Colored Vases – Ai Weiwei
Any work by Ai Weiwei tends to be controversial purely in light of his dissident status and treatment by authorities in China. True to his principles, Ai’s works can be highly provocative: take Colored Vases, for which he repainted Han Dynasty-era vases to resemble cheap, modern-day varieties and no doubt poke at China’s suppression of its cultural heritage.
Stronger controversy came in February 2012, while Colored Vases was on show at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. A visitor, artist Maximo Caminero, picked up, dropped and shattered one of the vases. This was allegedly in response to Maximo believing the gallery should support local rather than international artists.
It might have ended there. But Maximo carried out his protest alongside a triptych of photographs of Ai Weiwei himself dropping a vase. Though the gallery had every right to want to press charges, it begs the question of why one artist can destroy an ancient vase for a work but not another artist in protest.
A video of the event can be seen here.
Yo Mama’s Last Supper – Renée Cox
Renée Cox’s photographic montage is a modern spin on da Vinci’s The Last Supper, depicting 12 black men as the disciples and Cox herself, nude and arms extended, as Jesus.
When displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2001, its non-canonical approach provoked a harsh response from the Catholic League and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who called for the creation of a panel to draw up decency standards for all works shown in publicly funded museums. Fortunately, Michael Bloomberg took over in 2002 and abolished the panel.
What’s controversial here is the parallel with cases of harsh reactions in Middle Eastern societies to depictions of Muslim religious figures, reminding us that Western societies aren’t quite as different as we might think.
Various sculptures – Patricia Piccinini
Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures of human-animal hybrids wouldn’t look out of place in a disturbing horror film about genetic engineering gone awry – and I think that’s the point.
Her pieces simultaneously evoke compassion and revulsion; the former in the familiar human elements and cute, puppy-like poses, and the latter in the primal response to an organism that feels fundamentally wrong or deformed.
The fact the sculptures are rendered in a hyper-realistic style kicks these reactions into the extreme.
Shark – David Černý
Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living could itself be featured in a list of controversial artworks for its statement on what art can be and what it can be valued. Leave it to artists though to feed off of and amplify any controversy: we instead turn to David Černý’s Shark (2005), in which a life-size model of Saddam Hussein is suspended in a tank of formaldehyde.
Aside from it being banned in a Belgian and Polish town in the fear that it would offend Muslim communities, it asks viewers troubling questions when viewed alongside Hirst’s original shark and the 2003 invasion of Iraq: is Saddam being presented as vicious and predatory, or an inert symbol on which the ‘establishment’ can greatly profit?
Miss Kitty – Paolo Schmidlin
Miss Kitty – which sounds like the name of an innocent Saturday morning cartoon – actually refers to a 2007 sculpture by Paolo Schmidlin of Pope Benedict XVI in drag: a wig, thigh-high stockings, panties and a stole.
Similar to Yo Mama’s Last Supper, responses from the Catholic community were swift and damning. The Catholic Anti-Defamation League wanted to seek charges on the grounds of defaming their head of state, leading to its eventual removal. Responses in turn in favour of free speech were equally heated, with as much ire directed at the exhibitors who gave into this pressure as the Anti-Defamation League itself.
Apparently, Miss Kitty was later purchased by an Italian politician for an undisclosed price.