Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It started with a dog

In 2007, when I first received a deluge of emails and pictures of the art installation by Costa Rican "artist" Guillermo Vargas "Habacuc," they were so disgusting and sick that I decided against posting any discussion about it, lest I add more publicity to the artist and the act.

He got a ton of publicity worldwide anyway.

But my recent posting about the German artist Gregor Schneider planning to show a person dying as part of an exhibition has re-started the deluge, plus some newish information was made available, and so here it goes:

In 2007 Guillermo Vargas created an installation (details in Spanish and loads of horrible images here), where the artist allegedly paid a couple of Nicaraguan children to chase and capture a stray dog, and then the animal was tied to the gallery wall at Códice Gallery in Managua, Nicaragua and allowed to starve to death.

The Spanish language arts blogsphere erupted in shock and nausea at this event, and subsequently the artist stated (Via):
"Hello everyone. My name is Guillermo Habacuc Vargas. I am 50 years old and an artist. Recently, I have been critisized for my work titled 'Eres lo que lees', which features a dog named Nativity. The purpose of the work was not to cause any type of infliction on the poor, innocent creature, but rather to illustrate a point. In my home city of San Jose, Costa Rica, tens of thousands of stray dogs starve and die of illness each year in the streets and no one pays them a second thought.

Now, if you publicly display one of these starving creatures, such as the case with Nativity, it creates a backlash that brings out a big of hypocrisy in all of us. Nativity was a very sick creature and would have died in the streets anyway."
By October of 2007, the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion had picked up the story from the Spanish language arts blogsphere and delivered this story. In the story, Marta Leonor González, identified as the editor of the La Prensa cultural newspaper in Managua, confirmed that the dog had indeed died (by then lots of blog stories had come out that the dog had been fed in between shows, or that it had escaped alive).

She also stated that the installation included the statement (in Spanish) "You are what you read," written with dog food on the walls of the gallery. It also included an audio of the Nicaraguan National Hymn played backwards, photos and an incense burner, where 175 crack rocks and an ounce of marijuana were burnt.

In the same story the artist defends his installation and makes the point that "no one untied the dog, or gave the dog food, no one called the police. No one did anything." The piece was also an homage to a woman who had been killed by feral stray dogs.

A month earlier Guillermo Vargas had been also chosen to represent Costa Rica at the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008. He already was part of Costa Rica´s Visual Arts Biennial (Bienarte) 2007 when the announcement that he and five other Costa Rican artists would represent their nation at the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008 was made.

The fact that no one (at least in the English speaking world and to Google) had ever heard of this biennial was a little suspicious to me, until later on I figured out that it had been misnamed in the story and in countless other stories that followed. I think that the actual title is the "VI Bienal de Artes Visuales del Istmo Centroamericano."

The selection was made by a jury comprised of Ana Sokoloff (Colombia), Oliver Debroise (Mexico) and Rodolfo Kronfle Chambers (Ecuador).

This selection really incensed the Internet, and several boycott petitions were initiated (one is here), and by October of 2007, one of the best American visual art blogs -- Edward Winkleman -- discussed the issue at lenght and even published an explanation of the event by Códice Gallery defending the actions and claiming that the dog had been fed and that it had escaped.

By March of 2008, the Argentinean newspaper Clarin was reporting that over a million signatures had been recorded. In the same article the three jurors who selected Vargas to the Biennial defended their choice and stated that the work that Vargas offered up had no relation to the earlier installation and they also "rejected" the boycott campaign.

Then a few days ago Artnet.com discussed the story in the context of the dog, the gallery, and the supposed "Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008."

Like Artnet, I can't find any references or websites to the above titled Biennial, but what I have found is a letter from the one of the sponsors of the Honduran Biennial (different biennial) and also for the VI Bienal de Artes Visuales del Istmo Centroamericano, which I think may be the forementioned Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008. They are the Mujeres en las Artes “Leticia de Oyuela” and the letter about the Biennial, the dog and Vargas is here in Spanish.

To add confusion to the mix, the website of the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) has the Biennial scheduled to take place at the museum from 27 May to 27 July of 2008, and back in October 2007 they had a press conference about the Biennial. Not in Honduras, but El Salvador.

And because in this interview of Rebeca Dávila Dada published in the Salvadorean newspaper La Prensa, one of the items in her resume list her as a consultant to the VI Bienal de Artes Visuales del Istmo Centroamericano, by now I should be pretty sure that the "Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008" is actually the "VI Bienal de Artes Visuales del Istmo Centroamericano" and will take place in El Salvador and not Honduras.


Not so fast!

For here's the Call to Artists for Salvadorean artists who wish to be considered for the Biennial. They claim that it will take place in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Confused again... and now I think that what will happen in MARTE is the exhibition of El Salvadorean artists from which a few will be selected to represent El Salvador at the Biennial - not the actual Biennial itself!

And thus I have emailed a whole bunch of people in Spanish (in Central America) to see where and when this almost internet urban legend Biennial will take place.

One thing seems to be clear, the vile act focused upon the stray dog by Vargas accomplished exactly what this artist desired: immense publicity and horror.

Until he's raised one by Gregor Schneider's human plans. Let's hope that no one raises Schneider's sicker plan.

But I think that I know what is next. It was proven to be a hoax, but for a while ( Via) this story in the Yale Daily News discussed Art major Aliza Shvarts' art project during which allegedly she for nine months "artificially inseminated herself 'as often as possible' while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process."

And I wouldn't be surprised that somewhere, a gallery and an artist are currently discussing some sort of live installation focusing on some sort of in situ abortion of some sort.

We've already had a live circumcision in DC.

And if the law allowed it, you can bet that some sicko would love to make cheap headlines by tying a homeless person to a gallery wall and watch him or her starve to death in the name of art.

