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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hideous Public Art: "Immigrant Family"

Hideous Public Art is back, this time with a monumental bronze called Immigrant Family by Tom Otterness, installed at the foot of Toronto's Yonge Street in the shadow of the Gardiner Expressway.

Otterness is one of those sculptors over whom the art world's cognoscenti fawn while the bourgeois citizens shake their heads and mutter "what the hell....?" He became notorious years ago for a work of "performance art" called Shot Dog Piece which just defeats any attempt at mockery:

Early on in the career of sculptor Tom Otterness, he was just another struggling young artist here in Manhattan trying to make it. In the era of the ever-escalating shock value and competitive one-upsmanship of his time — Christopher Burden’s getting shot on camera certainly comes to mind — one of Otterness‘ early pieces involved the adoption of an innocent little mutt, which he then took home and shot dead with a rifle, filming it as it took its last breaths.

At a New York gallery showing in 2007 called The Public Unconscious, self-loathing American art patrons were all a-buzz about his sculpture Large Consumer:

Large Consumer, the first sculpture to greet viewers as they enter the gallery, is an obscenely fat American that sits atop an overflowing bag of cash; dollar insignia imprinted not unlike what might be found on a designer handbag. It is a striking visualization of materialism at its worst: the dumb American who knows no limits or boundaries and has never had to answer for his actions. For him, “get out of jail free” is not just a Monopoly playing card, but a way of life. Otterness is sly in his reference to the character’s deep-throating an entire loading ramp — swallowing logging trucks, cigarettes, and oil barrels whole. Perhaps he had the legendary tome of over-saturation "Against Nature" by J.K. Huysmanns in mind when he created this piece.

Perhaps. Or perhaps he executed a juvenile Marxist metaphor that is so mind-numbingly literal it could have been done by a high school art class during Earth Hour.

But back to Immigrant Family. Otterness' style reminds me of those weird German Playmobil toys, which of course is his point. His artistic statement is made by juxtaposing a serious political issue with a childish toy-like appearance. So what does one take away from Immigrant Family ? Why, immigration is harmless and nothing to be feared, and if you're worried about the impact of immigration on your community, then you're hopelessly bourgeois, aren't you? Immigrants are all cartoon-like dolls who love babies and look like Laurel & Hardy. You just want to hug them and dress them up, and if you obsess about things like assimilation and ethnic tension, then you're just racist.

Compare and contrast Otterness' treatment of this theme with a sculpture by Louis Sanguino (1973) called The Immigrants, installed in New York City's Battery Park.

This sculpture conveys some of the true immigrant experience - the emotion, sacrifice, fear and hope that must be associated with being uprooted and starting a new life in a foreign land. It certainly doesn't suggest that immigrating to the New World is the equivalent of watching the balloons at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (which, incidently, Mr. Otterness once designed).


hunter said...

It so reminds me of Atlas Shrugged, where poets printed garbage and the elites pretended it was literature.

If he really did kill a dog, I hope he was arrested for cruelty to animals, and is never allowed anywhere near kids, the guy is unstable.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with what you wrote, and I think the 'art work' is ghastly and insulting to the public, and especially to immigrant families.
Art is communication, and the only emotional reaction I get from this piece is revulsion. I am embarrassed for the 'artist.' What a cynical joke on the public.

I do know a little about Fine Art.

Anonymous said...

I've seen worse, I mean it does sorta represent what it claims to. But a recent immigrant with a briefcase and bowler hat? I think this guy was thinking of 1900 instead of 2000s. Maybe he should have made it with images of south east Asia since I highly doubt many english etc come here now or we just don't let them in. (real conservative)

Frances said...

Anon at 12:55 - I doubt fat businessmen were immigrating to Canada in large numbers even in the early 1900's. They'd be too busy making their bucks back home. This piece is an insult to all immigrant families and - by extension - to all Canadians. We are all immigrants or descended from same - even the 'First Nations' though they came earlier - and fat was not a distinguishing characteristic of the new arrivals, let alone the disgustingly complacent attitude.