Pie On The Cherry

Liliana’s adventures and interests in dance and art

Category: Art

VOINA or The function of art in social and political transformation: can drawing penises in public spaces change the world?

Imagine the following scenario: you are in the grocery shop. You turn into the cereal aisle thinking of your favorite box of Froot Loops and… BAM! You walk into a scene straight out of a horror movie. You see bodies hanging from the ceiling with robes tight around their necks. You’re in shock!

What if I told you that the scenario described above was art and that nobody was harmed in the process? How would you feel? Relived? Angry?

In 2008, Voina, a collective of radical artists from Russia, was responsible for hanging people from the ceiling of a supermarket in Moscow. The “performance” took place on September 7th, Moscow City Day. To the innocent grocery shopper, the performance must have appeared gruesome and disturbing but there was more to the scene than to the naked eye. The people hanging were artists, members of Voina and they were not harmed. The action held under the slogan “No one gives a fuck about Pestel!” was meant to commemorate the Decembrists, Russian revolutionaries that in 1825 led an unsuccessful uprising against Tsar Nicolas I. Pavel Pestel, one of the five Decembrists, was a prominent advocate of social and economic reforms in Russia. Pestel advocated for the emancipation of Russian serfs, the creation of public land founds and the elimination of class privileges. The performance was designed as a critique of the current policies implemented by the city’s mayor inciting xenophobia and homophobia. The artists hanged represented homosexuals and Asian migrant workers, who are being discriminated by the current Russian government. The intention behind this specific performance is best explained in Voina’s own words: “We are accused of amorality, but in fact we portray and symbolically execute this amoral society, that approves slave labor and xenophobia!”

The staged hanging is just one example of many other radical actions orchestrated by the group. Some of the louder actions by Voina include turning police cars upside down, having an orgy at the State Museum of Biology and painting a giant, 65 meter-high penis on the Liteyniy drawbridge.

Of course, all of these actions taken out of context sound ridiculous and offensive. However, there is a strong and clear political message behind them. For example the orgy at the State Museum of Biology was organized under the banner “Fuck for the Heir-Medvedev’s little Bear!” and took place 2 days before the staged presidential elections in which Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s puppet, unsurprisingly won. The group commented on this performance: “in Russia everyone fucks each other and the little president looks at it with delight”.

The Liteyniy drawbridge when lifted up points directly to the Federal Security Service headquarters, the former KGB. As such this action represents, quite literally, a direct confrontation and defiance of authorities.

Art can reflect reality but it can also propose new realities, better worlds; it can make us dream. As stated in an interview by one of Voina’s leaders: “There is nothing impossible for art. It’s a symbolic weapon full of satire and laughter, which authorities are afraid of. Our art makes utopia real and destroys old patterns of thinking”. Authorities are afraid of it so much, that they have arrested members of Voina on several occasions and have issued international arrest warrants on two of its leaders.

Change and revolution are reactive and they must be radical. Novelty must be progressive and often it is also shocking. Breaking with old patterns of thinking and of doing things requires innovation. Voina’s obnoxious actions are innovative. Furthermore, they must be obnoxious and uncomfortable because they must reflect the uncomfortable truth about the Russian society. In the words of Voina’s ideological leader, Plutser-Sarno, “The main goal of the revolutionary street art is to clean people’s minds of those injurious clichés of the past by means of art ‘weapons’-to mock the idiocy of today’s system”.

The objections to Voina’s work have been based not so much on their attitude towards the current social system, as on their choice of methods. The direct confrontation of old attitudes turns out to be too harsh for many. People get offended, upset; they do not understand these actions.

Perhaps Voina is ahead of its times. Perhaps people aren’t ready to admit that their society needs to change. Although the adequacy and effectiveness of Voina’s actions are questionable, they sure do spark polemic and debate. Their provocative actions annihilate apathy. The strong reactions are better then no reactions at all.

Furthermore, the oversensitive and hardline attitude the authorities have shown to more traditional forms of civic protest or to more conventional artistic forms of action validate this form of protest. Frustration with the authoritarian policies of the state will, in the future increasingly attract more following for groups like Voina. In the words of philosopher and artist Bertolt Brecht “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. Art is a better weapon then violence.

To read more on Voina check out: http://plucer.livejournal.com/266853.html


“Real” and “Fake”

The Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) graduate exhibition I attended last weekend was so inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the sculpture and mixed media sections.  Below I share with you my impression of one work that inspired me in particular.

