I have now received two chain e-mails about artist Guillermo Vargas Jiminez’ piece, Exposición #1 (Exhibit #1). The e-mail claims: “In 2007, the ‘artist’ Guillermo Vargas Habacuc, took a dog from the street, tied him to a rope in an art gallery, and starved him to death. For several days, the ‘artist’ and the visitors of the exhibition have watched emotionless the shameful ‘masterpiece’ based on the dog’s agony, until eventually he died.” It then goes on to ask the recipient to sign a petition to stop the installation from being exhibited again at the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras.
In fact, Exposición #1, originally installed at Códice Gallery in Managua, Nicaragua, included a captured emaciated stray dog, named Natividad, tethered with a short leash in the gallery, with the words “Eres Lo Que Lees” (You Are What You Read) spelled out above him on the wall in dog biscuits. The Sandinista anthem was played backwards as an incense burner burned with what Guillermo Vargas Jiminez, also known as Habacuc, claims were one hundred seventy five pieces of crack cocaine.
The artist claims that he wanted to test the public’s reaction, insisting that not one of the exhibition’s visitors attempted to intervene to end Natividad’s suffering. In an interview published on Yahoo (in Spanish), Habacuc explains that the installation was inspired by an event that occurred in 2005, in which Natividad Canda, a Nicaraguan crack addict, was fatally attacked by two dogs as police, firefighters, and other looked on, unwilling to intervene. A video of the incident, which lasted almost two hours, was taken and appeared on Nicaraguan television. He won’t comment on the ultimate fate of the animal because he wishes to retain a sense of doubt. “Las respuestas categóricas no aportan nada,” he says. (Categorical responses do nothing.) He further observes, “El ojo humano es traicionero. A fin de cuentas, lo que uno ve es aparente y cabe la posibilidad de que luego venga un momento de reflexión.” (The human eye is treacherous. After all, what one sees is apparent and it is possible that then comes a moment of reflection.)
However, articles in the Observer and La Prensa (in Spanish) quote Juanita Bermúdez, the director of the Códice Gallery as stating, “It was untied all the time except for the three hours the exhibition lasted and it was fed regularly with dog food Habacuc himself brought in.” She also says that the dog actually escaped after one day.
And, indeed, the Humane Society has investigated the incident and although they condemn the use of live animals in “exhibits such as this,” they also have not found cause to believe that the dog was actually harmed by the artist.
Furthermore, the claim that Habacuc intends to replicate the installation in the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras is also false. Although he has been asked to participate in the biennial, he never planned to recreate Exposición #1; he is working on a new piece for the show.
That said, Exposición #1 was a successful piece. The artist very knowingly used the media. He intended to expose the initial apathy of a public that had the opportunity to intervene, and then almost hypocritical outrage of the public after the fact, and he did this. In many ways this is not just what happened with Natividad Canda, but also with Rodney King, and even with Abu Ghraib. It is why we are told to yell “Fire!” rather than “Help!” if being attacked. It is how we walk past the homeless each day. It’s how we watched the Taliban abuse women in Afghanistan for years before September 11th. It is even how we greedily and wastefully consume our natural resources as we frantically search for a cure for global warming and climate change. We like to sign petitions and get outraged after the fact, but when faced with the opportunity to interpose, to mediate, to actually do something, would we? Do we? Are we?