Artist to Starve Dog, Again

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In 2007, the artist Guillermo Vargas Habacuc, took a dog from the street, tied him to a rope in an art gallery, and starved him to death. He spelled “you are what you read” in dog food on the wall just out of reach. Now, with the 2008 Central American Biennial Hunduras behind him, Habacuc is set to repeat this exhibition that gained so much notoriety.

According to the March 30, 2008 Observer: “The popular account, which has spurred over a million people to sign online petitions protesting Vargas’ planned inclusion in the Central American Biennial in Honduras, is that the dog was constantly tethered, went unfed, and ultimately died over the course of several days. But according to Codice Gallery director Juanita Bermúdez this did not happen. “It was untied all the time except for the three hours the exhibition lasted, and it was fed regularly with dog food Habacuc himself brought in,” she was quoted as saying in the March 30, 2008 issue of the Observer. The dog escaped the next day and was not seen again, says Bermúdez.

That account has met with skepticism, however, because the artist himself refuses to confirm or deny it, insisting he wants to “retain the doubt” about what actually happened. In fact, Vargas seems pleased with the international uproar he has caused, claiming he intended all along to use the media to reach a larger audience with his message.”

The first thing we should address is that we cannot attack Guillermo Vargas Habacuc on artistic merit. Attempting to get into the issue of ‘what is art?’ ends up becoming an entirely different conversation. Art is life. Art is everything. Art is not just pretty pictures. The question is, can we justify doing anything by sticking it in a gallery setting? Will clearly premeditated actions that result in a life being taken be supported by art institutions and escape the social, legal, and political ramifications of something that would be considered unethical outside of the gallery? The ‘magic’ of the gallery takes that public scrutiny and outrage and turns it back on the outraged and says, “your outrage is part of the exhibit. Thank you for participating“. I am opposed to what he has done, and what he is about to do again for the Biennial – but I’ve learned not to question if things are art. War is an art.

It’s clear that the street dogs of central America are likened to ‘pests’, and thus there is little cultural sympathy for them. I wonder, however, what is the artist’s purpose in doing this? Clearly it has gained him tons of press coverage. But is there a deeper message, or is he simply reveling in the prime-time obscurity of what really happened?Damien Hirst with his Away from the Flock, 1994

What worries me is a trend in cruelty-based shock-art with intentionally vague context. It would seem that following in the footsteps of Damien Hirst, Adel Abdessmed, and Guillermo Vargas Habacuc could gain any artist immediate and extensive press coverage by showcasing animals that may or may not have been tortured and killed specifically for the gallery setting.

Because these animals can not volunteer to participate in the exhibit (and we must assume that they would choose to live based simply on all creatures’ observable will to live and active intentions to escape discomfort), we must question the artist not as an artist, but as a human being. An inability to empathize is considered sociopathic. Simply because a creature can not say “I do no like to be treated this way” in a human dialect (they do cry out and struggle, however – not unlike a human baby) are we able to disregard their pain? Is there a line drawn between consideration of controversial ideas that affect the lives of other and actual participation in those controversial acts? Should laws or social codes draw a line where exploitive acts subject an individual to treatment that could be considered torture and murder? Or is the gallery something that can justify all behavior?

Boycott to the presence of Guillermo Vargas “Habacuc” at the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008


20 Responses to Artist to Starve Dog, Again

  1. […] MOR on 22 Apr 2008   >> art, abolishionism, animal rights, ethics, activism Discerning Brute blogs about Guillermo Vargas Habacuc’s plan to starve another dog as part of an exhibition. As […]

  2. Lindsay says:

    i totally agree with your ideas here. great blog, too

  3. Savanah Loftus says:

    I feel like his concept is simple, clear and concise yes, it seems morbid to have to watch a dog die from starvation in a gallery.

    However everyday street dogs and their puppies are starving to death no one sees or pays attention to this. Ironically when taken from the street and placed in a gallery sympathy and press is drawn. As if it is fine to die on the filthy street, but to dirty a crisp sterile gallery is just not humane.