Clara Urech’s piece was small and not very impressing at first sight. Compared to the more visually attractive and bigger sculptures of a female nude, felt cubes and big tree branches marked with tinny writing it did not draw my attention immediately. I was about to walk pass it but thankfully I decided to stop and examine it after all.

The piece consisted of two empty jars with red lids. Each jar contained a trapped, inert, butterfly inside. The two jars seemed identical at first sight. At a closer look however I could distinguish that one of the jars was a “real” jar and the other one was a “fake” jar. The “real” jar was a true glass jar probably originally containing some jam or pasta sauce. Inside it was a “real”, dead butterfly. The “fake” jar was a very careful imitation of the “real” one. It was made out of plastic and the lid was made out of material. The butterfly was also made out of material.

The questions that arise from the examination of this work regard reality and representation and the boundary between the perceived notions of what is real and what is an imitation or fake. How much less real is the representation if at all? What is the difference between the nature morte and a dead animal? Why does it seem to me (us?) that a dead animal is in a way more alive (less dead) then an inert object?

Within the question of authenticity is the question of an object’s history. How much does the past of something contribute to how we perceive it at present? There is also the question of material.

“There is more then meets the eye”, this works is about that more. It speaks about the difference of two objects that look the same. It is up to us to decide what that difference consists of.  

My idea of art

I am not an artist; I have not studied art history or art theory however I do consider myself an art lover. Perhaps because I am not an expert on the subject my idea of art might be naïve, it might be simplistic but it also might be less convoluted and come closer to the “heart” or “essence” of what art is. This brings me to my first premise; art should be accessible to everyone. I am not eluding here to the monetary value of art; I am not referring to the price of art works or art museum tickets. What I’m talking about is that art must be able to “touch” everyone. Again, I do not mean to say that in order for something to be considered a work of art everyone has to like it. What I mean is that a work of art must be able to convey something to anyone. It must be able to engage the observer regardless of the observer’s circumstances/previous engagement in art, etc. Art should be universal. Let me expand this idea further. What do I mean by “art should be universal”? All works of art have a context to them. Of course we cannot separate the artist’s circumstances and the historic context from the work of art. A work of art is never created in the void and it is influenced by innumerable factors, however good works of art are able to transcend their historic/cultural circumstances and evoke emotions from viewers of different cultures and time periods. Clearly, knowing the context and historical background in which a work of art was created might help us to understand and appreciate a given work of art better but a good work of art is always timeless and transcends cultural particularities. As humans we all share certain basic emotions, it is the aim of art to access those emotions. The ability to create and appreciate art is a unifying human characteristic. One does not need to be Mexican or know about Mexican folk art and culture to be moved by Frida Kahlo’s or Diego Rivera’s work. Impressionist works have value outside of the intellectual circles of 19th century Paris. One does not need to be Chinese to appreciate Ai Wei Wei’s work of art. In spite of the requirement for art to be universal it is my belief that art, both its creation and its appreciation, should also be intellectual in nature. Why do I write “in spite”? It might seem a contradiction to state that art must be able to be appreciated by anyone and yet it must also be intellectual in nature.  Most of us are not art scholars; many of the viewers might not have a high education or be accustomed to rigorous intellectual activity and yet we should be able to “understand” a good work of art. I want to argue that the intellectuality of an artwork originates from its purpose. By purpose I do not want to signify usefulness or practicality. In most instances art is not practical. In fact one thing that makes art beautiful is its impracticality. Art comes from a spiritual rather than a physical necessity and in the act of making and appreciating it we separate ourselves from other animals. What I mean by purpose is that a good work of art should have an intention. Valuating art on purely aesthetic basis is not enough. This is a key distinction between art and crafts. Crafts might be equally beautiful, very technically challenging and elaborate yet they lack the intellectual intention. Originality, which streams from an intellectual intent, is also a key element in art. A very good reproduction is less value because while it retains the aesthetic and technical aspects of the work it lacks in creative, original and intellectual endeavour. The creative process that goes into creating a piece of art is very much an intellectual process. Creativity and intelligence parallel; they require one another. The intellectual challenge of art is to find ways to distill intellectually and philosophically challenging questions about human existence and present then in a way that is accessible to any human being. This is why art “speaks” to us, regardless of our own language, through the universal language of humanity.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

