Sacred Circle VI_Rosalie H Maheux

Rosalie Maheux, “Sacred Circle VI” (2014) (courtesy the artist)

At first glance, French Canadian artist Rosalie Maheux‘s artwork displayed in the lobby of a government office building in Toronto resembles a kaleidoscopic mandala composed of harmless, symmetric shapes. A closer look at the nearly three foot by three foot picture, however, reveals that it is composed of photographs of naked women engaged in sexually explicit acts, images that have prompted Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party to call for the work’s removal.

As the Globe and Mail reported, the party considers Maheux’s “Sacred Circle VI” (2014) inappropriate art to hang in a government building. The piece is on view as part of John B. Aird Gallery‘s current exhibition highlighting 30 artists under the age of 30, which opened at the end of June and runs through July 24. Although the Ontario government provides the exhibition space, community volunteers and representatives from four art societies direct it. Still, Progressive Conservative member Laurie Scott said she was “disappointed” by the display of such provocative images in a government office, finding them demeaning.

“Regardless of the aims or intent of the artist, Ontarians expect their government to lead by example in combating the sexual objectification of women,” Scott said in a statement. “The fact that a publicly housed gallery has been allowed to not only display but to sell images of this nature is very worrisome.”

“Sacred Circle VI” is just one such work in a series that Maheux began in 2012 and is intended to initiate conversations about the objectification of women. In a statement released over the weekend, Maheux described the series as

a social critique of the excessive value that society places on women’s sexual attractiveness. Given these standards, as a woman artist it only makes sense that I would take the images of women that are out there, including the sexualized and the pornographic, reconfigure them on my own terms, and offer them back as something transformed.

Similar works from Maheux’s “Sacred Circle” series (photo via @rosaliehmaheux/Instagram)

Her adoption of the mandala is particularly significant to her for its sacred symbolism of “life, purity, and the glorification of god in many cultures and religions,” which clashes with the profanity of the explicit imagery from which she makes it.

In an email to Hyperallergic, Maheux said she was surprised by Scott’s reaction, particularly by the politician’s statement that she did not care about the artist’s intentions.

“So that sort of defeats the purpose of contemporary art,” Maheux wrote. “What a thing to say regarding a conceptual artwork intended to promote dialogue about the representation of sexuality in our society … because she did not see the work, did not want to hear about it, I think her comment on objectification of women regarding my work is misunderstood.

“The irony of the Conservative reaction to the piece is that the denotative significance of the imagery sends them into a puritanical frenzy, unable and unwilling in the case of the MPP [Member of Provincial Parliament] Scott to think about the work,” she continued.

While the Conservatives cited “recent public outcry” over crimes such as sexual harassment and human trafficking as reasons to remove works that objectify women, the collage will remain on view at the gallery, which said in a statement that it does not censor images in support of artistic freedom of expression. Curator Gary Michael Dault had chosen the work “for its inventive, thoughtful, and searching nature,” the statement explained. John B. Aird Gallery has since posted notices at the exhibition’s entrance warning viewers that the show contains “images intended for a mature audience.”

Notably, the controversial mandala is not Maheux’s only work in the show that explores themes of sexuality. “Impress the Reaper,” a life-size sculpture of a coffin bent into the shape of a rainbow, is meant to allude to Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos. The sculpture, she explained, proposes an orgasmic end to life rather than the traditionally somber funeral practices and riffs on the euphemism “la petite mort.”

“Once again, this piece is about sex! Pure sex!” Maheux told Hyperallergic. “But I guess the sexual nature of this piece was not clear to [the Conservatives], and they were unable to stop looking at some genitals in the other corner of the gallery.”

Rosalie Maheux, “Impress the Reaper” (2015) (photo via @rosaliehmaheux/Instagram)

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

17 replies on “Conservative Politician Demands Removal of Sexual Mandala, Gallery Refuses”

  1. Did Hyperallergic reach out to the criticizer, Laurie Scott? The article doesn’t mention any attempt. She appears to have the stronger case here. (And the artist shouldn’t be doing her own PR; she’s pretty immature, it seems.)

    Edit: It’s also worth noting that Scott’s position against pornography isn’t conservative. Lots of feminist activists have held the same position Scott does, including Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Robin Morgan, Diana Russell, Alice Schwarzer, and Gail Dines.

    1. How does she have the stronger case? It’s not the government’s job to remove art. She voiced her objection, it’s duly noted, we move on. This is an issue of arm’s-length governmental and cultural relationships. The government provides the space but appropriately has no say in the work displayed. And this doesn’t even take into account the Progressive Conservative Party’s rationale for removing the work, supposed “’recent public [outcries]’ over crimes such as sexual harassment and human trafficking as reasons to remove works that objectify women.” The provincial PC party and federal Conservative party’s track record on women’s rights is such that the supposed concern for those issues is political theatre and posturing, not conviction.

      1. “It’s not the government’s job to remove art.”

        It isn’t the Canadian goverment’s job to show art.

        But since it has taken up that job, so too does it have a responsibility for what it shows, and the responsibility is to the public. The curator and artist are under the impression that the public’s building is an appropriate place to undermine public mores. This isn’t the case (given that the authority of the government is derived from the consent of the governed).

        Put the art in a commercial gallery (where sales are appropriate, too). It would not be controversial there. Instead, it would be seen and forgotten as the banal work of art it is.

