The inhumanity of the installation is only real when the sadistic viewer turns the blender on.
The images, conversations, activities, and thoughts that our minds decide to commit to memory aren’t always the ones we would expect. Sometimes, the cause is a remembered feeling of overwhelming humor or being consumed with giddiness. Other times, we remember for the sake of opposing dispositions, or a haunting terror. From this class, marked by being unpredictable and always entertaining, the image that has left the most lasting impact on me is Marco Evaristti's Helena installation from 2000. This piece has been a pending thought in my mind since the first time I was exposed to it because I hate the shit out of it. Like an overwhelming, all encompassing hate—but at the same time, I really do appreciate it.
It may be because I am a vegetarian and a pro-animal activist; in fact, the impact it has on me is absolutely associated with these dispositions. Nonetheless, this piece has me revisiting the topic of art and ethics over and over again. It has me questioning the origins, process and implications, and I am determined to come to a conclusion with my thoughts about it.
What I have deducted so far is that Evaristti’s Helena is unethical in nature, but ethical in conception, and art without question.
Helena is an installation of ten blenders filled with water and a live goldfish in each. The blenders are all plugged in, but not turned on. The model is Moulinex Optiblend 2000, with large, taunting, yellow and centralized “on” buttons. Evaristti predicted that there would be three types of viewers that witnessed his installation; the sadist who would turn the blender on, the voyeur who wanted to see someone else turn the blender on, and the moralist who was appalled that there was even an option for turning the blender on. While I definitely fall under moralist in this context, I do not believe that Evaristti had ill intentions for these goldfish. He is commenting on the human power dynamic in an attempt to understand and “interpret reality through reality.” I think Evaristti hoped to shed light on animal cruelty and spread awareness of what it means to kill other living species. I don’t think any part of him wanted to end the lives of these fish, though I’m confident that it occurred to him as a likely consequence of his installation.
Thus the installation is unethical in nature, leaving the lives of these goldfish in the hands of the viewers, yet also encouraging animal rights and denouncing human barbarianism, making the piece ethical in conception. Art connoisseur, Edward Winkleman, explained this dichotomy of ethical art in his essay The Nonexistence of Unethical Art:
“All manner of abhorrent human behaviors are represented in artwork. That doesn’t make the work, or even the artist, unethical for tackling such subjects…Artists are as subject to the laws and customs of their communities as any other citizen. If they break these laws, they are subject to the consequences of doing so. If they step outside the ethical customs, there will be repercussions. Making art is no excuse for breaking the law or for unethical actions, but it remains important to direct one’s outrage at behaviors and not objects. None of this makes the resulting objects, which cannot abide by the norms or values of their community, “unethical.” It makes them an object that we can approach with all of our subjective criteria, to judge for ourselves whether we consider them well-made or poorly made, good art or bad art.”
Evaristti was not exempt from the repercussions of his installation. He was put on trial and subject to lofty fines for the death of the goldfish. In accepting the consequences of his actions, Evaristti went forward with the installation and put it up for show anyways. By doing so, he transforms this controversy over animal cruelty and destructive human nature into a tangible conversation. The moralists in this situation need to be infuriated by the tangible conversation, not Evaristti himself. He is the enlightenment, not the perpetrator, and because of this, I interpret this installation as liberating and not cruel. The inhumanity of the installation is only real when the sadistic viewer turns the blender on.
Is it fair to call this art? Or is this a protest? Can a protest be art? For those who are entirely unappreciative of this piece, could it be art to them? Are there any truthful responses to these questions? Honestly, there will never be an absolute truth that responds to ‘what is art?’ As Marcel Duchamp wrote, “Art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.” Personally, I do believe that this piece should be accredited and appreciated as art, as should all creative expression. If the artist calls it art, then no one can tell them otherwise because the truth lies in the beholder. Even if the creator does not label it as art and the viewer interprets it as art, then no one can tell the viewer otherwise either.
In the case of Evaristti’s Helena, 72% of people (about 30,592 people) do not consider this art. For me, the art it is in the conception of this piece. The mind of the artist to convey their ideas in innovative and unparalleled ways is the art, the realization that here is an exceptional thought that has not been matched by any other in quite the same way. Art provides a necessary look into the unimaginably complex inner and inter workings of the mind, as represented the idiosyncratic thoughts and works that come out of it.
In Helena, Evaristti is contemplating the journey of life, the encounters and interactions one experiences, the dichotomy of masculine and feminine roles, and love. He understands these experiences in life, dimensions of character, and the notion of love through this installation of fish in blenders. And this understanding is different than how I see social interaction, gender roles and love, and my lens is different than the person next to me. Not one of these perspectives is better than the next; they are all equally valid and contradicting, and they should all be appreciated for their individuality. Ipso facto, all art should be appreciated for its idiosyncratic and imaginative qualities.
Note: Another installation with very similar origins and implications to Helena is Amber Hansen’s The Story of Chickens: A Revolution, which was a performance piece contemplated in 2012. Hansen’s idea was to display chicken coops in public places in Lawrence, Kansas where volunteers would take care of them. The chickens would then be publically slaughtered and a community chicken dinner would be served with the proceeds. Her plan was overruled and she was banned from moving forward with this project. In the same way that Evaristti was spreading awareness of animal cruelty, Hansen was trying to make the slaughtering process more familiar. People are so quick to avoid thinking about what has to happen in order for them to eat their food because we are so far removed from the process and Hansen’s performance was an attempt to make this experience more real. I would also hate the shit out of Hansen’s performance piece if it had happened, but I would appreciate it in the same way that I appreciate Evaristti’s Helena. These pieces really speak to me because they are incredibly introspective. Whether or not viewers want to consider the messages they deliver, they leave a haunting impression. For those who have the courage to face the messages that these pieces of art deliver, the impact is powerful.