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?
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?