Being ‘edgy’ at our expense is not art

27 Mar 2021

There is a stark difference between hurting for and channeling your pain into your art, and demanding that Indigenous peoples bleed for your art so that you can tell everyone how bad colonisation and the crimes of the British Empire are.

It’s not unusual for artists to claim that they’ve “bled” for their art. Lindsey Buckingham proudly claimed in song that he “bled” to love Stevie Nicks. There is, however, a stark difference between hurting for and channeling your pain into your art, and demanding that Indigenous peoples bleed for your art so that you can tell everyone how bad colonisation and the crimes of the British Empire are.

This is exactly what art festival ‘Dark Mofo’ and Spanish artist Santiago Sierra requested of Indigenous Australians, specifically Tasmanian mob. ‘Dark Mofo’, a yearly art festival run by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, approved Sierra’s piece – a union jack soaked in the blood of Indigenous Australians. To ensure that everyone knew they meant it when they said mofo, they posted a red image with the words “We want your blood” printed in black capital letters, beginning a search for their perfect, colonised blood.

Responses to the request were not even remotely positive, but the festival runners indicated that they were aware this would be the case stating, “the range of perspectives reflect the conversations we had with Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to announcing the project”. Despite this, creative director Leigh Carmichael stood ground up until Tuesday 23rd in wanting to go ahead with the project. Before pulling the project, Carmichael defended the project saying, “Self-expression is a fundamental human right” and that Dark Mofo supports artists to “make and present work regardless of their nationality or cultural background”.

Indigenous Australians have bled more than enough for the sake of the British Empire. We have already lost so much blood due to invasion and the long-lasting impacts of colonisation. A coloniser’s art piece in another coloniser’s festival isn’t going to say anything that we haven’t already said, yelled, cried, sung or put in our own (bloodless) art. We have given so much blood for this country and it comes in so many forms, from the first massacres at the time of invasion, to the Frontier Wars and Black Diggers who were mistreated and forgotten by the country for which they fought, to the inequality in health resulting in Indigenous people dying ten years earlier than their white counterparts. 

We’ve done the hard yards, we’ve bled and we continue to bleed and we are more than aware of the impacts, the hurt and the devastation colonisation leaves behind. We don’t need an artist from a country that is not remotely innocent when it comes to colonisation to demand our blood for the sake of an art piece they will show once. It is time for the disgusting fascination with Indigenous blood that started with quantum amounts to be abandoned.  

Dark Mofo announced on Tuesday that they would pull the piece stating, “the hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn’t worth it”. I guess this somehow wasn’t something they considered before approving the piece? As Kira Puru commented on their initial Instagram announcement approving the piece, it is a weird way to “reveal that there are no First Nation folks in your curatorial/consulting teams”. 

To be honest, it doesn’t matter what apology or half-baked statement Dark Mofo or Carmichael put out now because the damage has been done. Not only were mob hurt and traumatised for a piece of art that could have got the same message across literally any other way, but Dark Mofo has already gained from this situation. Nationwide, people are now aware of Dark Mofo (and Santiago Sierra) when before they were not. The reason the piece was pulled was because it threatened the reputation of the festival, those involved and the money that would come with it.

Unfortunately though, this situation is far worse than a group of people approving a piece without realising the harm. Carmichael says that Santiago “is against colonisation and all the horror that comes with that” (which, congratulations on the bare minimum, I guess?) but a brief look into Sierra’s art shows that even this is hard to be believed. His pieces rarely have any messages or story behind them and are instead, a collection of him using his money and power to exploit oppressed peoples and call it “art”. 

Examples of this include him paying refugees who legally weren’t allowed to work to sit in cardboard boxes in an exhibition doing nothing for multiple hours a day while only just paying them above minimum wage (he did this exhibition three times in three places), bribing drug addicts with a shot of heroin so he could shave a line in their heads (although he refers to it as “paying” them) or sex workers $50 so he could tattoo a line on their bodies and then referring to them in derogatory terms like ‘junkie’ and ‘prostitute’. He also has taken photos of children who attempt to shine shoes for spare change from strangers and again weirdly refers to that as his art.

His most offensive piece to date, that really should have been a heads up to Dark Mofo, Carmichael and the others from the arts council involved, is a piece he calls “245 cubic metres”. This piece was him filling a Synagogue in Pulheim with carbon monoxide and getting exhibitors to walk through it with gas masks on. Sierra proudly boasts about this piece on his website. In fact, all of these pieces are listed on his website – if only there was a responsibility to do background checks on who you hire, approve and commission as artists. 

When people pointed out how absurd and offensive this “art” was, Sierra backed his piece. He was annoyed people referred to it as a “real gas chamber” despite the fact that he himself said that it could “kill a person in half an hour”. He eventually pulled the piece as it was “impossible” to view his work in its “intrinsic state” after the media labelled him as a provocateur and offensive. Sierra then dedicated the piece to the victims of the holocaust. No I’m not bullshitting you – this is entirely from his website and his own descriptions of his art pieces. 

Santiago Sierra isn’t an artist, he’s just some dude with a lot of edge and money. There would be a little less outrage, trauma and hurt amongst mob if anyone from Dark Mofo or its governing bodies had done their due diligence to simply investigate their artists. This same festival proudly boasted Uncle Archie Roach and the Tiddas as artists a few years back and now are likely to never be supported by mob again. 

Carmichael states that he and Dark Mofo take responsibility for the hurt they caused with the piece being approved and the request for blood in the first place. While I doubt there will be any genuine action, because that’s how these things usually go, the only acceptable form of responsibility is that anyone who had anything to do with Sierra’s approval, especially Carmichael, be removed from the governing boards. Dark Mofo and MONA have proved that their space is not safe for Indigenous artists and the only way they will become safe is if every single thing about them changes. 

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