Artists as Cultural and Political Provocateurs

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British street artist Banksy, whose identity is still a mystery, proved, once more, to be an excellent provocateur. Last week, during the Sotheby’s sale of his small painting, Girl with Balloon, a telephone bidder acquired “the Girl” for just over £1m. At the very moment the hammer came down, something strange happened: the painting started to be shredded through a device hidden behind a heavy gilded frame. It made me think about a pasta machine with noodles coming out of it.

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Love is in the Bin. 2018. Banksy. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of his art, but still, I do admire Banksy for his pranks that he has pulled in major museums around the world. Let me ask you – what would you do if the artwork you acquired had been “destroyed” in front of your eyes? After some shock, the smart buyer proceeded with the acquisition, saying “… I realized I would end up with my own piece of art history.”
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Ai Weiwei and LACMA Director Michael Govan in conversation at LACMA, with Ai Weiwei's 
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, in the background. Photo by Edward Goldman.

All the above makes me think of the famous photographic triptych by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, showing him dropping on the floor and breaking a priceless Han Dynasty urn. During his recent conversation with Michael Govan at LACMA, the artist referred to the piece as a cultural and political commentary on the state of affairs in communist China.

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(T) Still image of "La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour)" from "Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back" (2016) Courtesy of director Maura Axelrod (B) Maurizio Cattelan, "America," 2016. Photo credit: Kris McKay/The Guggenheim Collection.

Now, let me mention the name of the Italian artist and provocateur Maurizio Cattelan. Do you recall his life-size sculpture of Pope John Paul II, stricken by a meteor and fallen on the floor? And if that’s not enough, how about his fully functional, solid 18- karat gold toilet, installed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York? I will leave it up to you to decide what the artist meant by titling this golden toilet America… Earlier this year, when Donald Trump requested to borrow a Van Gogh painting for his living quarters from the Guggenheim, the museum politely declined. Instead, the chief curator offered an alternative – Cattelan’s golden toilet. The President did not accept.

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Untitled, from Early Color Portfolio, ~1976. Jo Ann Callis. Image © Jo Ann Callis. Courtesy of ROSEGALLERY.

The current exhibition of color photographs by Jo Ann Callis at ROSEGALLERYgives the viewer a choice to make: are these photographs carefully staged or genuine forensic evidence of possible crimes? What’s happening at the moment a man’s hands grasp a woman’s legs, while she’s standing on a chair? Is he stopping her from jumping out a window, or is he about to violate her?

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Cigarette in Toes, 1976-1977. Jo Ann Callis. Image © Jo Ann Callis. Courtesy of ROSEGALLERY.

Another photograph shows a woman’s long, naked legs, with a lit cigarette held between her toes. Boy – what a story must be developing behind the camera… and it’s up to each of us to decide how to interpret Callis’ smartly presented cultural and erotic provocations.

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L & R, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, 1986. Don Halsey. Photos courtesy Duncan Miller Gallery. 

Let me finish today’s Art Talk by mentioning the two biggest names of the ballet world: Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Both of them defected from the Soviet Union – Nureyev in the 60s, Baryshnikov a decade later. It was a huge cultural and political scandal of the era. Now, at Duncan Miller Gallery, we can enjoy several dozen photographs of them dancing, sharing secrets with each other, and chatting with luminaries of the world.



Kathleen Yore