations on opening your recent show at Huxley-Parlour: Rage Comics. Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Shir: I’m Shir Cohen, originally from Jerusalem but based in London. I’m mainly a painter but I’ve branched out to other mediums recently, especially textiles of late.
Olivia: Originally from Peterborough but moved to London for my MA where I met Shir. I am also a painter whose work mainly focuses on food, comedy and othering.
How long has this show been in development - will it be your first time working together?
Shir: We both studied at the Royal College of Art in 2019 when we wrote the Rage Comics proposal. Obviously, we didn’t get to make the show because this was right before Covid, but we always knew it was there and we’d do it someday.
Can I ask about the exhibition title, Rage Comics, which refers to the online language of “rage faces” or early Internet memes? What drew you both towards this theme?
Shir: I’m an Internet addict, and much of my research time involves reading right-wing and conspiracy theory communities. Because I’m a visual artist, I’m most interested in the way they use images – I think a compelling image is also the easiest way to draw someone into those spaces. Rage faces were kind of an early version of this, now, we have a very similar phenomenon with Wojaks and Chads.
Olivia: I am right on the millennial Gen Z cusp. As a child, I spent hours on Microsoft Paint crudely drawing pictures of people kissing (dogs or maybe even anthropomorphic animals) so the visual language is very nostalgic to me. On top of this, both our works utilise the black line also present in memes. So, discussing this theme within an installation show was a natural fit for us.
Far-right groups employ cartoons and memes to articulate a shared humour and worldview. These images can straddle humour and hate. Do you think that the show subverts the language of these symbols?
Shir: I think it’s very easy to comment on hateful humour by replicating it. This show takes the original images and develops them, humanises them. We think about how things like race, gender, and disability are displayed in far-right circles, and give them their own life and meaning. It’s a lot harder for a white supremacist to be cruel to someone they can empathise with.
Olivia: Yes, we are saying we are angry too. At different things, but the root of our practices is making fun of the things that cause us pain; marginalisation, hatred, othering etc. We are usurping the language of these materials. Much like the nature of memes, we have added our layer to make these symbols relatable.
What role does irony play in this exhibition?
Shir: It takes a lot to make a good joke and it’s even harder in a visual medium. The show lives on this line of, who is the joke on? Can the viewer laugh along with it, or is it about them? I think most people can find themselves as the butt of a right-wing joke – we all have something that marginalises us in some way; the challenge is finding and connecting with it. So you can laugh, but maybe not too much.
Olivia: Maybe the real irony of the show is far-right people complaining about how PC culture and social progression is damaging their day-to-day lives. But, it is the very doctrine of the far-right that negatively affects Shir and I, as well as other marginalised people. You could say the biggest snowflakes are the ones shouting “Snowflakes”. That is the absurdity that Shir and I play with in our work and why we prefer using more quote unquote naive or crude visual language to discuss serious topics.
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Olivia Sterling, Bones are for Dogs, Meat is for Men (2023). Image courtesy Huxley-Parlour, London.
The press release describes the exhibition space as “Butcher’s shop” and “Slaughterhouse”. Three-dimensional sculpture, metal-meat hooks and large scale canvas are all present. What would you like the viewer to take away from their experience of this space?
Shir: One of the first things we discussed for the show was meat, specifically sausages. The first image I made was Pulling each others’ guts out, thinking about how marginalised populations are pitted against each other. In a way, the show uses this as a visual line, where meat can be a threat to the hegemony or something that is used to oppress.
Olivia:  I would like the viewer to leave laughing, even if it is nervous laughter. Where hopefully the viewer identifies with both the figures that are doing the torture and being tortured in the show.
Visceral, wet and uncontained paint strokes feature throughout the show. Paint that moves beyond the line. Could you discuss this technique?
Olivia: I enjoy having a looseness of painting and when a paint mark poetically mirrors the thing it represents, much like how the blood looks like blood, or when white chalk looks like white chalk on a blackboard. Fluidity runs through the show: the fluidity of ideas such as identity, sexuality and race.
Shir: I find a defined canvas very hard to handle. I like something almost part of the wall and not contained by a frame — the same fluidity Olivia mentions. This is why I prefer paper or a painting with a shape that follows the painted subject.
In both of your works, meat and carnality are present. How did these ideas contribute to your rendering of the human form?