        1. “It isn’t the Canadian goverment’s job to show art.” Says who? Ever heard of a museum? The government shows art, or more to the point, provides space to show art, all the time, from the National Gallery of Canada on down. But the key here is the arm’s length policy — providing the space is one thing, but the government doesn’t get a say in what is shown. The curator and artist are under the impression that the publicly-funded building is an appropriate place to challenge public mores — because it is. As for banality, the work is hardly that. It’s provocative, as you have clearly shown. Don’t like our system of government funding of the arts? Fine. That’s your prerogative. Take it up with the government. In the meantime, if the government takes down the work, that would be censorship — the literal definition of the oft-misused word.

          1. You’re compounding errors now. (1) It isn’t the government’s job to show art, but it does elect to. (2) You didn’t offer a reason it is the government’s job to exhibit art that undermines public mores, much less a good one. (3) The art is banal as far as art goes, not controversial. Shunga prints from the early 1700’s are far more graphic and erotic than her kiddy collages. But Shunga would be “controversial” if put in the wrong context, such as a public space with heavy traffic. (4) It’s not censorship to take the work down; it’s censorship to interfere with the work being made and distributed. The government is not obligated to exhibit the work (any more than it is obligated to show any Canadian’s work). One could cry censorship for not being included in the show, but that’s not censorship either; it’s curating.

            Have a good day.

          2. 1) I disagree. The government should provide those spaces and it is their job to do so. Obviously many, including the government, believes this as well. 2) You didn’t read what I said. I said nothing about “mores”. Undermining supposed mores is questionable. What are mores? Who decides? When is this suppose thing undermined? 3) Perhaps you are correct about Shunga prints, although historical context is everything here. Displaying it in public is perfectly fine. 4) That is very much censorship. Whenever the government decides what can or cannot be viewed, that is censorship. The government is not obliged to, for example, exhibit a doodle I made on Parliament Hill. But the Ontario government provides this particular space, which operates under an independent board of directors. The government can remove funding if it chooses to do so, effectively shutting it down. Whether they do or not is up to the government of the day and the voters. The John B. Aird Gallery has been there for 30 years, during the governing administrations of all three political parties in Ontario. It’s probably not going anywhere. But as I said, you are free to inform the government of your displeasure.

  2. As an artist myself I have no problem with the work I do however object to the choice of the curator to display it in an inappropriate setting where it can be viewed by children. Young people in this society are already recieving so many misleading and downright harmful messages about sex, safety, objectification and self esteem. This is certianly not what I want my daughter to be confronted with when walking into a public building.

    1. They’ve now placed a warning sign and people are hardly confronted by the work when walking into the building. You have to go up to it to see what the images are made up of.

      1. And once you see what the images are made of, you see pornographic material that is illegal for people under 18 (or 19 in some provinces) to consume. If you restrict the show to legal adults, the government is then practicing discrimination. The government doesn’t have a legal basis to exhibit this work, as far as I can see.

        1. It’s not a restriction, it’s a caution. As for a “legal basis”, you may need to do some research on the law, as that simply isn’t the case.

          1. I may need to, but I don’t see that I do. If you know the legal basis for showing pornography in a public space viewable by people not legally old enough to view pornography, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult for you to share it in a comment box.

            [Note, I am finished with our exchange now. Have a good day.]

          2. For the sake of clarity, my statement was that the government doesn’t have a legal basis to show pornography to people not legally permitted to view it. This isn’t about the legal status of a person watching porn in public (your link).

            OK, peace out.

  3. Mr. Harper, sir… why don’t you run in the next election for Prime Minister, or have you already and could you be ‘he’? It seems you have a recipe for every ones’ behaviour,
    job, content, thought, like and dislike. It’s not easy to come across this kind of smug, self-righteous condemnation of others outside of the blue tents of the Blue Meanies, who would do better confined to our museums so as not to lose touch with their elders rather than stroll about in so cocky a fashion in this, the modern world. Let’s just say that the artist seems immature to you only because of your own overly- fermented maturity, with it’s ‘best before date:’ having disintegrated sometime back in the middle of the previous millennium. Still, I wish you nothing but the test conservatism has to offer.

    1. The real Harper wouldn’t bother with such matters. He’d get a subordinate (i.e. anyone else in the Conservative Party) to clutch their pearls and cry about whoever will think of the children.

      1. One can’t be too careful these days, what with the advances in cloning and the ability of in-house scientists to actually make silk purses out of sow’s ears with a drop in the bucket of pharma and a stitch or two in crime… sometimes it takes the clone longer than anticipated to get everything just ‘right’, and, for the most part, the day generally comes sooner rather than later that the kids will get them back. The pendulum hums…

    2. I made porn collages in art school, about 15 years ago. I was interested in how online media changed porn consumption. At that time, media technology, specifically streaming media, was driven almost exclusively by porn websites, which were also the only websites on the internet making a profit. I have nothing against the woman’s work above other than its banality.

      The artist’s immaturity is in her crybaby response to criticism. It could have been handled more maturely by talking about the relationship between art and pornography, eroticism, and feminism and so forth. This would give her work an intellectual basis to create discussion that merely showing dicks and twats on a wall won’t do.

      In any case, my interest is in the relationship between government and arts culture, not promoting or defending anyone’s particular morals. That may be less clear in what I wrote, but it’s there nonetheless. I think the author of this story could have made it more interesting by getting two sides. I don’t see anything objectionable about that.

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