Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Geography of Misery


I have always been allergic to borders; those imaginary lines that separate and compartmentalise people into manageable groups. It's my hope that as technology and knowledge advances that citizenship will be so mobile as to eventually render it moot as it is on portions of the internet where groups of people gather irrespective of geographic location but I stray.

In addition to an unease with borders, I also wondered why a tragedy in my country is or rather seems to be of greater significance to those outside. Is it because it is that much more likely to happen to me and thus an underlying selfishness is at play? What if a starving family from the third world were camped in Trafalgar Square? The thing is that the tragedy is not so much in their location but the circumstances.

Now Guilermo Vargas Habacuc, an artist in Costa Rica tied a starving stray dog in a gallery space where the creature named Nativity died. Habacuc says:
Hello everyone. My name is Guillermo Vargas Habacuc. I am 50 years old and an artist. Recently, I have been criticized for my work titled "Eres lo que lees", which features a dog named Nativity. The purpose of the work was not to cause any type of infliction on the poor, innocent creature, but rather to illustrate a point. In my home city of San Jose, Costa Rica, tens of thousands of stray dogs starve and die of illness each year in the streets and no one pays them a second thought. Now, if you publicly display one of these starving creatures, such as the case with Nativity, it creates a backlash that brings out a big of hypocrisy in all of us. Nativity was a very sick creature and would have died in the streets anyway.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a huge backlash to this and petitions have even arisen in protest. According to the gallery, the starving dog was a fiction and that Nativity was regularly fed by Habacuc and eventually escaped. Some have pointed to Habacuc's statement above remarking on the last line that states he "would have died in the streets anyway". Though this brings into question the truth, it would not be the first time an artist displayed a fiction as truth to preserve impact.

I have always been an advocate of animal rights and I sincerely hope that Habacuc's project was a fiction or that I'm missing something in the flurry of stories circulating. Why didn't a visitor to the gallery simply pick the dog up and take it home? I think even Habacuc would have considered that a brilliant gesture. That said, I can't help but wonder about the furore and effort put into campaigns against Habacuc which could be better targeted.

Indeed, Habacuc seems such an obvious target that it makes me feel uneasy.

And again, the tragedy lies in the plight of the animal and not it's location, be it on the street or in a gallery, indoors or outdoors, in Nicaragua or the USA. I'm not saying that Habacuc is a genius but this episode has made me think well beyond the plight of dogs in Costa Rica. It makes me question how I(we?) perceive the misfortune of others and how taking misery out of context can change its impact.

Certainly having the dog tethered within scent range of food is a horrifying prospect. For pity's sake, give him the food! We have the means! That sentiment is true of so many things but the fact remains that in numerous scenarios, people fail to stand up to the challenge. In this case, the problem is easy to grasp, it's emotive and more importantly, the solution is simple.

Perhaps once the dog is in the gallery, we have someone to blame whereas on the street there is no scapegoat, just myopia. In that finite space, the dog is detached from its kin in the street and becomes a cause of its own. Being a single dog, it's a manageable problem whereas the problem on the streets is more complicated and somehow more abstract.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Oddly, when I was attending the School of Visual Arts in New York, I found a Black Labrador puppy with a distended stomach that was barely able to walk in Brooklyn. It would walk two steps, rest, two more steps, collapse, two more steps... It was on the other side of the street but people barely noticed. Some bit their lip but walked on, others seemed annoyed the thing was in its path, one looked around for I'm guessing the owner before continuing. I was hoping someone else would help him but after 20 minutes and dozens of pedestrians, nothing. It wasn't that all the passing people didn't care as I'm sure many like me were looking at the poor creature and thinking someone will surely help.

The dog had mange and despite being young was mobbed with flies. Eventually, I picked it up and brought it home with me on the L train back to Manhattan. It was not a pleasant journey which was down more to the other passengers than the fleas and flies. Anyhow, the point is that suffering is seen differently when there is clearly another responsible and immediately identifiable.

As for the dog, I spent the last of my money paying its discounted vet bills and Whiskey as I called him was the picture of health within a month. I then found him a new home meeting a friend of a friend in front of Katz's deli who renamed him Duncan and moved to the countryside.

EDIT: Joy over at Edward Winkleman's blog helpfully posted THIS LINK shedding some light over at Artnet news. Brilliant.

Links:
Edward Winkleman - The Limits

1 comment:

Betty C. said...

I think it's hard to argue with the artist's point, despite whatever emotional reaction the work might bring out in us.

A very thought-provoking post...

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