Controversial artworks of the modern era – part 1

Contemporary art places a lot of focus on pushing boundaries.  And why not?  If the goal of art is to elicit an emotional response, touching on controversial subjects is a surefire way to achieve this.

Here are some of the most controversial artworks of the modern era:

Abortion performance art – Aliza Shvarts

Aliza Shvarts

For her senior performance art project in 2008, Yale University student Aliza Shvarts was reported to have artificially inseminated herself as many times as possible over a duration of nine months, during which she also induced abortions with abortifacient drugs.  The purpose of the piece was to explore and spark debate about the relationship between art and body.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people were angry about this – from both sides of the abortion debate.  The President of the National Right to Life Committee, Wanda Franz, called Shvarts a “serial killer” with “major mental problems”, while the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America denounced the project as “offensive and insensitive to the women who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage.”

After the initial media explosion, it all got a bit smoke and mirrors – Yale University authorities investigated and claimed the piece was purely a work of creative fiction, while Aliza maintained that she had in fact performed repeated self-induced miscarriages.

Whatever the story, Yale denied her from submitting the piece without a public confession that the work was indeed fictional.  She opted to submit a different final piece and graduated in May 2008.

The vagina kayak – Megumi Igarashi

Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi, also known as Rokudenashiko (translating roughly as ‘reprobate child’), was arrested after producing a kayak modelled on her vagina.  This followed an earlier arrest for distributing 3D scan data of her vagina to around 30 people as part of crowdfunding for the project.

Megumi Igarashi and her vagina kayak

The reason for her arrest is that Japan’s obscenity laws are actually very restrictive – genitalia cannot be on show, even in pornography (pixelation – and weird alternatives – are used to get around this).

Megumi incorporates female genitalia into her artwork to comment on the absurdity of this legislation and the overt suppression of female sexuality in Japan.  She explains the project on her funding website: “I did not know what a pussy should look like at the same time I though [sic] mine is just abnormal. Manko, pussy, has been such a taboo in the Japanese society. Penis, on the other hand, has been used in illustrations and signed as a part of pop culture.”

By igniting a debate about sex and society, and literally pushing legal boundaries, I think Megumi is controversial for all of the right reasons.  It remains to be seen whether she’ll be convicted of “distributing or holding obscene materials for the purpose of selling”, which could involve spending two years in jail and being fined up to 2.5 million yen (about £13,500).

Dreamscape V – Maurice Agis

Dreamscape V – August 2005

This is the only case I know involving art and a fatal accident, making it uniquely controversial.  On 22nd July 2006, Maurice installed a massive, walk-in piece called Dreamspace V at Riverside Park, Chester-le-Street.

The next day it came loose from its moorings and lifted 30ft into the air, colliding with a CCTV pole and killing two people.  Though the artwork had undergone safety checks by a Chester-le-Street health and safety committee, Maurice was nevertheless arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.  Distraught, he vowed never to make large-scale installations again.

In early 2009, a formal not guilty verdict was returned, though he was ordered to pay a fine for health and safety offences.

Maurice died in October 2009.


Performance of ‘Punk Prayer’ in Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow – Pussy Riot

While not strictly performance art, Pussy Riot’s protest in a Moscow church in February 2012 is nevertheless a powerful example of creative expression battling state censorship.

Pussy Riot’s musical protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

The group performed the song Punk Prayer, which attacked the Orthodox Church’s support for President Vladimir Putin.  The response of the Russian authorities – arresting and charging Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, holding them without bail until their trial and then sentencing them to two years in prison – was widely condemned by the international community. Disturbingly, calls were made by the Russian Orthodox Church to criminalize blasphemy.

Samutsevich was freed on probation in October 2012, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina remained in jail until an amnesty released both in December 2013.  Their protest activities continued unabated, including attempts to perform at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

A video of the 2012 performance can be viewed here:

For the Love of God – Damien Hirst

For the Love of God – Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull made a huge news splash in 2007, mostly because everything about it screamed excess – the reported production cost of £14 million, covering the 8,601 flawless pavé-laid diamonds; the £50 million asking price; and the fact it didn’t actually find a buyer (he eventually sold a third to an anonymous consortium).

Some commentators claimed the publicity and sale was part of the art itself, while others decried this as cynically disguising the greed of the commercial art world.

Either way, it posed intriguing questions about the value of art. And at the very least, all of the diamonds were apparently conflict-free.



For even more art controversy, stay tuned for part 2.






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