  4. Zoedelyce says:

    ok even if he didn’t want to starve the dog to death, the idea that he wanted to cause an uproar is sick!!! How is that art? I understand it’s suppose to provoke emotion, but even so, it hasn’t been confirmed or denied it happened. SICK!!!

  5. LKT says:

    Savanah Loftus Says:
    May 1, 2008 at 7:21 am

    I feel like his concept is simple, clear and concise yes, it seems morbid to have to watch a dog die from starvation in a gallery.

    However everyday street dogs and their puppies are starving to death no one sees or pays attention to this. Ironically when taken from the street and placed in a gallery sympathy and press is drawn. As if it is fine to die on the filthy street, but to dirty a crisp sterile gallery is just not humane.

    I think there is a fundamental difference between leaving street dogs to their own devices and actively causing one to die. One can not argue that since the dog is likely to die, it is justified to kill it, for the sake of “art”, or to draw people’s attention to their own indifference. Taking a life is a serious act, I do not think that there is any justification for it, with the possible exception of self preservation.

    Given a choice, I am sure the dog would have preferred to wander the street on its own even though it may starve to death (but it may not). Do you think the dog would prefer to die in “a crisp sterile gallery” rather than “on the filthy street”?

    Would you consider it justifiable to tie up a human baby to die in a gallery to call attention to the plight of children in all the war torn, famine struck areas of the world?

  6. camilla says:

    THIS IS NOT ART! IT’S TORRTURE! are u guys crazy! peole is walking by a dog that has’nt bin fed for days!? what the h*ll is that? TORRTURE! he should be put in jail, that is a crime! SHAME ON YOU! THINK IF YOU HAD STARVE TO DEATH AND PEOPLE ARE JUST STANDING THERE WATCHING? F*CK YOU BASTARD!

  7. Stephanie says:

    This makes me so angry I want to scream at the screen.
    I am in complete shock that no one even attempted to help the dog, and the image above of people casually standing in the gallery is truly disturbing in all ways. This piece shows the true arrogance of human beings and actually makes me ashamed to be in anyway linked to a creature so self-obsessed it believes a life is at its own personal disposal.
    His blatant use of cheap and easy shock tactics makes me want to punch him and call it art.
    The fact that he attempts to justify himself is, in some ways the worst part, I find it hard believe he Actually thinks he is helping anything, and if he does then this is a true sign of insanity. Even if there is a message behind this hideous act, it is completely blurred by the blatant disregard to life.
    Although it is true that art cannot be fully defined does not mean everything in life is art. By calling something art does not mean anything, and usually shows nothing but the own pretentious and self-righteousness of the person labelling there own “creations”. People are throwing this word around in such a ridiculous way that it is now meaningless. Why is it that talent and creativity is no longer in focus and cruel and ridiculous displays are what everyone is talking about. I hate the fact that I have actually found out about this through the press because now he obviously has what he wants, coverage and publicity for himself. The only thing this piece shows and proves is his lack of creativity, a lack of imagination is all ways and the fact that he is claiming the emotions that this provokes are “art” is so infuriating. Anyone could openly torture (because that is EXACTLY what he is doing) and call it art. He is not special, merely a simple person with no boundaries.

  8. love says:

    q tipo tan malo con ese pobre animal no tiene corazon ……………..
    eso no es arte…….
    y nunca lo va aser……
    por q este hombre ……
    no tiene amor……
    es muy malo……….
    le doy este voto en contra…………
    ojalas q se d cuenta q esta malo aserlo

  9. "one" says:

    es mesmo um grande filho da puta devias ser morto seu grande cabrao

  10. boy says:

    this is a not art is a big horror !!!
    guillermo vargas is a stupid man !
    guillermo fuck you !!!!

  11. Jansu says:

    STOP THAT NOW !!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Nathan says:

    If Guillermo can give me a good reason on how killing an innocent animal is art I will only punch him in the face 5 times. I bet if that happened to him he wouldn’t think it was art. Dogs feel pain too, so for someone to make a dog suffer and die he should AT LEAST go to jail for animal cruelty.