Walking into the theater initiated the mystical experience that was to last for two and a half hours. Even before the spectacle began the audience was confronted with a surreal image. Three confines, on them three women lying with lifeless bodies, their limbs white as snow, all blood and life drained from them. The women’s faces were covered with inexpressive masks made from white porcelain. On the ground what appear to be limbs and flesh torn apart were spread chaotically on the ground. Among the torn flesh three big, black dogs were roaming around. They were real dogs, so real that one of them defecated on the stage to the great amusement of the majority of the audience. This surreal image was the funeral of Marina Abramovic as envisioned by director Robert Wilson.

The string of images that follow this are equally dramatic, intense and all of them have a “dream-like”, surreal quality as if one was submerged in the head of a eccentric painter, perhaps similar to Dali. Visual “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic” is one of the most striking spectacles I’ve ever seen.

The deeply disturbing images were effectively backed, accentuated and even stretched to larger proportions by the music composed by Anthony of Anthony and the Johnsons. In fact the theatrical vision offered penetrated me so deeply that it was almost unbearable to watch it for two and a half hours.

The life of Marina Abramovic is as strange as the vision of her death. The strangeness and horror of some of the anecdotes from her life are surly magnified through the vision of a child, as the one she was at the time, and her distorted memories. All the stories from her life are magnified on stage and made into a grotesque caricature, hence the mimes, hence the exaggerated gestures, hence the over made-up faces of the actors and of Marina herself.
I listened to a radio interview with Abramovic a few days before attending the show; she said that in order to be able to present pain to the audience you needed to make it comic. She said that she believed there was something about laughter that allowed to unlock human hearts and minds and made them susceptive and receptive to pain in ways that are not easily accessible otherwise. She gave an example by pointing out that when we watch TV and we stumble upon painful information about war, suffering or hunger we quickly switch the channel so that we do not have to share in on the pain, whereas through laughter that pain becomes much more bearable. Laughter is such powerful human emotion, in Humerto Eco’s “The name of the Rose” monks killed to preserve in secret the second book of Aristotle’s poetics on the power of laughter. I did not laugh during the spectacle; I found it to be hard to bear.

Abramovic's funeral

Abramovic’s funeral


Abramovic Ascending

Abramovic Ascending


Marina Abramovic and Willem Dafoe in "The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic"

Marina Abramovic and Willem Dafoe in “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic”

Conceptual Art

I had prepared this post a few weeks ago and meant to write more on the subject before posting it. It’s been a month now and I haven’t had the chance to sit down and develop my ideas further. I am afraid that if I don’t post it now it will never see the daylight, so here is at least the embryo of what could have been.

This all started with typing the name “Gerald Ferguson” on Google. He is one of the artists that caught my attention at the National Gallery of Canada two weekends ago and I decided to do a search on him. The Wikipedia page calls him a conceptual artist, I was about to dismiss this categorization and continue reading the short note but then I realized that I’m not really sure what they meant by “conceptual artist”. Sounds like a simple, self-explanatory term; concept + art = conceptual art, right? Well yes, but it is also much more complex and interesting.
I should point out to the freshman in art terminology like myself that conceptual art and concept art are two very different things. Concept art refers to the sketches and other visual aids made to visualize ideas for film, game design, comic books, etc. I am not concerned with concept art in this post.

To me it seems intuitive that behind a work of art there should be a concept. In fact I had assumed, apparently incorrectly, that concept is intrinsic to art. Moreover I tend to place a lot of value on the conceptual aspect of art (any art not necessarily conceptual art) and it seems surprising to me that the history of conceptual art is so recent, originating in 1917 with the work of Marcel Duchamp.

Concept Art Marcel Duchamp

Concept Art Marcel Duchamp

One definition of conceptual art by the artist Sol LeWitt is as follows:
“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is perfunctory affair, the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Another beautiful and illuminating quote by the same artist goes:
“Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.”

The idea of ideas as art (excuse the redundancy) rather than ideas behind the art is quite provocative. It is an extreme example of trying to reduce art to its essence. The artist Yoko Ono is quite successful in creating concepts as art (rather of concepts of art), here are some example from her book Grapefruit:

Cloud Piece:

Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.

1963 Spring


Painting to exist only when it’s copied or photographed:

Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.

1964 Spring