Ron Athey: Between Performance Art and Blood Ritual

The audience suddenly found paper towels drenched in -what could be- HIV positive blood hanging right above their heads…

This is a ‘scene’ from a performance titled ‘Four Scenes from a Tough Life’ by gay artist Ron Athey, who made cuts in his co-performer’s back and soaked the paper towels in it. And even though the blood was not HIV positive, you can imagine both the panic of some, the anguish of others, not to mention the perplexed and aggressive reaction of the critics (add to that the fact that Athey was financed in part by public money). What was Ron Athey thinking?

In her book ‘But is it Art?’, Cynthia Freeland refers to the strong ‘ritual’ quality of blood and what it means to different cultures and within different contexts. Athey explores issues of sexuality and physical pain, as well as elements of masochism that are strongly present in his works. In these works, blood is more than just a ‘medium’, it’s more of a ‘ritual’ that incarnates an extreme human condition (of a man dying slowly?).

So many people find the idea of using real blood or the practice of self-mutilation in live performances appalling and, to say the least, ‘un-artistic’. They hate it and they protest to labeling it art at all. They forget that art is an expression of the human condition, and that these ‘extremes’ form part of our contemporary reality. Art has never been as faithful to reality as it is in Contemporary Art, the problem is that those who hate / reject certain aspects of this reality will also reject the corresponding art mirroring this reality.

That brings us to another question? Is it art or ritual? Should we consider every expression of the human condition ‘art’? While I can answer the first question (to me it’s art because it is ‘performed’ rather than ‘practiced’), I do not dare tackle the second. It would be better to let you reflect without conditioning your thinking.

Athey 1

Athey 2

Athey 3

My Art Course in Cairo: Renaissance Tales (25/12/2013)

On 25 December, I will hold a course on art history in Cairo, Egypt.
The course, titled ‘Renaissance Tales’, offers a journey through Renaissance Art, as we explore some of Renaissance’s most incredible stories and most celebrated masterpieces. The tales will take us ‘off the beaten track’ as well, as we learn about some of the least known masters and their artowrks. Tales of pain and passion, of saints and sinners, of humanism and barbarity, of artistic genius and intellectual curiosity…of the human condition at an age like no other age.
From the ‘founding fathers’ and all the way to ‘High Renaissance’, from the Gates of Heaven to the Bonfire of the Vanities, this is one journey you do not want to miss!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013
7:30 pm
2 hours
My place (33A Meqias El Roda St., Manial, Cairo)
Registration & inquiries: (email only please)
EGP 200
Fees include:
Course + Reading material and handouts
Deadline for registration:
30 November 2013 (or upon the reservation of 25 places)

PS.1 Voice and video recording are not allowed.
PS.2 If you are offended by nudity or by the representation of prophets and angels in art, then kindly be advised that the presentation includes images of both kinds.

Course Poster

Civilization of the Spectacle – Mario Vargas Llosa

“What do I mean by civilization of the spectacle? That of a world in which entertainment occupies first place on the chart of current values, where having a good time, escaping boredom, is a universal passion. this life ideal is perfectly legitimate, of course. Only a puritan fanatic could reproach the members of a society who want to provide entertainment, recreation, humor and diversion to lives generally framed by depressing and at times numbing routines. But to convert that natural penchant for having a good time into a supreme value sometimes had unexpected consequences. These include the banalization of culture, the spread of superficiality, and, in the specific field of information, the proliferation of irresponsible journalism, which feeds off gossip and scandal.

What caused the West to slip into the civilization of the spectacle? The well-being that followed the years of privations of World War II and the shortages of the postwar years. A period of extraordinary economic development followed that difficult state, In all democratic, liberal societies of Europe and North America, the middle classes experienced effervescent growth and social mobility intensified. At the same time, a notable loosening of moral parameters occurred, beginning with sexual life, traditionally held in check by churches and the prudish secularism of political organizations, right and left alike. Well-being, freedom from customs and the growing space occupied by leisure in the developed world became an important stimulus for the unprecedented proliferation of the entertainment industries, promoted by advertising, mother and magic master of our time (…).

