Ben Lewis' Art Safari: From a machine that makes human shit to Japan's hyperficial Andy Warhol
Ben Lewis' "Art Safari" is a series of 8 episodes (28 minutes each) made between 2002-2005 and aired on BBC Four (now available on DVD) that covers Ben's safaris into: Maurizio Cattelan, Gregor Schneider, Matthew Barney, Relational Art, Wim Delvoye, Santiago Sierra, Sophie Calle, and Takashi Murakami.
Ben Lewis describes his primary journalistic facial expression as a laconic grin. This is a good place to jump into Ben's forays into some of the world's most famous and bizarre contemporary artists; for while it did run on BBC, this is not your stuffy, Oxford style of art critique, this is drier-than-a-martini humor that pokes fun at conceptual, pop, and "relational" art all the while being fascinated with it. When he says that Matthew Barney's baroque surrealist film The Cremaster Cycle—that uses everything from football field dancers, race car drivers on the Isle of Man, tap dancing satyrs, gangster torture scenes, and Irish maypole ceremonies atop the Chrysler Building to symbolically represent the physical development of embryos—is the "Sistine Chapel of our times", it's hard to know whether he's being serious, sarcastic, or a symbiosis of both. Although of all the artists he presents, Barney seems to be the one he admires the most.
Wim Delvoye, who writes his name in Walt Disney font, is vying for Belgian's next top Jeff Koons, and a spot in that dastardly hard game known as "Name 3 Famous Belgians" [Hergé is about as far as most people get]. But while Koons "mimics popular kitsch with exactitude and enlargement" [in other words: is the artist's penis exact and enlarged enough for the viewer?] making "low-brow, low-profile objects into high art", Delvoye takes it a couple leaps darker.
Take for example Wim's "Cloaca" (latin for 'sewer'): a machine that mimics the human digestive system through the use of washing machines, bacteria, and a certain suspension of disbelief to produce an almost identical replica of human shit. In goes the food, out comes the shit, packaged in vacuum-sealed sacks and clear plastic boxes for buyers. In Ben's investigation of gallery-goers' reactions, one man proclaims that Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist foremost and then an artist, just like Delvoye. Another says he sees Cloaca as very utopian [my god, are Belgians this desperate to get recognized?!], which Ben counters with, not dsytopian? To which the gallery-goer stays firm and says in his French accent, we have different views, you know?
Hellbent on getting to the abysmal bottom of this [pun intended], Ben gloms onto Wim, all the way to a special pig farm in China. The "Art Farm" which Ben calls a "wonderfully enigmatic" piece of art [does Ben love him more than he lets on, or is it his serio-synthetic-sarcasm breaching once again?] in which pigs saved from the "industrialized death of factory farming" live in a "utopia" of plentiful food, skin massages, and oh yes: extensive tattooing (Disney cartoons, Louis Vuitton ideograms, and Russian prison gang insignia are among Wim's favorite designs). When Wim and his minions have sufficiently tattooed the pigs, "they are slaughtered and either stuffed or skinned, in which case the hides are stretched and put into large frames" and sold to the highest bidder. For an artist who has taken X-Rays of people enjoying oral sex, what type of relational hyper-identity and multitudinous dialogue could Wim be postulating with "Art Farm"?
We may never know. But Ben for one, receives a tattoo of Mickey Mouse dying on the cross for our many sins with Minnie weeping below just like Mary Magdalene, while a pig laying next to him is getting the same tattoo. When Ben propositions an art dealer to sell his Wim tattoo at auction, framed on death, his offer is sadly rejected.
But Ben is not finished with the concept of exploitation in a globalized art world just yet. His next safari centers on Santiago Sierra, "the Che Guevara of contemporary art" [minus the whole revolutionary violence thing to liberate the enslaved workers of Latin America [plus making boatloads of money to "trojan horse" his works in front of the 1% and their many ass-kissers [not that you'd see us fighting in any violent revolution [fuck that, and Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the Bushs, Clintons, and Trump]]]].
Sierra has paid African immigrants in Spain to dig holes, paid Eastern European prostitutes to perform S&M, and paid junkies the price of a fix to tattoo a continuous line across their backs. "In Germany in 2006, he filled a former synagogue with exhaust fumes from cars parked outside. Visitors could only enter wearing a gas mask and accompanied by a fireman." It was intended to be a superimposition of the Holocaust and climate change. "It lasted a couple of days, before outraged public opinion forced its abandonment."
When Ben meets up with Sierra they're off to South Korea together to the DMZ, where Sierra has been commissioned to make a piece. The border, one of the most dangerous in the world, turns out to be a tourist locale, complete with tacky souvenirs and sappy elevator music. It seems the South Korean government, who are paying for his work, are lumping all of this into their happy-free-creative capitalist angle [like the CIA did with Abstract Expressionism in the Cold War [hell, maybe Sierra was the agency's idea all along]]. Only problem is, Sierra's work is to appear just outside of the DMZ, in their art museum. Sierra complains about this, because he'd expected something more raw. But he pitches his idea nonetheless to the curator. He wants two groups of soldiers to dig two giant holes; then the first group will fill in the others' and vice versa. Sierra says it will represent two mass graves, two hostile ideologies, and the stalemate they represent.
Will Sierra's work change the world? Certainly it's already changed the art world, given them a new shock scale by which to judge their own tolerance. We're not at this moment sure whether Sierra's exhibitions have lead to more charitable giving on the part of the rich, or that he's opened the conversational wound even farther, but what else can art really do at this hyperreal posthuman moment? His art suggests more than anything his feeling of hopelessness to change the world for the better, and for the honesty of that conviction we salute him.
Let us end then with an artist who does not care to change the world: Takashi Murakami in the realm of the “Superflat”. Don't get us wrong, when Murakami describes his theory of the Superflat it sort of makes sense, it even seems like potential political commentary. But the thing is when you come to global fame because you've made a famous Louis Vuitton bag, you have to ask yourself as an artist: "Have I sold out?" Murakami might say "He's sold up" or more likely he might finally describe his theory of the Superflat, which you must be ready for at intervals, especially because a New York yuppie definitely needs a theory for why he's covered his entire apartment with pink and green anime eye wallpaper and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. "His theory of the Superflat argues that the atomic bombs dropped on Japan produced a cultural fall-out that has persisted to the present day. Japanese culture has become frozen in a kind of childishness. Japan has never come to terms with the trauma of the bomb and the happiness presented in its animated fantasy worlds conceals alienation." Now we'd have to be evil to argue against that. But we can argue that giant smiling flowers sold for millions of dollars are not doing anything to pull oneself out of alienation. In fact, it's a recipe to sink further in. When Ben asks Murakami if anyone has ever called his work superficial, Murakami pauses, looks puzzled, and says, “I don’t know what the word superficial means.” How true.