It's all been done before by an artist group collective called "The Romans." They ruled the art world, in fact most of the Western world, for a few centuries. In fact, the massive gallery where they performed most of these vile installations still stands in Rome.

Aspiring shock artists should read Suetonius' The Lives of the Twelve Caesars , especially the chapter on Tiberius, to get a lesson on some really disturbing and shocking art installations done by this vile Roman Emperor artist over two thousand years ago.

Face it, it's been done!

Makes me sick.

PS - I bet that these Biennial calls are open to Salvadorean and Honduran born artists residing in the US. It would be a good opportunity to try for, and then if selected you can tell me if the Biennial did take place!

Update: Yale refuses to allow Aliza Shvarts' art project to go on display today; read the story here.


Anonymous said...

This kind of "art" is absolutely ridiculous and maddening!

Naomi Sachs, ASLA, EDAC said...

Thanks for providing some of the clearest information on this very muddy subject. I got the petition over the weekend and it really shook me, and so I started doing "research" on the internet, to find out what the whole story was, and it just gets more and more confusing. I hope that, in the end, it is all a hoax and this Habucuc dude makes an art piece out of the petitions and articles, etc. Even if it is a hoax, it's pretty darn manipulative, but it certainly does reveal a very raw nerve; human nature is such a strange thing, and this artist has tapped into it. I think there's only so much we can care about and respond to - if we tried to be affected by everything, we would go mad. So yes, in a way it reveals our hypocrisy but hopefully also our enduring ability to rally and be moved to action.
I also have to say, I will never think of Beuys' I Like America and America Likes Me the same way again.

Jessica Hirst / Palmer Fishman said...

Here is an update for you, straight from Nicaragua. Additional notes for future reference - every CA country has its own bienal, from which several artists are nominated to represent their country at a larger pan-CA bienal. You all have not heard of them because some are new, most have few resources, and not all have websites, and not in English. BUT the art is innovative, cutting edge in a way that´s shocking given the poverty of the countries.

I am an artist and animal activist living in Managua, Nicaragua. Since learning about this case I have been working to do something about it, both with artists and animal activists here and abroad. After months of research, communication, and action, I can report the following, good, bad, and unclear:


The petition and concern of so many of you has helped us here on the ground gain attention for all the other horribly neglected and mistreated dogs on the streets and in homes.
• Humane Society International has pledged to collaborate with the Animal Protection Association (APA) of Nicaragua on their agenda of education, free or low-cost spaying and neutering and medical treatment, and continued work to improve legal protection.
• WSPA is funding the UCC veterinary school to vaccinate and treat thousands of animals in poor neighborhoods.
• A family foundation in the US has pledged to donate several thousand dollars to support the work of the APA.

• Please donate to HSI's Street Animal program either online at
o https://secure.hsus.org/01/hsi_don_humane_animal_control and then write an email to info@hsus.org telling them the amount of your donation and that you want it used in Nicaragua.

• Better yet, send a check and write in the memo line that you wish the funds to be used in Nicaragua.
Mail to Humane Society International
2100 L Street, NW Washington, DC 20037 USA

HSI will send funds to APA, the local and very competent organization, and we will be able to fight for animal welfare here. It is an uphill battle.

• Donate directly to the Animal Protection Association of Nicaragua, a growing organization with programs in legislation, education, and direct animal care.

Account number for Dollars: 10021015624326

APA can be contacted at apanimal@hotmail.com
web page www.geocities.com/apanimal

Natividad was far from alone in his plight as a neglected, abused animal.
• The poverty and cultural norms regarding animals are such that I see starving, ill dogs in the street several times a day, sometimes run over.

• Many dogs with homes are kept tied up on short chains all day and mistreated in order to make them aggressive guard dogs at night. As in the case mentioned above, food or water may be withheld, animals are beaten, and trained to attack with little provocation.

• A friend discovered there actually was a law on the books to protect animals. Unfortunately, no department of government has responsibility or budget to enforce it.

• Some artist friends and I spent hours on several days in the police station trying to report a woman for deliberately starving and neglecting her 2 dogs, and no one knew what we were talking about, even when we showed them the text of the law.

• Since this law only came into effect in the last month, there really was nothing in place under which to prosecute Vargas.

• Several NGOs have submitted better legislation to the National Assembly, but say it has been watered down by interests in favor of allowing cock, dog, and bull fighting as part of the 'national heritage'.

The Biennale organizers´is holding a forum today and tomorrow designed to ¨reflect and debate the ethical dimension of contempotary artistic practices and their sociocultural repercussions¨. Vargas will participate, along with artists from all of Latin America. Unfortunately I could not be there because my passport was stolen. I hope the proceedings are available, and that other artists are clear in their denunciation of cruelty toward animals or people as part of art.

RELATED HUMAN TRAGEDY: Vargas named the dog he caught Natividad after a Nicaraguan man named Natividad Canda, who was torn apart in Costa Rica by 2 guard dog rottweilers, and onlookers, including police, did nothing to save him. All of those potentially reponsible for his death were recently acquitted, igniting a firestorm of Nica-Costa Rican accusations of racism. Nicaraguans are the cheap labor of Costa Rica, and often experience discrimination.

Thank you all for your concern and outrage. Please help us support local initiatives to reduce cruelty and improve the welfare of animals in Nicaragua

A GRAND MANIPULATION?: What Vargas actually did to the dog. Several sources from the local art world's inner sanctum, who are also animal protectors, told me Vargas started the horrific stories himself, and that all the upset and controversy were a manipulative part of his 'work of art' about the relative attention to scandal of 1 street dog vs. 1 indigent Nicaraguan man . Hence they have decided not to give him one more iota of the attention he seems to crave, at the Bienal or afterwards, and to work independently on behalf of animals.