Another, equally important factor for forging the civilization of spectacle was the democratization of culture. Undoubtedly, this is a highly positive phenomenon prompted by an altruistic motive: that culture should not continue to be the patrimony of an elite class, that a liberal, democratic society has the moral obligation to put culture within everyone’s reach through education, but also through promotion and the subsidizing of the arts, letters and all other cultural expressions. This commendable philosophy has often produced the unwanted effect of trivializing and popularizing cultural life, where a certain formal triteness and superficiality of the contents of cultural products were justified by the civic goal of reaching more uses. Quantity at the expense of quality. This criterion, an inclination shared by the worst demagogues in the political realm, caused unforeseen reverberations in the cultural sphere, including the disappearance of high culture, which is necessarily of a minority because of the complexity and at times inscrutability of its keys and codes, and the massification of the concept of culture. Culture is now almost exclusively defined in its anthropological sense, in other words, culture reflects all manifestations of community life: its languages, beliefs, uses and customs, clothing, techniques, in short, all that is practiced, avoided, respected and abominated in the community.”

Mario Vargas Llosa, 2008

Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian-Spanish writer, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.


Discovery of America / Destruction of the Indies

‘Oh, would that I could describe even one hundredth of the afflictions and calamities wrough among these innocent people by the benighted Spaniards!’ – Bartolomé de las Casas

As Spain celebrates its national day (which corresponds to the discovery of the New World by Columbus), it is always good to sit back, reflect on the atrocities that followed the discovery, and wonder if there is any reason to celebrate!

Below is an excerpt from ‘A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies’, a famous account that Bartolomé de las Casas presented to the Spanish King, Philip II, in 1542. Bartolomé was an eyewitness. He saw everything, documented everything, but his angry cries fell on the deaf ears of the Spanish Crown:

‘There is no way the written word can convey the full horror of the atrocities committed throught this region (Yucatán). The wretched Spaniards actively pursued the locals, both men and woman alike, using wild dogs to track them and hunt them down. One woman, who was indisposed at the time and so not able to make good her escape, determined that the dogs should not tear her and her baby to pieces as they had done to her neighbours and, taking a rope, and tying her one-year-old child to her leg, hanged herself from a beam. Yet she was not in time to prevent the dogs from ripping the infant to pieces, even though a friar did arrive and baptize the infant before it died.’


The Oriental Fusion of Nasser Ovissi

“My work is dedicated to the beauty of life and I hope those who experience my work will walk away with an aesthetic experience.” – Nasser Ovissi

Nasser Ovissi has been described, among other things, as a post-modernist. His artwork would definitely give that impression. Winner of the Gold Medal in Venice Biennale in 1979, the US-based Iranian artist would appear on any “who’s who” of Oriental Art, even though to describe his art as ‘oriental’ would be too limiting.

Using obvious oriental motives, he tosses his girls, horses, pomegranates and lutes into a dreamlike hybrid whole reminiscent –in shape and color- of the work of the likes of Odilon Redon. The unmistakable Persian imprint is sometimes further accentuated through the use of calligraphy, and most of his paintings, with a seemingly common subject matter, acquire an abstraction that lends them an air of Middle Eastern epic tales.

Enjoy this collection of his artwork:

The Venice Trilogy – III: Europe’s First ‘Ghetto’

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” – The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare

It was only in 1385 that the Jews were finally allowed to settle in Venice. Venice needed them (or better said, needed their money) to finance one of its wars. Things went fine till, in 1516, Venice decided to ‘control’ the Jewish community. They limited their residence to a specific neighbourhood, and Europe’s first ‘ghetto’ was born! (The word Ghetto comes from the Venetian word for ‘foundry’). As part of the ‘control’ measures, the Jews had to stick to curfew hours, wear yellow signs (like thieves and prostitutes) and could work only in pawn-shops, lend money, trade in textile or practice medicine. Practice medicine? Yes, that is an interesting story:

Doctors had to inspect naked bodies, something perceived at the time as improper and against the Christian values. Moreover, the fear of contacting disease (given the fresh memories of the Plague) made many Venetians refrain from ‘risking’ the practice of medicine. The Jews, on the other hand, had a comparative advantage: they had access to the medieval body of knowledge developed by the Arabs (Maimonides in Spain would be a perfect example), and they actually found salvation in practicing medicine: doctors did not have to wear the yellow sign and could have more flexibility with curfew hours. To protect themselves from contagion, they wore masks with long, hollow ‘noses’, which acted as filters (they filled them with cotton and spices). If you wonder about the famous mask that has become emblematic of Venice, now you know where it came from!

