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Aaron Lish Professor Michael Newman Critical Theory Paper February 27, 2012

The Use of Contradiction and Profanation in Contemporary Art

Logic says that contradictions cannot exist in reality because reality is what it is, whereas a contradiction is made up of two ideas of which each make the other impossible (Contradiction). So how is it that we experience contradictions all of the time? A contradiction means that our knowledge of the ways things are is incorrect. So although one may say that we each create our own reality through our experience and perception, this is only our own reality and not a universal, or true reality (Bublitz 1998). Further, this personal reality can be flawed, which is the case when we discover a contradiction between what we know as a personal belief and what is held as a universal reality. Seeking out contradictions and investigating them is a way for an individual to better understand ones own experience and perception of the world compared to what are accepted as universal truths. For a contemporary artist whose work is based in social-practice, identifying and illuminating ideas that appear to be universal truths, but which are actually culturally held beliefs that are not necessarily transcendent, or universal realities, is a tactic becoming more commonly used. To better understand how the use of contradiction is being incorporated in contemporary art practice I will explore the works of a number of artists who are recognized by the international art community for their socialpractice-based work. Let us first look at some of the work of Santiago Sierra and the contradiction of inhuman human deeds. As author of philosophy Ute Bublitz writes (1998) The human being and only the human being can create something inhuman. Thus, insofar as the inhuman deed has been done by a human being, it is a human deed, an inhuman human deed. This appears to be a contradiction that is also a true reality: something that logic cannot explain in that these

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inhuman deeds exist, and yet they are perpetrated by humans (Bublitz 1998). Although Sierras work is often criticized for its shock factor and for being too didactic (Allsop 2008), much of his work is designed to bring light to this very contradiction, a contradiction that not everyone wants to be reminded of. For example, in 21 Anthropometric Modules Made of Human Faeces by the People of Sulabh International, India he created an installation of sculptural pieces made of human feces collected by members of the lowest caste who are forced to earn a living by manually collecting and disposing of human waste. Although the job of collecting feces is accepted as the way it is or as a universal reality within the caste system in India, when looked at in a global context it brings to mind the issue of exploitation of human labor, both in India and elsewhere around the world. To me this piece clearly explores the contradiction of the inhumanity of human beings. However, how the viewer interprets the piece is made more complicated by the shape used for the sculptural pieces created from the human waste. The sculptures appear to be propped on their sides, but if laid down they could possibly be beds or some other form of furniture. In A 160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People Sierra paid four female prostitutes addicted to heroin the price of one shot of heroin each to have a line tattooed across their backs. This piece also looks at the inhumanity we are willing to bring to the world, but rather than it only being an exploitation of others, it also looks at the selling of the self as a way of surviving. To Sierra, what matters is the fact that these women were willing to allow their backs to be scarred for life with this tattoo in exchange for the ability to have one transient high from a shot of heroin (du Bois 2003). As Jennifer Doyle wrote for Frieze Magazine in 2008:
Santiago Sierra is famous for his reproduction of the forms of exploitation that underwrite the privileged lives of art audiences. The fact often leaves the latter with no moral high ground from which to pass judgment on the artist or his work. How can you get mad at Sierra when you accept much more violent forms of exploitation every time you buy a cup of coffee, drive to work, or put your shoes on? The outrageousness of this work grows from the banality of the crime at its core: the ideological submission of the consumer who implicitly accepts the inevitability of these forms of inequity.

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This accepting of the inevitable that Doyle writes of is the same as the idea of reconciliation that Bublitz writes about when discussing the inhuman human contradiction. Bublitz suggests that there are two ways to deal with this contradiction in life, one being reconciliation and the other being rejection. Reconciliation is the acceptance of the real powers that rule the world, or as Bublitz says, the way it has to be; whereas rejection is the it ought not to be, or the recognition that the freedom that represents humanity is in contradiction to the way that we live in current society, with its various forms of oppression (1998). It would seem that in Sierras work, by illuminating the daily exploitation of human beings by other human beings, or the inhuman human deeds, he is causing the viewer to acknowledge this exploitation, and the viewers own acceptance of the way it is. Bublitz suggests that although logic cannot explain the contradiction that is presented in the inhumanity of humanity, that because this is a truth of life we are thus compelled to look at this contradiction (1998). I argue that for many people it is actually easy to avoid looking at the contradiction and just accept the way life is, and that Sierras work, as difficult as it may be to look at, forces us to recognize the contradiction that exists in humans perpetrating inhumane acts. Sierras work could be said to be very blunt and to the point, even banal, which contributes to the criticism of it being didactic. This is largely because he creates situations that show these contradictions as they are. A much more subtle way to illuminate contradictions in society is through the use of profanation, or the profaning of something that is assumed to be out of human control. To profane something is to return it to the free use of *humankind+, as opposed to the term to consecrate, or to make sacred, which is to remove from the sphere of human law (Agamben 2007: 73). Rather than blatantly showing the way it is, as Sierra does, which automatically creates a sense of it ought not to be for many viewers, and which may cause viewers to not contemplate the work any further because they feel chastised for their moral stance in life (or lack thereof), the use of profanation is often done through play or creating of situations where something is used incorrectly1. This creates a contradiction for the viewer between the reality that they know and the reality that they are experiencing. Thus, there is a contradiction created so as to shed light on a contradiction in reality! By doing so

Used differently than it is intended to be used.

