Let's argue about art! Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas has made himself (in)famous.
You may have already seen this video (or one of the many like it), that encourages the viewer to sign an online petition to stop artist Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas from participating in the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008.
But the particulars of Vargas' controversial exhibition, El Perrito Vive (The Small Dog Lives), which took place at the Códice Gallery in Managua, Nicaragua, are disturbing, though murky.
The artist has been widely criticized for the exhibition, and he's made various contradictory statements about the ultimate fate of the animal. It's rumored that the dog (named Natividad) was only tied up for a few hours, and it's also been rumored that the animal "escaped" after the exhibition. The more widely distributed story, though, is that Natividad died as a result of starvation. But whether Natividad lived or died, Habacuc's installation raises question about the relevance and utility of exploiting suffering in order to create social commentary.
Presumably, Habacuc's installation indicts the viewer by changing the context in which the animal is suffering. Instead of starving on the street, where passersby would presumably overlook the animal entirely, Natividad was starving in a gallery, where viewers were implicitly asked to bear witness to the dog's condition (and were, apparently, discouraged from offering the animal food or water). Habacuc's critique of a broad, societal indifference to suffering is certainly shocking, but is Habacuc actually saying anything new?
Laying the immediate discomfort with the willing neglect of an animal aside for a moment, Habacuc's exhibition seems to fall flat on its face for artistic as well as ethical reasons. And here's why: El Perrito Vive relies almost solely on the shock that seeing a diseased and starving animal in an art gallery will cause.
In other words, Habacuc's message is not nearly as bold or as shocking as his staging. Nor is it particularly new. In fact, when I first heard of El Perrito Vive, I immediately thought of Raphael Montañez Ortiz's Destructivist performances of the late 1960s, in which Ortiz would kill a chicken and use its body to bang on a piano before ultimately destroying the piano in front of an audience. In Ortiz's case, the act of killing a chicken or of axing a piano into bits wasn't, in itself, terrifically disturbing. That he performed the acts in front of an audience—seemingly daring the audience members to react or intervene—was the shocking part. Like Ortiz, Habacuc relies on shock value in order to deliver a message (that human beings are indifferent to suffering; that human beings are uncomfortable with death; that the human capacity for empathy is finite; etc.) that has been delivered time and again, and in many instances in much more effective and interesting ways.
Is Habacuc's observation of societal indifference and passivity necessary? Is it worth killing a dog over? Is it even particularly interesting? I'd argue that it's none of these things. I think I'm in the Nabokov camp; he wrote: "A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual." As such, I tend to find works that aim to make sweeping social commentary hollow somehow, and Habacuc's installation is no exception. Starving an animal is certainly disgusting, but I also think it's artistically boring, relying as it does on spectacle. It's a quick and easy shortcut to meaning, where the big and obvious ugliness of the installation outweighs any kind of complicated or nuanced vision or effort on the part of the artist.
One thing, though, is quite sure: the controversy caused by the exhibition has gained Habacuc international fame (perhaps infamy, but in a world where serial killer art sells for millions, what's the difference?), and I'm cynical enough to believe that this was at least part of the artist's goal. Let's face it, the guy goes by the name of an obscure New Testament prophet. That he probably killed a dog in order to make a name for himself is certainly disturbing, if not surprising.