  13. annjanet says:

    i hate this fucker i hate him HATE him

    people should tie him to a wall

    and let hm starve now thats art

    i hope he dies and

    and i hope no one actually like his pathetic art

    ergh wat a fucken dooshbag!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. laurabush says:

    To all of you that don’t have a problem with this act of animal cruelty: your argument that since there are stray dogs dying of starvation on the streets, meaning to you that there is no real difference between a stray dog dying in the streets or in an art gallery, I would like to tell you why this argument is wrong. The problem with this argument is that when the dog is on the streets, there is still a chance of it’s survival, no matter how slim these chances may be. However, when someone chains the dog to a wall and doesn’t give the dog nourishment, the dog has no chance of survival. Also, the dog has a right to life. The basic drive for all animals is survival. Who are we to take life from them?

  15. Refutation says:

    You Are What You Read

    “I think this guy is sick! Someone should tie him up, no, put him in a glass box, so that he can’t stand up. Then heat up the room that he’s in and have a waterfall going in the corner. And if the bastard doesn’t die in a day, then gut him from head to toe. That shit isn’t art it’s the work of a disgusting piece of shit, devil, who deserves to burn in hell for that.”

    This is just one of the thousands of outraged comments found across the internet directed at the artist Guillermo ‘Habacuc’ Vargas. Vargas gained global attention in 2007 when he captured an emaciated dog from the streets of San Jose, exhibited it in The Codice Gallery, Nicaragua. Tied up with no food or water he let the dog starve to death, with the title ‘Eres Lo Que Lees’ (‘You Are What You Read’) written in dog food on the wall behind the animal. The story swept across the internet as a chain email directing you to an online petition to stop the artist repeating the piece while representing Costa Rica at Bienal Centroamericana in Honduras in November of this year. The petition now holds over a two and a half million signatures. Angry blogs and Youtube videos call for Vargas to be given the same treatment as the dog and be tied to a post with no food or water. These blogs and videos feature thousands of comments, like the one above, condemning the artist as an “animal murderer” and denouncing his work as inhumane cruelty. Facebook groups have been created for incensed users to rant and rave about Vargas’ actions. These groups have hundreds of thousands of members. Vargas and the gallery have even received death threats.
    The gallery later insisted that the dog, named Natividad, did not in fact starve to death but ‘was untied all the time except for the three hours the exhibition lasted and it was fed regularly with dog food Habacuc himself brought in’ and then escaped after one day. Vargas has declined to comment on the condition of the animal but says he wanted to test the public’s reaction and highlight the plight facing thousands of stray dogs in San Jose.

    “Habacuc has put the guests in a position to question their own moral responsibility. Failure to act to save the dog indicates a process of rationalization on behalf of the guest, which probably considered the perceived facts of the situation: the dog was a stray set to face death anyway, it’s so far malnourished that it will be miserable regardless, it’s for the sake of art and who am I to ruin it, etc.”

    Vargas’ refusal to comment on the dog’s survival has only furthered speculation about the dog’s demise and it is precisely what the artist wanted. The furore over the whole situation has become part of the artwork itself with each incensed comment and angry email adding to it’s message. Even though no one at the exhibition stepped in to help the poor dog, hundreds of thousands have felt aggrieved enough to sign the petition after reading the email or to leave a comment at the end of a blog. The artwork’s title You Are What You Read – it makes sense. To make no action when you feel things are in control but as soon as you’re told they aren’t and it’s easy to do “your bit”, everyone jumps on board.
    Vargas’ work highlights people’s ability to ignore suffering and cruelty until it is presented to them out of the context of everyday life. There are tens of thousands of stray, starving dogs on the streets of San Jose and only a tiny proportion of the global population are actually trying to help them. Then as soon as one is publicly displayed, the whole world throws up their arms in outrage and jostles to get on the bandwagon. By putting the animal in an art gallery, Vargas made an example of the dog. While some people will find that cruel, the statement that he was making about cruelty was immensely resonant, sparking off this global debate. Vargas was, in fact, making an example out of us, the apathetic public. He understood, and intended, the outcry that took place, it was all part of his artwork, and while it doesn’t lessen the impact of the impassioned outbursts of those against the spectacle, it shows them in a different perspective. The comments are turned back on the commenters to expose their contradictions. The striking thing is that some people are still not backing down, in spite of the evidence presented that the dog survived and was well-looked after, and stubbornly continue to protest.

