Saltz: Adel Abdessemed’s Fighting-Animal Video Sparks Art-World Uproar

Usine, shown earlier this year in Turin, Italy.

Right now there’s a short video at David Zwirner Gallery that has some of the art world up in arms. Adel Abdessemed, 38, who was born in Algeria and now lives in New York, is a big deal on the international circuit. He had a one-person show at P.S. 1 last year, was included in the last Venice Biennale, and has had numerous solo museum exhibitions. The Zwirner show is a bit of a fizzle, an example of huge expensive gestures producing paltry effects. (As such it’s a throwback to the art of the recent past.) The work that has people furious is Usine, a 1:27-minute color video made in Mexico depicting a bunch of different animal and insect species thrown together into a pen: We see fighting roosters, snakes, pit bulls, tarantulas, iguanas, white mice, scorpions, and one toad. The creatures maul or ignore one another. The tape freaked me out, turned me off, and even outraged me. But I admit to being intrigued that in many cases the creatures fighting one another were like unto like, that the same species went after the same species. I looked, I shuddered, I passed on to the next disappointing work, not giving the moral dimensions of Usine too much thought.

This morning as I was getting down to work, I posted to Facebook a comment made to me by someone else. People instantly went batshit — given the topic, actually, I shouldn’t refer to animals, and instead say they went bananas. At 12:47 p.m. I posted the following comment, made by my friend, New York Times critic Ken Johnson: “I think that Adel Abdessemed’s video of animals fighting and killing each other (at the David Zwirner gallery), is the most appalling and evil work of art I have ever seen. Michael Vick went to prison for far less. Why so little outrage?” Within minutes scores of comments poured in, almost all of them saying that this work was “evil,” “despicable,” “100 percent cruel,” and that this piece represented “the faux avant-garde bullshit that has become the New York art world.” The conclusion of many was that “art should be moral.” That’s when I started to get uncomfortable.

My Facebook friends had found solid ground. They were absolutely, irrevocably against art that involved any cruelty to animals whatsoever. Abdessemed was called “a fucking voyeur,” “a sadist,” and compared to Nazis who were “just following orders.” Artist Oliver Wasow rightfully raised the old issue as to what to make of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will Olympia, her depiction of the 1936 Olympics held in Hitler’s Berlin. Then people starting bringing up past pieces of art that also violated moral codes: Andreas Serrano photographing corpses in a Paris morgue without permission from the families of the deceased; Kim Jones burning a rat alive; Kathy Aker performing oral sex on a poet who was trying to read his work; Annie Sprinkle inserting a speculum into her vagina and inviting audience members to view her cervix; Tom Otterness shooting a dog. The list went on to include depictions of rape and artists who portray children too seductively. Most of this work is just awful. I began to get a queasy feeling in my stomach. Then I remembered how people railed against the work of Kara Walker because it was thought to be racist.

I understand the conviction and compassion aroused by Abdessemed. The work is exploitive and intense. I hate cruelty to animals. Still, I did come away from the Abdessemed piece knowing more than ever that I don’t believe in certainty, that even though the work wasn’t good, I was snagged by the paradox it raised about what kills what. Still, two of the best comments in the Facebook thread came from artist Matthew Weinstein, who is very certain about his position against cruelty to animals. First he made a good comparison: “I’m having my work made by Indonesian children who work 16 hours a day and get paid $10.00 a month. I’m doing it as an act of controversy to make people think about the unjust nature of the world economy. Thumbs up or down?” Of course, I’d say thumbs down, but just as quickly I thought about how the artist Santiago Sierra paid Mexican workers to do things like get tattoos on their backs or to hold up cement walls. Regardless, another Weinstein comment to someone may say it all: “Go cut the paws off a kitten.”

Related: Adel Abdessemed listing

Saltz: Adel Abdessemed’s Fighting-Animal Video Sparks Art-World Uproar