Friday, April 18, 2008

"I am become death: the shatterer of worlds."

There are schools of though that assert that in death, there is enlightenment, the chance for transformation, or even to be reborn. Then there are sensationalistic simulations/paeans to death. Notably and recently, Damian Hirst's bedazzled skull.

Less glamorously: Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas' "installation" Eres lo que lees (you are what you read) wherein he is purported to have taken a starving dog from the streets of Nicaragua, tied it to a gallery wall, and let it starve to death over the course of several days during which time an incense bowl full of 175 pieces of crack cocaine was burning as the Sandanista anthem played backwards on a record player.

Though it seems a little too deliberately embroidered to be completely true, the incident has stirred up international outrage in the form of a protest petition being circulated across the web. The main point being that because of his willingness to let a dog die, or a least pretend to, Vargas should not be allowed to exhibit at the prestigious Visual Arts Biennial of the Central Americas. Conceptually his project was weak, and needlessly cruel…showing such a single-note artist weakens the entire Biennial.

According to the site, updated on April 14, 2008, the status of the truth of these allegations is "undetermined."

Even more sensationalistically, Yale senior Ali Shvarts' senior thesis project which involved multiple self-inseminations, and then self-induced miscarriages using abortifacient herbs over the course of nine months. Various (online) sources report the student recorded herself, and preserved the blood from the incidents in a freezer.

According to the Yale Daily News, "Shvarts said her project would take the form of a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Green Hall. Shvarts said she would wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around the cube, with blood from her self-induced miscarriages lining the sheeting. Recorded videos of her experiencing her miscarriages would be projected onto the four sides of the cube, Shvarts said, and similar videos would also be displayed on the walls of the room."

In both instances the artist has stepped outside of cultural norms, and ethics supposedly in order to make a specific point. A point that deals both with the hypocrisy and increasing torpor of humanity. The tragic flaw of both projects, however, is that whether "true" or not—whether the dog died or the girl aborted multiple fetuses in the course of nine months, neither is imparting information that is terribly new. Yes, humans are flawed. Yes, we are often hypocritical. Yes, issues surrounding a woman's body (I'm pro-choice by the way*) are complex and difficult to unravel**.

Though their projects seem (from my comfortable seat in front of the computer) banal and sophomoric, what both Shvarts and Vargas have been able to do is capture the attention of the media and exploit our own prurient interests. Then the question becomes, not even one of morality, but of affording sensationalists like this a platform from which to increase their own marketability.

Incidentally, I did wrestle with whether or not to post this essay, and I’m still not sure I should have. However, the larger issue is one that goes to the credibility of contemporary art: once again, in the public mind, artists will be lumped in with scandal-courting charlatans (at best), or with the ill-conceived, inelegant stunts of the mentally unbalanced and just plain cruel.

It also bears mentioning that Shvarts’ project (at least) has antecedents in the work of Kiki Smith, Orlan, and Ana Mendieta…sort of. But really, it just sort of unsubtly shrieks “I hate myself and my body.” While Vargas’ project is like that guy at the bar that hits on every girl, hoping—at the very least--for sympathy pussy.

*Please note, pro-choice does not mean pro-death, it means that I support a woman's right to choose whether or not to continue or terminate a pregnancy. I, nor any other person I know, celebrates the decision to end a pregnancy.

**Historically, women have always used the means at their disposal to control wanted and unwanted pregnancies.


Mark Creegan said...

I know that our, perhaps mine as well, initial response to this work is that it is the product of someone who wants to gain attention and proceed with the easiest possible method. Now, what they SAY is that they want to open up a dialog about these issues and present a work that forces us to confront these issues in a impactful way. Certainly, for me to meet them and take their word and appreciate these actions as heartfelt, if perhaps a bit simplistic, metaphors for life and death issues, i have to KNOW that these are actions that were not actually done. The story/idea is all that is needed in this post-Duchampian world. I am sure there are other ways to represent a starving dog (found photographs, a cage that was acquired from the authorities who discovered an abusive dog farm, these just off the top of my head) . But, as an artist, I have to be receptive UP TO A POINT to a possible delivery of a communicative starting point.

But either way these actions/non-actions are worthy of discussion about the limits of expression and I would imagine will be part of a MFA seminar that I will hopefully teach some day.

Mark Creegan said...

The above mentioned requirement applies more to the dog piece. I think that girl can do whatever she wants to her body, cuz, well, its HER body.

madeleine said...

I agree with you on all points, and I hope that my post was not seen as an endorsement of animal cruelty in the name of art (that being said, I should disclose that I am not a vegetarian, but I try to limit my intake of meat for several reasons).

However, as to the girl's actions, while I agree that yes, it is her body, I must ask: where were her advisors and what where they thinking (assuming her assertions are true) letting her endanger her health this way?

Mark Creegan said...

woah, check this out!

Anonymous said...

Wow. That is all I can say: "genuis?" more like opportunist. What she did was give all those wacky-pro-lifers a Christmas gift 8 months early. -mp