Art traditionally has done a lot of things for society. In modern times, it has been used to provoke existing norms, both for the good and sometimes just for a counter-culture kick conducted through gratuitous and unnecessary insult. But would you like to be Jihadi John’s next victim as part of an art installation?
A recent exhibit in The Netherlands at a family-friendly art festival in Enschede has done just that. A 22-year-old Dutch “artist” has fashioned a piece of conceptual art, whose purpose (says the artist) is to give Europeans a sense of what it is really like to have experienced the terror of ISIS, instead of being spectators watching the recent horrific events from the outside.
Anne Bothmer’s exhibit, “Phantom Pain” consists of a poster of Jihadi John (identified as British citizen Mohammed Emwazi), knife in hand, ready to behead journalist James Foley. Only instead of Foley’s head, there’s a cutout circle where passersby can stick in their own head.
The exhibit has garnered indignant reactions from the mayor to local politicians and Christian groups, among others.
“This picture of genocide does not belong at this event and needlessly confronts our inhabitants and children with terrorism, human suffering and traumatic experiences which they went through in the country they fled from,” wrote the Democratic Platform Enschede on their Facebook page.
Bothmer, for her part, disagrees. “I found it odd that we see attacks like those in Paris from a distance and then pretend it’s an attack on all of us,” she commented. “We look at it on our phone and then we drink a cup of coffee and we forget it again. I do not understand why people feel so involved. Are we spectators or are we actually victims?”
Even though Bothmer said she was taken by surprise by the virulent negative reaction to the piece, she acknowledged reaction is part of the point of the work, which she views as a kind of psychological experiment.
“What happens to people when they see the canvas or take pictures with it? I saw fathers who left their children behind the board. It shows how visual culture has become consumption, and how the pain cannot really be experienced if you are not a victim,” she said.
The exhibit evokes a number of questions:
Should art be censored? Is a public exhibit a place to discuss these issues that have unfortunately become relevant in our day and age? When terror is used as a vehicle for art, does it diminish the horror and deaden our response to it?
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