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‘It’s Not Art, It’s a Monstrosity’: Reflections on Public Outrage at the Art Gallery of South Australia

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Installation view Melrose Wing of European Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2013, featuring Berlinde De Bruyckere, We are all flesh. Photo: Sam Noonan.

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It has been nearly five years since Art Gallery of South Australia Director Nick Mitzevich unveiled his widely acclaimed radical overhaul of the Melrose Wing of European Art.(1) In a departure from the conventional chronological method of display, the rehang instead focused on dynamic thematic displays that juxtaposed artworks from different places, eras and styles while exploring a common conceptual thread. The newly acquired sculpture We Are All Flesh by Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere took centre stage in the rehang, which ushered in a new age of bold thematic displays focused on provoking deep psychological, philosophical and aesthetic contemplation. The dramatic and arresting sculpture features the skins of two headless horses which have been stitched together, stretched over casts moulded from their intertwined bodies and suspended from an industrial metal armature.

While many critics and art lovers applauded the bold new addition, there were also incredibly passionate and surprisingly vitriolic voices of outrage from the local media and some members of the public. Outraged letters to local newspaper The Advertiser proclaimed De Bruyckere’s horses as variously “disgusting”, “evil” “perverse”, revolting” and “the product of sick and evil minds”, with one writer going as far to declare that “Mr Mitzevich should be sacked on the spot for presenting such a perverse and evil piece of so-called art”.(2) Many of these outraged letters professed their plans to boycott the gallery in response to the work, their concerned sentiments inherently questioning the very essence of what could — and could not — be construed as art. Despite the vitriolic demands for Mitzevich’s head and the grand declarations of boycott, Mitzevich undoubtedly achieved his aims of increasing gallery patronage and (perhaps most importantly) prompting an entire city to engage in a dialogue about art.(3) Needless to say, it was an interesting time.

The controversy surrounding We Are All Flesh appears to have largely stemmed from objections to De Bruyckere utilising dead horses in her artwork, although the display of their headless, disjointed and reintegrated corpses undoubtedly fuelled the outrage. It would be easy to dismiss such objections as the sentiments of prudes, conservatives, the overly sensitive and habitually outraged angry letter writers. Certainly, some of the sentiments expressed display an unforgivable lack of contemplation, understanding or education concerning the intent of De Bruyckere’s practice. Disarming and potentially upsetting as it is to see such large and noble creatures hanging upside-down, their headless bodies dismantled and fused back together, no horses are deliberately killed in the name of De Bruyckere’s art. The horse corpses De Bruyckere utilises in her works are sourced from those donated to veterinary academies and, as such, have died from various causes well before the artist even lays eyes on them.(4) The daughter of a butcher, De Bruyckere was always captivated by the contradictory emotions that were evoked by the revolving display of carcasses that were delivered to her father’s shop. As the title We Are All Flesh suggests, the bodies of the horses represent our own human bodies and offer a poignant meditation on our own experiences of suffering and compassion, fear and love, life and death. Simultaneously tragic and beautiful, disgusting and enticing, the dead horses are a catalyst for exploring the complex nature of the human condition, thereby serving as a symbolic mirror in which to view fragments of ourselves.(5) While De Bruyckere’s reactive detractors may not have been armed with the appropriate knowledge about the work, however, their concerns do raise important questions about the ethics of utilising animals for the purpose of art and entertainment.

Detail: Berlinde De Bruyckere, Belgium, born 1964, We are all flesh, 2012, Ghent, Belgium, epoxy, iron, horse skin, steel, 750.0 x 175.0 x 150.0 cm; Gift of John and Jane Ayers, Candy Bennett, Jim and Helen Carreker, Cherise Conrick, James Darling A…
Detail: Berlinde De Bruyckere, Belgium, born 1964, We are all flesh, 2012, Ghent, Belgium, epoxy, iron, horse skin, steel, 750.0 x 175.0 x 150.0 cm; Gift of John and Jane Ayers, Candy Bennett, Jim and Helen Carreker, Cherise Conrick, James Darling AM and Lesley Forwood, Scott and Zoë Elvish, Rick and Jan Frolich, Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett, Dr Michael Hayes and Janet Hayes, Klein Family Foundation, Ian Little and Jane Yuile, Dr Peter McEvoy, David and Pam McKee, Hugo and Brooke Michell, Jane Michell,Peter and Jane Newland, John Phillips, Dr Dick Quan, Paul and Thelma Taliangis, Tracey and Michael Whiting, GP Securities, UBS and anonymous donors through the Art Gallery of South Australia Contemporary Collectors Director's Project 2012, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide © Berlinde De Bruyckere Image commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art / Photo: Andrew Curtis.