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there is an opening for the question of whether it is truly a universal truth2 or whether the contradiction is caused by our perception of what is true being incorrect. Further, because it presents the viewer with differing realities they are compelled to try to understand the contradiction (Bublitz 1998). An example of the use of profanation in art which illustrates this idea of creating an opening for new thinking would be Cesare Pietroiustis Money-watching piece (2007). For this performance-based interactive piece visitors to a retail establishment were tasked with concentrating on a bank note shown in a clear display case, like where one might normally find a necklace or a wrist watch. If the viewer maintained their focus on the bank note for the prescribed period of time (15 minutes for a 10 GBP note or 25 minutes for a 20 GBP note) they were rewarded with being given the bank note. Unlike Sierras works, most of which direct the viewer to an initial conclusion very quickly through the statements around the work3, Moneywatching has a much more subtle result. This is partly due to the lack of rhetoric around the project compared to Sierras work, but it is also because although money is being mis-used in this piece, there is nothing inflammatory about the project. This makes it more difficult to come to a quick conclusion because although one might say that the bank note represents the item that you keep thinking about at the store that you want to buy, in reality if you keep thinking about said object it is no closer to becoming yours than if you never thought about it! However, by using money in a way other than how it is designed to be used, and the breaking down of the accepted model for exchange4, there is an opening for the viewer to begin to question the system of monetary exchange and the abstractness of what money actually is. As capitalism continues to become a global economic model, the concept of what money is begins to take on a perceived level of transcendence, or a universal truth outside of the realm of human control. However, as the recent recession that has affected much of the developed world has shown, the financial system is very much under human influence, and as such, it is flawed. This is not always easy to remember though as the global economy is so large and
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In this case, something that is outside of human control; transcendent. Although with more thought the viewer is likely to discover much more complexities about society. 4 Giving money for goods or services deemed to be of the same value vs. being given money for looking at it.

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complex it may feel at times as if it is the way it is, or that it is a universal reality, one that is too large to question. Contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes that to profane is to play with or to put to new use (2007: 87). In Pietroiustis Money-watching money is used in a new way, as is the financial exchange system. By no longer observing the accepted rules for exchange there is an opening for new ways of exchange to be explored. This use of profanation creates a reality different from the one that we know. In doing so it allows for exploration of the idea that the monetary system may not be the universal reality that we accept it to be. Another example of the use of profanation to create a shift between the reality that we know and one that is being experienced, or viewed, is the video installation Ser y Durar (To Exist and To Persist) (2011) by the Spanish artist collective Democracia. This three channel / three screen installation recently shown at CCC Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze, surrounded the viewer with video images of parkouring in the Civil Cemetery in Madrid. The cemetery was built in 1884 as a final resting place for those who were not members of the Catholic Church. Parkour is a form of acrobatic street-running that utilizes the surrounding architecture as opportunities to execute various aerial maneuvers. The architectural elements are transformed from being potential barriers to being opportunities, thus the activity of parkour itself, which becomes an almost elegant dance, creates its own contradiction the barrier becomes an essential element for the creative act. However, the site chosen, a cemetery, is not a typical place of recreation and creativity, but rather a place of burying and mourning the dead while also preserving a memory of the deceased. By bringing the activity of parkour to the cemetery there is a profanation, or mis-use of the site which then creates an opening for new ways of thinking about death, life, the concept of barriers, overcoming challenge, religionall of the various topics that may come to mind around both cemeteries and what they represent, as well as about parkour and what the activity means to the individual viewer. Whether creating situations which illuminate contradictions in life, or the creating of contradictory realities that then allow for an opening to see things in a new light, the use of contradictions in contemporary art can be a very effective way to address social issues. The

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observing of a contradiction may be the inspiration for a creative work which then may or may not employ contradiction in the work itself, as in much of Santiago Sierras artwork; or the use of contradictions, or profanation, may be the consistent form employed by the artist which then leads him or her to look for opportunities in society to play with through the creating of situations, experienced or witnessed by the viewer, to illuminate these issues. From this brief survey of the use of contradiction and profanation in contemporary art it would appear that the use of profanation to create a reality different than the one known and accepted by the populace, and thus create a contradiction which the viewer is compelled to address may be more effective in generating new ways of thinking about an issue. The open-endedness of such works allow the viewer to interpret the work for them self without feeling preached to. This creates a greater opportunity for thinking about the complex issues at hand within a relatively simple design. On the other hand, when creating works that illuminate contradictions in life that the viewer may already be aware of there is a risk of causing the viewer to feel like they are being chastised for not doing more to change the world, which is less likely to provoke further thought on the issue. Some viewers may even question why we need to be reminded of something we are already aware of and that is too big to change (Margolles 2004; du Bois 2003); but I guess that is exactly why Sierra attacks the contradictions that he does, because they are about humanity. So although the system is very big, and very slow to change, the change needs to happen, not unlike abolition of slavery or womens and blacks rights to vote being major social issues of the past two centuries in Europe and the United States.

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Works Cited Agamben, Giorgio. Profanations. New York: Zone Books, 2007. Print. Allsop, Laura. Review. Art Review Magazine 1 (Feb 2008). Web. 19 Oct 2011. Bublitz, Ute. Beyond Philosophy, Reconciliation and Rejection, Three Essays on Aristotle and Hegel. :Universal Texts, 1998. Web excerpt from print. 18 Feb 2012. Contradiction. n.d. Web. 18 Feb 2012. Democracia. Ser y Durar (To Exist and To Persist). 2011. CCC Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze, Italy. Web. 12 Feb 2012. Doyle, Jennifer. Santiago Sierra. Frieze Magazine 113 (2008). Web. 19 Oct 2011. du Bois, Jerome. Santiago Sierra: The Little Conquistador. The Tears of Things 6 Jul 2003. Web. 19 Oct 2011. Margolles, Teresa. Santiago Sierra. Bomb Magazine 86 (2004). Web. 19 Oct 2011. Pietroiusti, Cesare. Money-watching. 2007. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England. Web. 20 Feb 2012.