Guillermo Vargas and limits of animals in art
The analysis of contemporary art put forth by Cary Wolfe opens a number of questions about art’s role in representation as well as the relation of animal to man. His discussion of Coe’s Dead Meat explores the relation of the audience to the work and to meat itself when Coe drops the veil that the ‘carnophallogocentric’ populace needs in order to distance themselves from the origins of the meat and pork they eat. If Wolfe’s “point here in calling Coe’s work ‘melodramatic’ is not that it exaggerates what really goes on in a slaughterhouse, but rather that in Coe’s work, nothing is hidden from us,” (Wolfe 99) then Guillermo Vargas’ work “Exposition N°1, presents an installation that confronts the audience even more directly than the artistically rendered paintings of slaughterhouses.
In this work, installed in August of 2007 in Códice Gallery in Nicaragua, Vargas interrogates the role of media and mass communication that distances viewers and consumers from the atrocities happening on the streets. The piece consists of 5 parts: the use of mass communication, the written word, music, the internet etc., the Sandinista Hymn played backwards, the burning of “incense” which was 175 crack rocks and an ounce of marijuana, the words “you are what you read” written in Spanish in dog food on the wall AND an emaciated dog chained to the wall and brought in from the streets (Vargas).This exhibit received world wide attention when a few photos of the dog were taken, presumably by an audience member, and circulated on the Internet under the pretense that the dog was being starved to death in the name of art. The official story from the gallery and those who investigated it was that the dog was chosen from the streets for his emaciated condition, he was fed while in the gallery and ran away within the day. Whether or not the dog was harmed while in the custody of the gallery is not my point, here, but rather the attention garnered by the photos.
According to Vargas, the installation was inspired by a news story in which a man, Natividad Canda, was devoured by two dogs in view of police, firefighters, and the media. The man was killed and nothing was done to stop the incident as bystanders looked on. Much like Coe’s work that works to call attention to the culpability of the audience, Vargas’ also indicts those who would stand idly by and let this man die. While Vargas himself has never commented on the fate of the dog, he insists that the viewers who saw the dog did nothing to intervene. No one tried to feed it or give it water and instead placidly walked through the exhibit. The outcry only came once removed from the immediacy of the exhibit (Couzens). In an interview Vargas explained:
“Me reservo decir si es cierto o no que el perro murió. Lo importante para mí era la hipocresía de la gente: un animal así se convierte en foco de atención cuando lo pongo en un lugar blanco donde la gente va a ver arte pero no cuando está en la calle muerto de hambre. Igual pasó con Natividad Canda, la gente se sensibilizó con él hasta que se lo comieron los perros” (Diaz)
I decline to say if it’s true or not that the dog died. What is important for me is the hypocrisy of the people: an animal like this attracts attention when I put him in a white space where the people come to see art, but not when he is dying of hunger in the streets. The same thing happened with Natividad Canda, the people sensitized themselves with him until he was eaten by the dogs. (my rough translation)
Much like Kac’s “relocation of genetically modified products into ‘cultural’ spaces” (qtd in Wolfe 103) to heighten awareness of these genetically modified lifeforms, Vargas relocates a dying dog, one of the hundreds of similar dogs outside, into a cultural space and heightens the audience’s awareness of the dog itself, unfortunately most of the focus became condemning Vargas while the other starving dogs and Natividad Canda fell out of the media conversation that followed. By removing the suffering at the base of the exhibit from the conversation, the audience is once again insulated from any culpability or role with that job falling on Vargas as the perpetrator.
Couzens, Gerard. “Outrage at ‘starvation of stray dog for art.” The Observer Sunday 30 March 2008. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/mar/30/art.spain
Diaz, Doriam. “Artista tico envuelto en polémica muerte de perro en obra. Nación jueves 4 de octubre de 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2009 http://www.nacion.com/ln_ee/2007/octubre/04/aldea1263590.html
Vargas, Guillermo Habacuc. “Habacuc en Galería Códice, agosto 16 2007.” Arte: Algunas obras de Habacuc Guillermo Vargas. 16 agosto, 2007. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. http://artehabacuc.blogspot.com/
Wolfe, Cary. “From Dead Meat to Glow in the Dark Bunnies Seeing “the Animal Question” in Contemporary Art.” parallax 12.1. (2006): 95-109.