Olivia: There has been an insistence to correlate humans to meat or animals to dehumanise them. This is historically true of Black and Jewish people. We depart from one another, as my paintings are seen as revenge or comeuppance for those who wish to dehumanise others; a white mangled finger parallels a string of sausages. Far-right ways of thinking have been transformed symbolically into meat now rendered harmless. This is meant to be funny. A way of processing hatred is to make a joke out of it. Transforming an enemy into something silly is a phenomenon we are familiar with. Think of a witch turning someone into a frog. I was also thinking about art historical references such as Manet’s Olympia. Olympia’s skin is described as “the colour of aged meat [une couleur faisandée]”. For me, this recalled how incels call sexually active women’s vaginas “roasties'' because it turns to “roast beef” from frequent use. Today, there is still an insistence on transforming those we wish to be derogatory towards into meat.
Shir: I understand these issues from reading about eugenics and social Darwinism. It starts with the perception of humans as nothing but animals that need to be culled or bred to improve a race.
Another notable feature is the animal-human hybrid. Olivia, this occurs in your practice in the contrast of live human flesh and dead, processed Lincolnshire sausages. Shir, you combine chronically online terminology with chimeric imagery in Gigachad Bird. Could you elaborate on the significance of mixing the human and non-human?
Shir: Related to the above, this comes for me from the dehumanisation of eugenics, but specifically for this piece, also the focus on visual strength in current white supremacist culture and its obsession with antiquity and their equation of the quote unquote good with the beautiful.
Olivia, in one of your works Bones are for Dogs, Meat is for Men, a phallic, limp, pale white sausage is fed through a meat grinder. Could you discuss the process behind this piece?
Olivia: I had the idea of making a painting that imagines myself gathering UKIP members from my hometown, cutting them up and making them into sausages. Lincolnshire sausages hold so much pride for Lincolnshire people, myself included. Patriotism and xenophobia often go hand in hand, so, UKIP members becoming the English icon that is Lincolnshire sausages seems apt. It's an angry painting -  I don’t want to kill these people. However, wouldn’t it be funny if I had the power to get a person who hates me and grind them into sausages? It is a fantasy that we can only realise through painting. I was a little afraid to make such an angry painting.
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Shir Cohen, Tradwife 1 (2023). Image courtesy Huxley-Parlour, London.
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Shir Cohen, Tradwife 2 (2023). Image courtesy Huxley-Parlour, London.
Olivia, what was the compositional decision in your works to depict the torso’s of only female figures, their breasts and muscular arms, but no head?
Olivia: I never give my figures heads as I want them to maintain a universality. They are often representatives of their race. But here, the action is focused on the sausages at the mercy of the butchers. Wound Spray is about the incel tendency to obsess over body parts, namely wrists, penises and breasts. I attempted to understand and visualise the incel’s view of a woman’s body. Incels view women as sexual creatures and equally as gatekeepers of sex. Therefore, they appear to them as monstrous or even scary. Plus, a  figure with no head is less confrontational. When no head or human eyes are confronting the viewer, it feels like you are gladly partaking in their objectification.
Shir, in the 84 drawings presented at the start of the exhibition, a series of symbols recur throughout; the form of a bird, the dismembered human form, The Star of David and skeletons. What do these symbols signify to you?
Shir: I try to use my works on paper as a diary, so different themes tend to repeat themselves. Dismemberments and skeletons are related to the feeling of always being dissected or judged by my physical usefulness. It’s also about how a lot of bigots are absolutely obsessed with bones — they’ll say if you have the wrong skull shape you’ll never have sex or never be able to transition. Stars of David were used by Jewish people but also used to mark them before genocide. When they come up in my work, it’s usually about marking and reappropriating them.
Your embroidered works have a wonderful effect of peeling away from the wall. Also, pairing black marker with delicate stitching creates a great contrast - how did you arrive at this technique?
Shir: It’s a bit funny — I know I’m supposed to make my embroidery drawing with something that can wash off later, but I don’t plan these things well enough in advance and just draw what I like and embroider over the parts I think should be embroidered.
What is next for you both? What can we expect to see looking forward from your practice?
Olivia: I am having a two-person show with Guts Gallery alongside some group shows next year. I’d like to do part two of this show, as it has been wonderful to do it conceptually, physically, spiritually, etc.
Shir: I’ll be in a group show in ArtPort Tel-Aviv this December called More Than Enough. It’s a group show of Israeli queer artists dealing with issues of orientation and spatiality. I also loved working on this show so Rage Comics 2 would be a great plan.
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Olivia Sterling, Wound Spray (2023) (Installation view).
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Shir Cohen (Installation view).