The Art World’s Casual Racism [UPDATED]

Left: the original Dasha Zhukova "Buro 24/7" photo (via huffingtonpost.com); right: the cropped version now online (via buro247.ru)
Left: the original Dasha Zhukova “Buro 24/7” photo (via huffingtonpost.com); right: the cropped version now online (via buro247.ru)

Yesterday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in America), the Russian magazine Buro 24/7 published a story about heiress, Artsy investor, and Garage Center for Contemporary Culture founder Dasha Zhukova. In a photo accompanying the article, Zhukova was sitting on a chair held up by a mannequin of a black woman lying on her back, her stiletto-booted feet up in the air.

I actually saw that chair, at Venus Over Manhattan last spring. It was made by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, in a tribute to pop sculptor Allen Jones. Jones explored fetishism and BDSM in some of his work, including a series of sculptures in the 1960s that used fiberglass women’s bodies as props for furniture. For the show at Venus Over Manhattan — which mainly featured paintings by 20th-century dealer and artist William Copley, curated by Melgaard under the aegis of Big Fat Black Cock, Inc. (red flag #1) — Melgaard re-created Jones’s pieces, except with mannequins showing women of color. (Jones’s were white women.) I found the Melgaard works quite disturbing, and myself confused by their innocent, explanation-less display in an art gallery. But, rather than say anything, I had a Zoolander, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills” kind of moment.

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard's Allen Jones tribute pieces at Venus Over Manhattan last spring (via venusovermanhattan.com)
Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s Allen Jones tribute pieces at Venus Over Manhattan last spring (via venusovermanhattan.com)

Zhukova use of it in the Buro 24/7 photo shoot was … unfortunate, to say the least. (After the controversy sprang up yesterday, the magazine cropped the picture on its site, the Huffington Post explains.) She gave Gallerist a statement of apology, saying the chair’s “use in this photo shoot is regrettable as it took the artwork totally out of its intended context, particularly given that Buro 24/7′s release of the article coincided with the important celebration of the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Allen Jones's original chair (photo by Régine Debatty, via Flickr)
Allen Jones’s original chair (photo by Régine Debatty, via Flickr)

The object’s very existence, however, is the real issue here. What is its intended context? Zhukova identifies it as “one of a series that reinterprets art historical works from artist Allen Jones as a commentary on gender and racial politics.” But is that really the message the chair — and its accompanying two tables and coat rack — sends? Or, put another way, does a work that’s intended to be a “statement” on something have an obligation to do more than just replicate the awful tropes and stereotypes it claims to comment on?

In this case, the answer seems like a clear “yes.” It’s nearly impossible to find any kind of insightful takeaway from Melgaard’s use of the body of a woman of color — especially considering the piece was made by a white male artist, has been shown by at least one rich, white male dealer and collector (Adam Lindemann), and bought by a rich, white woman collector, who ends up sitting on it to make a fashion statement.

Update, January 22, 2:38pm: Artist Bjarne Melgaard and his dealer, Gavin Brown, have released a bizarre and fairly inexplicable statement in response to the controversy. It says, in part:

These sculptures, made by a self professed ‘homosexual’, expose the latent and residual self hatred in a culture where the inhuman and overpowering presence of violence and catastrophe is imminent. Our tragedy is so evident in our daily experience that Melgaard has nothing left to portray but society in its utter decay. We see this photograph to be extraordinary.

Read the whole thing at Artinfo’s In the Air blog.

comments (0)