Democracy in America

I don’t have time to write a full review but yesterday I went to the Democracy in America exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory (Lex between 67th and 66th). It’s free and definitely worth seeing. Runs only through this Saturday though. Go here for more info.

I’d gone mainly to see Steve PowersWaterboard Thrill Ride, which had premiered at Coney Island over the summer; I wrote about it here. There really wasn’t much to it; you put your dollar bill into the slot and for just a number of seconds watch a life-sized robot/puppet aim the spout of a flower pitcher at a supine man’s face, which was covered with a wet cloth. The water just kind of dripped out, as if he was delicately watering flowers. I’m thinking perhaps there were too many viewers and the water supply was getting low because I’d have thought it would be coming out a little more rapidly. Still, I found the exhibit pretty frightening and don’t know how Coney Island tourists could have found otherwise.

Here’s a how-to diagram at the entrance to that artwork. Someone graffiti’d it up and wrote on the top, “This exhibit is gay.”

There are a few other interesting installations too, most of them on the main floor in the big room. There’s one by John Hawke of a make-shift shelter constructed with wood. Inside are a series of journal-like entries and pictures documenting where all the shelter was placed — usually busy city streets — who all used it — people waiting for the bus, the homeless, people needing a little place to eat, especially when it rained — and how it was treated by police and other authorities — usually taken down, dragged out to the street.

There’s another exhibit, all of photos, aligning the side wall, by Greta Pratt. The pictures, taken throughout the country between 2007 and 2008, are of various pictorial renditions of the American flag — on bumper-stickers, on sides of buildings, on the cover of a magazine, on someone’s t-shirt, on someone’s mailbox, on the face of a grocery bag, etc. Sometimes the subject paraded the flag with intent, others seemed completely unconscious of it, just happening to don a t-shirt bearing such an emblem for the day. There are hundreds of pictures and it can take you all day to look at them. What I found interesting was that they show such an expansive view of middle America, one that is somehow neither ironic nor nostalgic, or perhaps rather a combination of both.

Third piece of art I had a very visceral reaction to was at the back of the ground-floor room, by Jon Kessler. A big installation involving numerous barbie dolls and tiny video cameras that were projected onto several TV screens aligning the back wall. Barbies (or Ken dolls, rather) depicted men at war, men being tortured. Just imagine all the things you can do with little plastic bodies to show the horrors… It was visually stunning, compellingly, thought-provokingly disgusting.

There are several video exhibits on the mezzanine and second and fourth floors that I found less interesting, except for one, by Carlos Motta, though I can’t say I liked it. The artist is a young Colombian man who shot a bunch of videos of Latin Americans talking about their governments. They are projected onto about ten or so screens throughout the room. On one screen, however, there is simply a starving dog looking desperately for food, nearly unable to stand up. He licks the dirt ground for water. It’s so horribly upsetting, and as a viewer sitting at a remove from the dog on the screen, you’re completely helpless to do anything for him, which is perhaps the point. A shop woman finally throws the dog a chicken wing, which he gobbles down, but still, he’s all bone and fur. It’s so upsetting.

I feel like there’s got to be something legally wrong with this kind of art — with hurting, sometimes killing defenseless animals for artistic aims. Human beings can make the decision to starve themselves for a movie, etc., but non-human animals cannot. I don’t know if Motta found this dog on the streets and just decided to film him, or if he starved the dog himself in order to use him for his little film, but it really shouldn’t be legal. Animal cruelty is a felony, at least in New York, and the artwork is being distributed here.

Plus, I’m not sure that watching a starving or victimized animal or human (the artist has done other projects on human victimization) really leads the average person to think, to be more compassionate. At least public executions in the past haven’t seemed to have that effect.


  1. Hello,
    I was wondering why you thought the “artist” deliberately starved the dog to make this photo! I agree, it’s almost impossible to look at, and I want to protest myself – it’s certainly not any kind of art, not even activist art- but if you have more information, that makes it possible or likely that the artist has anything to do with the almost dying dog, I would really like to know this.

    I would be the first to protest any cruelty done to animals as anything about art.

  2. Hi Donna — well, I had heard about another artist doing that. Placing a dog in a museum and not giving the dog food or water. I had that artist in the back of my mind when I was watching this, and don’t think this is the same artist. (But I will try to look that other artist up). But what made me upset about this all the same is that if someone is starving or in serious danger of dehydration, you’d give them food and water. At least water — how hard it is to give the dog some water? I feel it’s inhumane to instead put a videocamera to their face and emaciated body and document their starvation. You wouldn’t do that to a human and I feel animals should be given the same treatment. I guess he was trying to make some kind of statement about his government, but he really just made me think he, the ‘artist’ was the one lacking humanity.

    I feel that artists should know that — you try to use a helpless animal to symbolize the inhumanity of your government, then you are equally culpable, equally inhumane, if not more so.

    I will try to find out more info on this artist though. I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets upset about the mistreatment of animals.

  3. Carlos Motta is kind of a journalistic artist. In “The Good Life” project (which has had a few shows/forms, including the installation at “Democracy in America” and an online video archive of all the interviews and footage he took, he tried to take himself out of the work as much as possible and let the subjects speak for themselves.

    The non-interview footage, including the starving dog, is all stuff he just came across and decided to film, as far as I know. Carlos is someone who wants to project his own presence as little as possible in the artwork, or particularly “The Good Life”. So for all we know (and I don’t know) he may have given the dog water later on, but he wouldn’t want to show that because he wants to show the reality of the place he was filming in, and it’s quite likely that a dog like that would be common in the city he was filming in at the time.
    It’s worth taking a look at the site, and even Carlos’s home page ( to get a better sense of his work and that project, he’s an activist with his art, so I think that he filmed the starving dog as a way to draw attention to the problem that the starving dog represents.

    In any case he’s definitely *not* the guy (in Mexico I believe) that held a dog captive in a gallery and let it starve as part of the exhibit.

  4. Thank you for the information and links, Claire.

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