Jan Estep, “What does it mean to kill an animal in the name of art?,” Quodlibetica, Constellation 05: Death, November 2009.
in September I ran into two artist projects that involved the death of animals: Terike Haapoja’s video installation at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, titled Community, presents life-size video projections of real-time infrared images of the energy leaving the bodies of recently dead animals (see http://www.terikehaapoja.net/community-2008/). As the heat in the bodies slowly dissipate the images shift from hot reds and yellows to cooler blues and greens, growing more abstract and fainter as time passes, until finally each animal is gone. (See also Entropy and In and Out of Time on her site, variations using the same infrared technology.) The installation features round low platforms upon which the image of a single animal is projected, mirroring the animals laying on the ground as they cooled. The scientific, factual record of their bodily transformation in death resonates viscerally, emotionally, but also metaphorically, as the images of the dead animals slowly fade into nothingness.
The second work I encountered by reputation only when I met the artist: Teemo Mäki’s cat project, in which he videotaped himself killing a cat and then masturbating on the dead animal to challenge, in his words, “what one can do in the name of art and why.” The artist purchased the cat from a local animal humane society, promising to care for it as a pet, but then killed the cat by cutting its throat with a small ax; the killing scene lasts six seconds and is contextualized within a larger montage of material, including images of poverty, famine, war, and other types of violence that humans perpetuate among each other. The full video has been reworked over the years, titled variously Sex and Death (1988), My Way (1990), and My Way, A Work in Progress (1995).
Once Mäki’s video was shown publicly and viewers witnessed the cat killing, animals-rights activists sued the artist for cruelty to animals; he was convicted of breaking the law, and fined the US-equivalent of roughly $340. At the same time the Finnish Board of Film Classification deemed the work “immoral and brutalizing,” so although Kiasma purchased a copy for its art collection, it is illegal to screen the video in Finland. Few people have actually seen the original video with the cat-killing scene, yet those few seconds have taken on a life of its own. Because of the controversy surrounding the event, “the cat-killing video” has become, according to Mäki, a conceptual work in its own right.(1)
Mäki’s piece is connected to the more recent 2007 work by Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas Jimenez (also known as Habacuc) who captured and then exhibited an emaciated street dog for a gallery project. The dog was chained to the wall without food or water and purportedly died of starvation while in captivity. I write “purportedly” because the gallery director has since claimed that the piece was a hoax and that the dog escaped; investigations by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) showed inconsistent claims about what exactly happened to the dog(2), but the furor against the artist’s deliberate cruelty swept the internet in protest.
Mäki and Vargas both have stated that they were motivated by other people’s hypocrisy concerning suffering in the world. For Vargas the fact that no one cares for the starving street dogs when they are roaming the city yet viewers express concern when the same dog is tied up in a gallery is contradictory. His decision to place the street dog inside the gallery aimed to highlight the way people ignore the dogs’ plight on a daily basis. During the exhibition it also implicitly critiqued the art-world institution that potentially protects his act as “art,” especially when no one during the opening helped the dog or called the police. Similar to what happens in large groups of spectators to a crime, no one took personal responsibility to intervene.
Mäki’s argument against our hypocrisy is a bit more complex, not only concerning the irony of eating and killing animals for food yet protesting killing them “for art,” but also concerning violence as a test case for moral relativism. In terms of his original, longer video, the fact that viewers could sit through almost an hour of images of human violence, yet scream out in moral outrage only when confronted with someone violating an animal live indicates how far removed people are from their moral culpability for world-wide suffering. While we are quick to judge others, secure in our self-righteous claim to absolute moral truth, we are totally removed from the awful things we do to one another knowingly and unknowingly by our life-style choices (to consume meat and wear leather products, to drive cars that pollute the earth, to hoard resources that could feed the poor, etc.).
As a moral relativist, Mäki claims that any position is feasible; as distasteful as it is he at least has the honesty (unlike the rest of us) to admit that he is a killer. Ending a cat’s life is an existential test of his character, to confront that which in himself is offensive and destructive, and do make a public record of that confrontation. With a perverse logic, he hopes to show us the full weight of our actions against one another.
But do these works actually get viewers to recognize our moral hypocrisy, much less to change? Both artists count on the fact that viewers will be able to develop the self-reflexivity to see the contradictions of our behavior: that the same outrage with which we judge the artist who commits harm to another should be turned introspectively toward our own actions. The shock of seeing an animal in pain is our cue to address the real violence outside of the gallery, to do our part to help the starving, neglected street animals and the starving, neglected poor.
Mäki and Vargas are counting on the fact that viewers can emotionally distance ourselves form the harm/violence done in our presence, to then reflect on our emotional distance, extrapolate from it, and draw parallels to the way we overlook the suffering of others in the world; the very thing the artists criticize they ask of viewers again. In other words, it puts the viewer in the distanced position it seeks to challenge.
If the goal is to make me cultivate compassion for another’s suffering—to empathize with their situation and/or to recognize my own culpability in creating that situation—then you should want me to care about the harm inflicted directly in front of me. But the artists want viewers to disregard the morally suspect nature of their actions to see the broader moral superiority/high ground of those same actions. In other words, the artists want to be allowed to do whatever is necessary to turn the consciousness of the viewer in the right direction.
I appreciate that both artists are trying to bust through the viewer’s complacency, to rile a moral outrage in me that is so strong that it can actually get me to change my behavior. And both may claim that since these works get the world talking about the issues, then their actions are justified. But while art that actually causes debate to the extent both of these works generated is to be applauded, arguing that anything is permissible in art if it gets viewers talking is akin to saying that the ends justify the means. Such a blanket statement for art is as far off as it is for life. The ends don’t always justify the means.
Especially if you want your art to affect the world one shouldn’t hide morally questionable decisions behind your art. Of course people are inconsistent and imperfect, but contextualizing violence to another under a cloak of art is deliberately embracing inconsistency as well as a false autonomy for art. Calling an act “art” does not remove it from life or moral judgment; killing a cat in the name of art is still killing a cat. It doesn’t make it okay just because one has a more lofty philosophical point to make.
The real challenges of moral relativism are to hold oneself accountable even without the threat of God’s judgment and to commit to a moral worldview even without the assurance of absolute moral truths. To make ourselves accountable to others who constitute the social world we live in, even while we think and feel so differently from one another, is to accept full responsibility for our human subjectivity. Claiming that art protects one’s actions from accountability is to seriously misconstrue art’s role in the social contract.
Haapoja’s Community lacks the shock value of the other works described here, but it raises the issue of animals, death, and violence in ways that allow a viewer to connect and empathize, which is a first step to changing one’s perspective once one leaves the gallery. The energy is not directed to the artist (like it was to Mäki and Vargas) but to the world that needs our attention.
1. The artist writes in detail about this work; see “Cat,” in Teemu Mäki, Darkness Visible: Essays on Art, Philosophy and Politics (Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Arts, 2005), pp.74-100.
2. See WSPA’s website, http://www.wspa-usa.org/pages/2341_no_excuses_for_cruelty.cfm?searchterm=guillermo_varga
copyright Jan Estep 2009