The critical success and initial notoriety of We Are All Flesh at the Art Gallery of South Australia has as much to do with compelling and purposeful curation as the aesthetic and conceptual nature of the work itself. Clearly chosen as the centrepiece of the Melrose Wing rehang, the dramatic contemporary sculpture was strategically positioned for maximum impact amongst a sumptuous array of Old Masters paintings, grand royal portraits and ornately-crafted antiquities. Surrounded by fine historical examples of European art, the impressive stature, unusual materiality and obvious contemporaneity of We Are All Flesh is made all the more apparent and, to fiercely conservative viewers, all the more reprehensible. The sculpture is positioned deftly in the centre of the space so that its dominating presence is easily and immediately discerned from all entrances. How could one possibly escape or ignore the nine-foot tall armature and the intertwined bodies it supports? However, despite the strategic placement of We Are All Flesh, the work is not merely a shock and awe centrepiece designed to provoke publicity. This gallery space is filled with works that, despite their more classical and acceptable aesthetics, offer an insight into the full spectrum of the experiences and emotions that characterise the human condition. Carefully positioned in the vicinity of August Rodin’s celebrated bronze sculpture The Inner Voice, De Bruyckere’s We Are All Flesh offers a similarly emotive and sensitive meditation on the nature of compassion, suffering and our own humanity. For Mitzevich, evoking deeper thought and emotion is precisely what the purpose of the rehang boils down to: we should, is his words be “jolted out of an ordinary morning of sightseeing to think about life, love and what it means to be human”.(6) Perhaps due to the aesthetic and material nature of the work, We Are All Flesh simply cuts a little bit deeper into our hearts and minds.

In the wake of the fierce controversy surrounding We Are All Flesh, it is worth pondering why the work of Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye did not receive similar outrage from the local media or the concerned public. The lack of outrage is particularly curious given that Director Nick Mitzevich himself described the work as “the most difficult to think about, to process, to make the decision about putting it in the public collection.”(7) Exhibited as part of the Melrose Wing rehang, Untitled (Robert) features of a framed pig skin that has been tattooed with the devotional imagery of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tattoo artists often practice their skills on slabs of pig flesh sourced from butchers. Troublingly, however, Delvoye utilises live pigs in his work, anaesthetising the animals during the tattooing process and selling the skins to collectors at a later date as pelts or taxidermy sculptures. These living, breathing canvases are raised at a small pig farm that the artist runs just outside of Beijing. Unsurprisingly, the artist’s native Belgium declared his antics illegal when he first began the project. In order to continue his work, Delvoye made the decision to base his farm in China, an incredibly dubious choice given the country’s notoriously practically non-existent animal protection laws.

Delvoye is no stranger to controversy. Delvoye’s tattooed pigskins have previously come under widespread international scrutiny and condemnation, with the artist even being banned from international art fairs in the past.(8) Throughout Delvoye’s practice there has been a great deal of concern about whether tattooing live animals for the purpose of art is morally permissible and even whether the practice can be construed or celebrated as art. By Delvoye’s own admission, the purpose of these works is to provide an “allegory that makes us think about what art means to us, and where the line exists between what art is and what art isn’t.”(9) Viewing Delvoye’s work certainly does provoke us to ponder such questions and, more aptly, the purpose of art in contemporary society. Indeed, the gallery space in which Untitled (Robert) is displayed is devoted to works that “raise questions about the boundaries between art and life, and high and low art.”(10) But is the purpose of provoking such questions enough to justify the moral cost of inflicting unnecessary pain, fear and discomfort in another living creature?

The answer to this question is ultimately objective. Most minds would agree that artists have both a moral and legal duty to make sure the appropriate measures are taken to ensure that animals in their possession are well cared for in life and that unnecessary pain or distress is minimised. In response to international criticism, Delvoye maintains that he treats his pigs extremely well, even claiming that they are ‘spoiled’ by his assurances of free-range conditions, plenty of food and the provision of coal to keep them warm during the colder months.(11) In addition, each pig is provided with a specialist carer and trained veterinarians provide care to the animals after the tattooing process. While it is certainly assuring to hear that such measures are in place, it cannot be ignored that Delvoye has deliberately curtailed animal protection laws in his quest to achieve his artistic vision. Why, in the shadow of We Are All Flesh, did Untitled (Robert) slip without a similarly explosive outpouring of controversy? Certainly, Delvoye’s pig skin was never going to be the centrepiece of the Melrose Wing rehang. Positioned deeper in the Wing amongst a dense display of both contemporary and historical works, Untitled (Robert) does not possess the same sense of aesthetic divergence, dramatic presence or obligatory contemplation that the display of We Are All Flesh does. While I would argue that Delvoye’s pig skin is a far more controversial and ethically dubious artwork than De Bruyckere’s horses, it is apparent that the curatorial strategy of the rehang placed greater value on the latter. One can only speculate the reasons why Delvoye’s pig skin was less controversial than De Bruyckere’s horses amongst, but surely what remains is the unshakeable question of how far we permit the unnecessary pain and suffering of living creatures in the name of art.

Wim Delvoye, Belgium, born 1965, Untitled (Robert), 2004, Beijing, China and Ghent, Belgium, tattooed pig skin, glass, frame, 190.0 x 138.0 cm; Roy and Marjory Edwards Bequest Fund 2011, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide © Studio Wim Delvoye
Wim Delvoye, Belgium, born 1965, Untitled (Robert), 2004, Beijing, China and Ghent, Belgium, tattooed pig skin, glass, frame, 190.0 x 138.0 cm; Roy and Marjory Edwards Bequest Fund 2011, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide © Studio Wim Delvoye