“It’s just a piece of pork?” I hear art-goers question as they move around the exhibition. Reinventing classically mundane objects into something of value and intrigue has long been a recurring theme in design, art and fashion. The likes of Off-White and American artist Heron Preston have been taking zip ties, duct tape and otherwise forgotten items and have cast entire generations to adopt them as expressions of style and self-identity. As much as we love them, and we do, art has been questioning what we deem to be valuable for centuries (we’re looking at you, Duchamp). In the case of the aptly named Meat- Shaped Stone, a humble pork belly is turned into a revered slice objet d’art. However, it’s not GEN Y coveting ownership of this sculptural masterpiece, but two highly motivated governments. Based in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Meat-Shaped- Stone (artist unknown) has long been a symbol for Taiwanese history and nationalism and is now being served to an Australian audience at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Carved from jasper during the Qing dynasty with immense precision, the porous skin, glistening fat and hair follicles attribute to an incredibly realistic artefact. With such detail put into a simple slice of meat on top of a golden platter, its popularity and value quickly spread throughout China.

The piece was famously removed from Beijing in 1949, when Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled communist rule and became Taiwan’s first legitimate president, spearheading this little piece of pork as a Taiwanese national treasure. Taipei has since rarely been willing to loan the artefact (along with its stoned-sister Jadeite Cabbage) for fear of Beijing attempting to claim them. For this reason, when the morsel makes an international appearance, its travel itinerary is kept under tighter embargo than Virgil Abloh’s latest sneaker drop.

With a profound sense of national identity, this seemingly unassuming piece has still struck a chord with Taiwanese and international fans, all eager to queue up and catch a glimpse of the little stone, proving that this slice of history is not just a piece of meat after all.

Meat-Shaped Stone – part of the Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei exhibition – is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until May 5, 2019.

THIS ARTICLE APPEARED ORIGINALLY IN THE APRIL 2019 EDITION OF ICON MAGAZINE.

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