Don't Feed the Animals
Issue 20.4:Wild Kingdom
Posted: December 8, 2004

Art With Dead Mice

Kristen Loveland

"Ripley" by Nathalia Edenmont
Russell Spitzer
Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me?

An artist kills five live mice. She then decapitates them, cleans up the blood, sticks them on a live human hand, and takes a picture. Mice finger puppets. Is this art?

The artist in question, Ukraine-born Nathalia Edenmont, claims that it is. Edenmont has humanely killed mice, rabbits and cats and incorporated their heads and limbs into vases, pedestals and ornaments to create surreal images. Her work has been most prominently displayed in her adopted country, Sweden, through the Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm. While unapologetic about showcasing Edenmont's work, the gallery has faced the controversy by issuing a justification of its decision.

If art's purpose is not only to beautify, but also to symbolize and provoke thought, then it's hard to find where Edenmont has gone wrong. Her work's appeal, for example a rabbit's head with an Elizabethan collar and white flaxen hair, is striking. The grotesqueness lies only in the thought that the animal head was once alive.

As for provocation, the questions abound. For example, "That? Art? My ass it's art," was recently posted by an inquiring spirit in a discussion thread on the CIRCA Art Magazine webpage. Other users were more profound, such as Commenteer #5, "Nathalia's work is disgusting. She is disgusting... DISGUSTING! She should be ashamed of herself for killing innocent animals...SPIT ON YOU, YOU SICK MONSTER!!!!!" A more coherent poster on an LWS Forums wrote, "I personally think there is NO reason a person should kill for the sake of art. I think that is a living animal, with a soul and spirit."

The anger, irrational or not, that has been displayed on these forums raises the question of whether Edenmont's purpose is being lost in the melee of controversy, or whether the controversy only highlights her point. Her work often references the former Soviet Union, where she was born, and which she holds responsible for the death of her mother when Edenmont was only 14. For example, the hand with the head of a dead mouse stuck on each finger is meant to symbolize the five stars of the former Soviet Union.

Viewers' extreme reactions have only highlighted the inherent paradox of the work, which, as Wetterling said, "tells lies in front of our faces." The work is beautiful on the outside, and yet the reality behind it, the killing of a living being, is ugly, repugnant. It is a hypocrisy and illusion that is meant to reveal the superficiality of society. Edenmont links this hypocrisy particularly to the Western world. In an interview with Webesteem Magazine, Edenmont explained that, "Western society tries to keep a clean façade while it is ugly and grim on the inside, the complete opposite to Russia."

By reacting outrageously to the art, people play their obligatory role in revealing the hypocrisy of the artwork itself, but push the meaning a step further by revealing their own double standards. As Wetterling argues, "Many of us eat meat, wear leather or use make-up that has been tested on animals, without arousing especially strong reactions. But when a picture shows a dead rabbit, all hell breaks loose."

In response to the Wetterling showing, PETA issued a press release calling for Edenmont to "seek counseling from mental health professionals" and asserting that Edenmont mutilates and kills "animals in order to demonstrate her own ability to exercise the ultimate power over those who are weaker than herself." Many other outraged animal-rights activists have cursed and sputtered all over their web magazines in response to Edenmont's work. Over 28,000 signatures have been raised for an online petition against Edenmont's art, and activists have focused on letter-writing campaigns to the Swedish government calling for censorship of her work.

When I first saw the front page of an animal rights webpage plastered with the Edenmont issue, my initial thought was: wow, good for them, they've finally taken care of all those other big issues (hemp-only clothing, feather instead of leather, firebombing the slaughterhouses) and now have plenty of time to waste on those final few detractors who kill a mouse here, a cat there. Then I noticed my leather boots and the big pork roast I was about to eat.

But if we all assume that Edenmont's work is immoral and that animals should never be killed for art, humanely or not, should she be censored? Where is the line drawn? In 1999 Mayor Giuliani threatened to withdraw funding from a gallery featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary with African features, elephant dung and pornographic cutouts. At the Victoria College of the Arts in Australia last spring, a student was heavily reprimanded for killing a chicken on-stage during an art production. Some have asked, "What's next? Killing babies?" and argue that the art desensitizes people. But perhaps the better question to ask is: if this were censored, what would we lose? Most simply, we would lose the discussion we're having now.

Perhaps now we should get back to my initial question. Is this art? What is art? Is art art? Actually, I don't know a thing about art. I haven't even taken Art Hum yet. Don't ask me.