The first Jews to settle in the Ghetto were Eastern European Ashkenazim, who built two magnificent synagogues, namely the Scola Grande Tedesca and the Scola Canton (XVI c.). Then came the Sephardic Jews, who built the Scola Levantina (also XVI c.), followed by poor Italian immigrants, and then Spanish immigrants escaping the Inquisition. Both communities built synagogues, and they were safer in Venice than elsewhere, since Venice cared more for commerce than for religious ideologies.

At its height (XVII c.), the Ghetto housed around 4000-5000 Jews and had 5 synagogues (all still standing). We joined a guided tour organized by the Jewish Museum (in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo), visiting 3 of the 5 synagogues. The lavishly decorated synagogues of the Ashkenazim attest to their wealth and refined taste, while the buildings in the neighborhood are densely filled with tightly packed rows of windows (they had to save space, and hence the low ceilings). You would see 6 stories in a building that would normally accommodate only 4. This is why the Ghetto’s buildings were known as the Venetian Skyscrapers.

In 1797, Napoleon threw open the Ghetto gates, but one final blow was yet to hit: the Holocaust. Of 289 Jews deported by the Nazis, only 7 returned. ‘The Last Train’ by the Lithuanian artist Arbit Blatas is a grim reminder of this tragedy. The bronze plaque in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo depicts the deportation of the Venetian Jews from the Ghetto, while other plaques nearby depict several related scenes.

Finally, I strongly recommend the guided tour for everyone interested in the Jewish history and culture.

The Venice Trilogy – II: San Marco

There is only one ‘piazza’ in Venice, or so the Venetians would tell you. Every piazza other than San Marco is a ‘campo’, because nothing stands the comparison with the Piazza of San Marco, where Venice showcases its grandiosity.

As you approach San Marco in the vaporetto (water bus), you are greeted with the façade of the Palazzo Ducale (The Doge’s Palace) and, next to it, two columns, like two beacons guiding you into the Piazzetta that precedes the bigger Piazza. On one of the columns stands the old St. Theodore, and on the other, the winged lion of San Marco, who ‘replaced’ St. Theodore thanks to…a crime?
Yes, theft. It was in 828 that two merchants from Venice bribed the guardian of St. Mark’s tomb in Alexandria and stole away his cadaver. A mosaic on the main façade of the Basilica shows an Arab holding his nose in disgust, as the two merchants showed him their ‘cargo’ of chopped pork (under which they hid the saint’s cadaver). Received as heroes in Venice, the city celebrated the arrival of the saint in style: finally, Venice had its apostle, just like Rome!

Once inside the Basilica, one is immediately bedazzled by the Byzantine style golden mosaics of the ceiling and the cupolas, a scene all-too-familiar for those who visited Hajia Sophia in Istanbul. The Pala d’Oro (the Basilica’s Byzantine gold retable) is encrusted with close to 2000 gems! (yes, you read that right). It obviously lures all the visitors away from the real masterpiece: the incredible marble floor with its richly colored mosaic. On the upper floor, the famous bronze horses (4 horses that once stood at the Hippodrome of Constantinople before being sacked during the Fourth Crusade) are on show in the ‘museum’. The upper floor offers nice views of the Basilica, and the open air gallery is the perfect place to enjoy panoramic views of the Piazza and the Piazzetta.

In the Piazza, the Napoleonic Wing stands at the far end, across the Piazza from the Baisilica. On both sides of the Piazza, the monumental Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove offer the perfect backdrop to the busy square. The name comes from the procurators, once an important organ of the Venetian administration.

The Doge’s Palace is the ‘pearl’ of the Piazzetta. Its Gothic façade is no less impressive than the patio inside, famous for the Staircase of the Giants and for the Doge’s Chapel. Once inside the halls of the Palace, one is ‘besieged’ by epic paintings by the likes of Tintoretto and Veronese. Scenes from the Battle of Lepanto are among the most spectacular works. As we crossed the Bridge of Sighs, we could peer through the windows for a view of the Lagoon. The fresh breeze heralded the end of yet another wonderful day in la Serinissima.