What is art?
By Gabriel Elizondo
That is the question many Brazilians have been forced to ask themselves after the country’s most important alternative art show displayed nine drawings depicting the assassination of world leaders.
Each charcoal drawing shows the artist, Gil Vicente of Recife, Brazil, holding a weapon moments before assassinating a world leader.
The exhibition is titled “Enemies” and is seen in the photo above.
One drawing depicts Vicente, the artist, holding a knife to the throat of Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Others show the artist pointing a gun at Pope Benedict XVI, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Queen Elizabeth. Many have their hands and feet bound by rope.
The first piece in the series, completed in 2005, is a drawing depicting former US President George W Bush being shot. The most recent drawing, completed this year, depicts Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Another shows Ariel Sharon, on the ground, looking up at the artist pointing a gun at the former Israeli prime minister.
The exhibit is being shown at the Sao Paulo Bienal, which opened this weekend to the public. It’s the most important modern/alternative art show in the country, hosting dozens of different works from artists around the world. Organizers are expecting close to 1 million visitors before the show closes December 12.
A respected Brazilian legal organization asked that the ‘assassination’ works by Vicente be pulled from the exhibit, saying that freedom of expression has limits and the works incite violence akin to terrorism. The organizers, the Bienal Foundation, refused, saying while the views expressed by artist do not represent the organizers, it would be against free speech to pull the plug on the exhibit.
The assassination drawings are featured prominently on the third floor of the exhibit hall.
The artist, Vicente, has said he doesn’t hold a person grudge against any of the subjects of his drawings. He said he came up with the idea after being “disappointed” with world leaders.
“Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favor to kill them, understand? Why don't people in power and in the elite die?” Vicente told AFP news agency.
Vicente indicated the art was more about getting rid of something within himself. “My question was very direct, to expel the rage I had inside me,” he told Sao Paulo’s Folha newspaper. He doesn’t even consider himself a student of art.
“I don’t understand art. And I don’t read anything about art,” he told the newspaper.
This is not the first time I have come across outrageous things passed off as art.
Last year I was in Colombia when Cuban/American artist Tania Bruguera hosted an art ‘performance’ at a prestigious Bogota university. Bruguera lined up three people on a stage directly involved in Colombia’s armed conflict to talk about their experiences. But as part of art/performance/talk, hostesses with plates of cocaine then walked through the audience passing around cocaine for anybody who wanted it. You can see some of it on this You Tube clip.
It was part of the ‘performance,’ Bruguera claimed.
Needless to say, Bruguera’s art performance (or dare I say, ‘shtick’) in Colombia caused some outrage and was seen by many as a foreigner coming to the country to glorify cocaine in the name of art.
(By some estimates as many as a half million Colombians have been murdered since 1990 as a direct result of the cocaine trade fueled by foreign consumption. And between 3 and 4 million Colombians have been forced to flee their homes because of the drug war).
But what I am writing now was not prompted by what happened last year in Colombia.
It was provoked by walking through halls of the exhibit in Sao Paulo this weekend.
As I gazed at the works by Vicente, it was hard not to feel little disturbed, to say the least.
I was thinking to myself, “Should I even be looking at this?”
Maybe that is exactly the internal response the artist wanted.
So I ask you the following questions:
Are his drawings simply in bad taste?
Should they even be shown at a major, public art exhibit?
Do they incite violence?
Or are the drawings art just as much as any other?
Or a publicity stunt that by the very nature of this blog post I am perpetuating?
I’ll let you decide.
Gabriel Elizondo has been reporting from Brazil for over three years both for television and the web.
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