Disturb the comfortable: A note to Pepa Chan

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by recent news of the City of St. John’s destruction of public art, recounted in this story in the CBC.

Kudos to you on the production of public art which was deemed either not to be art or to be so offensive that it warranted being thrown in the dump. Certainly, the subject matter of the piece(s) compelled the side-of-the-trail, happened-upon, hidden-being-revealed approach.

I hope you continue to produce such challenging and important public art, as this fulfills a vital function in our community, even when or if it clearly and purposely causes offense (I am not suggesting the piece(s) under discussion were necessarily offensive, but that if that was the case it would be fine and good).

The point of this note, really, is to make comment on two aspects of the production of the piece(s), which perhaps you have considered or may consider for future work:

  1.  Permission and permits —  some works demand that you not ask for permission, and not just because it is inconvenient or time-consuming to get permits, but because to ask for permission would contradict the purpose of the art. It strikes me that the current piece(s) are just such art that demands no permission is sought, because of the relationship of the subject matter to…
  2. Authority and authorities — public art has this wonderful potential to be anti-authoritarian, and I see this quality in your work. As I understand it, the way authority and authorities interacted with the current piece(s) completed the work (this is especially striking given the way authority and authorities also helped create the subject matter). It is possible to use authority and authorities in the production of art in just the way it played out in the current piece(s).

The performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky incorporates authority and authorities in his aesthetic in this way, as he describes in an interview in the Calvert Journal:

“I work with the instruments of state power,” he says. “Of which there are many: the media, state propaganda and psychiatry, among others. I choose the location and draw up the agenda for my actions. But once I have completed what I set out to do, be it cut off my earlobe or nail myself to Red Square, it’s important for me to remain a figure of silence and non-motion. My actions should be minimal. Every movement by the authorities pulls them deeper and deeper in. They become involuntary participants in the production of my art.”

This is just how I see the actions of the authorities of the City of St. John’s: involuntary participants in the production of your art. And actually, if they hadn’t done what they did, would the art have been realized? Of course, people encountered the work in its nascent form, and this was part of the production of the art as well. However, the disturbing subject matter and striking form of the work implied that authority would eventually intervene, in my opinion.

All this to say, perhaps it is worth considering further this idea of the involuntary participation of authority and authorities in the production of such public art. I commend you for presenting art that is challenging and hope to see more work soon.


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