Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The Chilean-born artist Marco Evaristti is best known for his 2000 work, "Helena." Inside Denmark's Trapholt Art Museum, Evaristti installed ten electric blenders, their power cords visibly connected to electrical outlets. He filled the blenders with fresh water and placed a live goldfish in each. Foolish, disturbed or sickly curious museum visitors might choose to turn on a blender, thereby taking the life of a goldfish. Two people did just that. Public outcry followed and law suits were brought against the artist and the museum.
When I first read about "Helena," I thought it a puerile stunt. Most artists, critics and viewers reacted similarly, but these condemnations and dismissals were perhaps what Evaristti sought. Because the piece attracted so much derision, "Helena" transformed a little known sensationalist into an international art circuit commodity.
In time, however, I forgot Evaristti's name...but I didn't forget about "Helena." Despite my initial censure of the work, the disdainful tone of those who condemned Evaristti forced me to revisit the controversy. After all, what had the artist or the museum director done wrong, really? Evaristti presented a scenario in which another person might harm the goldfish. He provided museum goers with the necessary tools to kill a fish, but he didn't encourage them to do so. Still, he was smeared by animal rights groups, religious organizations and artist collectives.
I believe that the outcry over "Helena" was so vitriolic because Evaristti positioned himself as a public moralist. The mirror was turned to face art viewers in a difficult moment, and we didn't like what we saw there. While I may not hold Evaristti's risky installation in high regard, it is the art world's angry response that worries me. Indeed, the protests and the criminal charges suggest that many people (perhaps the majority) lack faith in the moral fiber of their fellow man.
Do most people believe that ours is an innately murderous species? Do most of us feel that moral calculus is irrelevant when another person or power has pointed you to a certain, dark end? I can not (and do not) accept such pessimistic attitudes. If I were to hand you a frog and a bat, would you think it okay to play frog baseball? I doubt it. And what are we to make of the vast majority of automobile drivers, those of us that don't opt to direct our vehicle into pedestrians, bicyclists or road-crossing chickens?
As Evaristti put it, he aimed to create "a dilemma" in which people might "do battle with their conscience." Because the artist included no signs or other directives instructing museum visitors to turn on a blender or blenders, I do not believe that the fish killers could fall back on the Stanley Milgram defense; visitors were not "good Germans," recklessly obedient to some unseen authority. (Indeed, only two visitors have ever "flipped the switch," a nearly negligible minority of the work's many viewers/subjects.)
A more convincing criticism posits that the museum setting is one of institutionalized safety; visitors therefore feel that their turning on a blender will not, in fact, bring a goldfish to an untimely, gruesome end. This is a valid supposition, but I maintain that only visitors with a sick curiosity would cross that final threshold, committing to the loaded "What if I do this?" (Again, it is instructive that just two visitors went so far.)
Whatever you think of "Helena," Evaristti's most recent project ups the ante. The work is sure to generate plenty of negative publicity in the coming months...and, of course, that's exactly what the Denmark-based shock artist wants.