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.


William Shaw said...

I think your initial reaction to Helena was right. Ethically, it was fairly empty in its provocation. His more recent work with the death row prisoner however forces one to think about the idea of killing people. While actually more grotesque, it is also more purposeful.

What do you think of this piece, by the artist Francesca Galleazi, which trod a rather different ethical line?

Hungry Hyaena said...


I think the Francesca Galleazi performance is similarly puerile but, like Evaristti's "Helena," it is more complex than it initially appears. Yet the same question(s) can be proposed without placing fish in blenders or releasing CO2 on Jakobshavn Fjord. The artists, I assume, would defend their actions and artworks by arguing that most people won't ask the question(s) unless they are forced upon them.

I'm impressed with the RSA, though, and particularly with the RSA's Art & Ecology blog. I'm going to add a link to it. Thanks for the introduction!

bioephemera said...

Wow, that's just. . . disturbing. But it's supposed to be disturbing, so I guess I have to say the guy's work is effective. I just kind of wish he hadn't thought of it.

Michael McDevitt said...

I think it is interesting how we seem to be more disturbed by having our attention drawn to killing than by the act of killing itself. How many of those same aghast spectators dined on far larger fish or absentmindedly swept a dead bird away from their plate-glass door? Or let their cat out in the yard? Or scraped dozens of small carcasses off of their windshield at the gas station? Somehow, through willful ignorance, we are able to ignore the murderous nature of so many menial acts. But the we stand agape to see someone knowingly kill a little goldfish (often sold as feeder fish, by the way, and bred to die). Yes, the piece is sensationalist, but the hypocrisy is very real... and arguably adaptive.

Josh Dooley said...

I think the most striking issue brought to the fore by this artist is the wasteful nature of mankind. We shouldn't be horrified by the act of killing so much as we should be horrified by the total lack of respect for resource.
At least at fraternity parties the drunken sods use the goldfish for nourishment.Imagine how many families (or drunken college students) could be fed by a single inmate..

Hungry Hyaena said...


While I do take issue with the work, I also think that the most disturbing elements of "Helena" are located in our reaction, not in the work itself. Why do we assume the fish will die in Evaristti's scenario, yet not think about the potentially disastrous ends of so many common and popularly accepted scenarios?




Funny...and yet true.