    “With the unlimited access to information comes the heavy responsibility of critical thinking.”

    The furious reactions to the exhibit have come from all over the world, probably further than even Vargas could have imagined. The exaggerated interest has amplified the artist’s local concerns about stray dogs on the streets of San Jose and turned them into a global discussion about animal cruelty. This would have been incapable of happening without the World Wide Web. This far-reaching technology has shrunk the world to an unimaginably small scale. Through instant messaging, Facebook statuses and online forums; news, information and gossip can be sent around the planet in a flash and can be discussed between people of cultures than would not usually have contact. The internet has become an interactive, electronic debating table where anyone can voice their opinion, intellectual or ignorant, and be heard, but with the abundance and easy availability of information, you have to be careful what you believe.
    Anybody can access Wikipedia and write something, anybody can write a blog and anybody can read them. Chain emails arrive in inboxes everyday claiming that Bill Gates wants to give you money or that forwarding the email to ten more people will bring you good luck and most people delete them instantly but something about Vargas’ case was different. Even though it only takes a couple of minutes ‘googling’ the name Guillermo Vargas to find websites and weblogs that provided evidence to the contrary of the petitions and protests against Vargas’ work, millions of people didn’t take the time, when faced with the chain email, to think for themselves, do a tiny amount of research and come to an informed decision. Instead they condemn a man off the back of uninformed evidence.

    The increase in audience awareness across the world has shifted the possible outcomes of work for artists such as Vargas. His exploration into the reaction that this work could cause highlights how much our communicative powers have changed over the last decade. But equally it exposes our almost unquestionable belief in the information that we know is being written behind screens. Our faith in the words written by others has come out of historical approaches to recording and writing our histories and events. But in this new age of mass un-vetted and uncontrolled communication our creative and expressive avenues must become increasingly self aware, for if you are what you read then we must be able to stand behind what we write.


  16. Tate says:

    whenever I heard about this, I was only given some of the facts and I inferred a much greater message about this exhibit than animal cruelty. I think that another message that he might be trying to get across is the suffering of the PEOPLE of Mexico. So many are suffering and starving on the streets, much like the dog in the exhibit. While the animal struggles and fights desperately for food, immigrants are trying to get out of their starving country and into the US, towards prosperity and opportunity. By denying them access to this only hope of life, the immigration laws are like the leash holding them back. Most people dont realize how inhumane this is, until given a much smaller scale example, like this exhibit. Our hearts instantly go out to the dog in pity and outrage, but why not for the population of Mexico? I think this is why the artist considered the reactions of the viewers as part of the piece. Because it shows how horrible these innocent people are being treated, and lets us know that we SHOULD be outraged by it.

    I can only imagine how apologetic and sorry he felt to the poor animal for chaining it to its doom.

  17. Greg says:

    I don’t know what art is, or what art is not, and honestly I don’t care about having a precise definition of art. But what I know is that letting a poor dog starve to death, for whatever reason, will never educate the people, or help any cause in the world.

  18. Cassia says:

    The more people moan about this the more publicity he gets, don’t you all see that? Noone would know his name if it were not for all the protests. I think to starve a dog to death that way is sick as well, but I have actively avoided joining these petitions against him because its clear that this is what he intended.

  19. Sarah says:

    i think this is absolutly sick! yes i hate that a dog had to suffer in this way, and i do support in the petions. but i also agree with what Cassia is saying he is just doing this for the publicity. if we keep giving it to him he’ll keep taking it and doing more horrible things to other animals. this is horrible and i think he should go to jail for more thaN JUST KILLING A HELPLESS ANIMAL!

  20. brittany says:

    someone should tie Guillermo Vargas Habacuc up as art and make him suffer, starve and die a horrible death while we all watch as he slowly and painfully dies!!!!!!!! you’re a fucked up person, and should not be alive!

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