Here at the Hub, we’re super excited for our upcoming production Caught, a subversive and genre-defying new piece from Christopher Chen and Lee Sunday-Evans. In anticipation of this exciting show, this week our theme is SUBVERSIONS. Today, we’ll be looking at five of the craziest and most subversive art stunts in recent memory. Check out the extreme (and sometimes illegal) lengths these artists went to in order to subvert the expectations of viewers, galleries and institutions – and sometimes even the subjects of the art themselves!
1. Our Sixty Second Friendship Begins Now by Sampson Wong & Jason Lam (2016)
The most recent stunt on this list, Wong and Lam’s controversial video installation Our Sixty Second Friendship Begins Now was pulled from a Hong Kong skyscraper last month when officials discovered that it contained a hidden subversive message.
The nine-minute video contained a series of seemingly harmless numerical countdowns and phrases in Chinese and English.
However, the day after the video had been installed on Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper, the artists released a public statement explaining that the final
countdown in the video actually indicated the number of seconds until July 1, 2047, the date when the agreement that guarantees Hong Kong’s semiautonomy from China is set to expire.
The cancellation of Sixty Seconds raises numerous questions about censorship and the ethics of deceptive art. In a statement from the Hong Kong Art Development Council, chairwoman Ellen Pau stated that while “we do believe in the freedom of artistic expression,” they pulled the piece due to the blatant “disrespect” shown by the artists. Wong & Lam are set to release a more detailed statement on the work in the coming weeks.
2. Bhopal Disaster Dow Chemical Hoax by The Yes Men (2004)
The Yes Men, an informal network of hoax artists and activists created by Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, rocketed to infamy in 2004 when they managed to appear live on the BBC World News, impersonating a representative of the Dow Chemical company. Dow owns Union Carbide, the company responsible for a massive chemical disaster in Bhopal, India in 1984.
On the 20th anniversary of the disaster, BBC researchers mistook the Yes Men’s parody website for Dow as the real deal, and contacted them about an interview. Seizing the opportunity, Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum went live on the air posing as “Jude Finisterra,” a Dow spokesperson. He apologised and took full responsibility for the disaster, even announcing a 12 billion dollar compensation plan for the victims.
Within two hours, Dow’s share price had dropped $2 billion. While the stunt was arguably a success, the Yes Men were broadly criticised for the hoax’s insensitivity to the Bhopal victims, some of whom reportedly broke down into tears when they discovered that they wouldn’t be compensated.
3. Tatlin’s Whisper #5 by Tania Bruguera (2008)
Tatlin’s Whisper #5 is one of the few stunts on this list that actually took place in a conventional art space: the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall Gallery in 2008. Here, it was the expectations of the audience that were subverted, when two mounted policeman burst into the gallery to perform mass crowd control techniques on the perplexed crowd.
Bruguera states on her website that her intention was to activate the spectators, giving them a visceral bodily memory of mass protest. In this way, Bruguera argues, the “next time spectators face a similar piece of news…they may feel an individual empathy with that distant event towards which they will normally have an attitude of emotional disconnection or informative saturation.”
4. Portraits of John McCain by Jill Greenberg (2008)
In 2008, The Atlantic hired commercial photographer Jill Greenberg to photograph John McCain for a cover feature. Clearly The Atlantic weren’t aware of Greenberg’s politics as an artist; a few years earlier, she mounted a controversial anti-Bush photography exhibit that featured images of children crying with slogans like “Four More Years” and “Apocalypse Now.”
Greenberg rocked up to The Atlantic photo session and took standard portrait images of McCain, which she then submitted to the magazine. In the final moment of the session, however, she called McCain back for “one final shot,” and tricked him into standing over a strobe, casting him in a highly unflattering light. She then edited the worst of the photos in Photoshop, adding slogans like “I am a bloodthirsty warmonger” and images of a monkey defecating on McCain’s head, publishing the results on her website.
Needless to say, Greenberg’s photos were met with violent backlash, with The Atlantic denouncing her as “manipulative and dishonest,” while the writer of the feature article on McCain called Greenberg juvenile, repulsive and a disgrace to her profession. The Atlantic even threatened to sue, but ultimately no legal action was taken. The doctored McCain photos have since been removed from Greenberg’s website, but she remains at large as a successful commercial photographer.
5. Action: Lubyanka’s burning door by Pyotr Pavlensky (2015)
Russian performance artist Pavlensky has gained international news coverage in recent years for his controversial self-mutilations, including sewing his mouth shut over the arrests of Pussy Riot in 2012, and nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in 2014. However, it was his most recent stunt that finally landed him in prison, when he photographed himself setting fire to the wooden doors of FSB headquarters, the successor of the KGB.
In a strange turn of events, it was announced this month that Lubyanka has been nominated for the FSB’s Prize for Literature and the Arts. The move is particularly bizarre given that Russian officials recently cancelled the annual Innovatsiya (Innovation) Prize because Lubyanka had been nominated, arguing that it involved “breaches of the law and caused material damage.” Pavlensky was released by the FSB in early June.
That’s all, folks! Time to get out there and start making some subversive art of your own. Oh – and stick around next week for more exciting Hub posts!