The article we are featuring today as a part of our week-long 1 year celebration is on an extremely controversial work that made worldwide headlines in the arts and human rights communities. I am talking about Guillermo Vargas “Habacuc,” the infamous Costa Rican artist who tied up a stray dog during a show and left him to starve to prove a point. Adán Vallecillo’s essay eloquently explains not just the ethical problems the work poses, but the economic and political reasons that motivated the work; ideas that are seemingly completely obscured by the shocking nature of the work.
Throughout the history of Central America, there is not one single artist that has flaunted worldwide fame as Guillermo Vargas “Habacuc”, who stepped into the international arena with his solo exhibition at the Códice de Managua gallery in Nicaragua on August 16th 2007. The exhibition enjoyed extreme popularity, but not for the controversy surrounding the career of this Costa Rican artist, who has distinguished himself for the effectiveness and coherence of his proposals in important local and international shows such as the 2006 Central American Biennial in San Salvador (where he received first honorable mention for his work Alfombra roja), the international fair MACO in Mexico D.F. in 2004, the show New Trends in Costa Rican Art in Washington D.C. at the Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID) in 2003, New York’s Armory Show the same year, or the important annual fair ARCO in Madrid, Spain, among others.
Today, Habacuc is the most widely known Central American artist outside of his region, mostly due to the ethical implications of the project entitled “Exposición #1”, where he presented a series of four pieces that, according to the proposal, should be appreciated as a whole. At the entrance of the show, the assistants read a text made with dog food that spelled “You are what you read” besides a clay incense burner where crack stones and marihuana were burned, all this while the tune of the Sandinista Front played backwards.
However, it was one of his other pieces – the act of tying up a stray dog and starving him during the development of the show – which enraged thousands of citizens of the world, who protested on a daily basis (especially through the internet) condemning that in the name of art such an act had been carried out with such characteristics and moral implications.
The importance of mass media and (why not say it?) politics that this case has reached manifests itself in the gathering of over 1 million signatures from all over the world, petitioning for the artist to be banned from the VI Central American Visual Arts Biennial, to be held in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in November 2008, apart from all the countless websites where people can let loose all of their anger and repulsion against him.
From the art world, the response has been few and superficial. The articles written (most of them by journalists) take as a starting point the controversy generated over the Internet, so that the construction and conclusion of the arguments is done around moral valorizations that decontextualize the sociopolitical and historical content from which the piece is developed, as well as the content that emmanates from the relationship with a specific artistic practice, both aspects crucial to understand any artistic manifestation that implies more than a representation of reality: a modelling of what is represented parting from a specific ethical dilemma.
For this reason, far from offering a simple reduction of the work, to formulate a critical approximation of this project, I am interested in those aspects that allow to enrich reflection, taking as a starting point the relationship between the formal aspects of the work and its contents.
For this, I would like to start defining “Exposición #1” as a space of encounter between dialogical and interactive elements; inserted in social arguments rather than inspired by them. Starting from the artist’s decision to tackle such a sensitive subject such as the relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to the selection of mediums that come together in a ritual that relies on the written text, to music and the commemorative action, to the values that unleashed its media effectiveness.
The selection of the political content of this work is not gratuitous. It brings into light the debate surrounding the death of Natividad Canda. A Nicaraguan immigrant addicted to crack that died from the bites of two furious rottweiler dogs in the city of Cartago, Costa Rica in 2005. Natividad entered without authorization to an auto-mechanic shop where the two dogs where. In the presence of firefighters and police men (two of them face homicide charges for neglect in the Costa Rican courts), the dogs attacked Natividad while an onlooker filmed the act.
However, it is useful to emphasize that the artist’s contribution is not reduced to extrapolate the event of the tragic death of an immigrant by depriving of food and mobility a famished and sick stray dog from Managua, baptized as Natividad during the exhibition. The critical richness of the artistic act resides in the staging of two situations that take as a starting point the same reality of social poverty and injustice, but that evidence dissimilar popular response mechanisms: On one hand, the oblivion or indifference that weighs over the cruel death of Natividad Canda and thousands of human beings that die every day due to poverty and social injustice, and on the other, the massive and systematic condemnation of an artist for removing a famished animal from his traditional environment, who is rumored to have died of starvation in the name of art.
This brings us to question: Why does the artist’s action in a gallery has a major impact on the media and provokes more repulsion than the death of people in deplorable and agonizing circumstances where private property is valued over life?
The social system in which we live in reverts the sense of reality, and for this reason for many artists it is necessary to place relationships in reverse to decipher “the hidden message.” Maybe this is the reason why Habacuc decided to play the hymn of the Sandinista Front backwards; it is an invitation to think about the sense of belonging and the nationalist icons that manifest themselves in the work, not only in spatial terms but also temporal ones. The dialectical emphasis of the work’s elements, added to the social arguments that stem from the death of Natividad in Costa Rica are displaced to Nicaragua (her country of origin), taking into consideration not only the political dimension of the event, but also the cultural and symbolic dimension (materialized in the racial mix of the dog and in the act of burning crack stones and marijuana in a ceramic urn of Pre Columbian influence), to then unchain in a public debate, where the construction of the meaning of the work and its interpretations continues. And for the sake of the media’s reproduction of it, the value of the statement “You are what you read” on the walls of the gallery written with dog food not only unleashes multiple readings in relationship with the commemorative ritual and its subsequent development, but also calls into question the manipulation of the truthfulness of the message once it passes through multiple interpretations.
Everything seems to indicate that this development has been conditioned, and to a great extent manipulated, by the moral imperatives of a great majority of people who assume that the axiological terrain is one that is forbidden for artists, despite the fact that a couple of centuries ago Kant affirmed that “only in the symbolic plane, aesthetic imperatives are also moral imperatives.”
The fact is that to better understand Habacuc’s artistic practice, it is important to recognize that the work cannot be valued on the criteria of the absence or presence of beauty. In his own words: “In my exhibition, the creative space does not seek mass media frenzy, but it is implicit that ethical and aesthetic creation generates diverse manifestations among the spectator that range from rejection, to aversion, to acceptance, to reflection, to even include the despised “mass media process”.
For this reason, it is not about censoring the reactions of the public towards such a controversial work; one that has unleashed so much hate, since the meaning of the work constructed until now is due to a chain reaction generated by the rejection of this type of experimental practices in the name of art. It is not a coincidence that even the same Habacuc signed the petition that circulated online to take him out of the Central American Biennial. When I asked him in an interview I did in his home in Costa Rica the reason why he signed the petition, he said: “Every artist signs his work”.
It is clear then that this artist is not interested for his proposals to be perceived as normal. To further his goal, it seems essential that people manifest their discomfort when they are faced with their aesthetic and moral values. However, in my opinion, the greatest value of his work does not reside in being a medium for people’s expression. It lies in the ability to manifest, through the elements that make up the work, the body as space and object of mass media and political outrage, for it is not and will never be his task to please a society with a significant deficit of humanism and dignity. We have enough of that with advertising.
Tegucigalpa, March 2008. Translated by Carla Acevedo.