|Detail of martyr names and rape victim names from the floor in front of "Ambrei as Potamiaena."|
Copyright © Edward Riojas
ArtPrize 2017 is almost over, but there is plenty of reason to dwell on at least one aspect of the event – what happens when causes are taken up by artists. In a world where “Art for art’s sake” was once a catchword, it sometimes comes as a slight annoyance when artists shout their art atop a soapbox.
There are causes seemingly everywhere in the ArtPrize landscape. Topics ranging from equality to environmental responsibility to unjustified violence always pop up, and this year’s entries were no exception.
But there is a range of inherent hazards in the pursuit of awareness and causes and agendas.
Take the piece that hung next to mine during the event. The massive conglomeration of Chihuly-like plastic bottle florals might bring awareness to the problem of litter, but one wonders how long it will be before the thing itself heads to the dump instead of the closest recycling station; viewers stood in awe of the artist’s ability to deftly turn 200 lbs. of trash ... into 200 lbs. of trash.
Consider, too, the piece that hung on the other side of my piece. The 8 by 18-feet drawing brought to light issues dealing with water quality and availability. But it was done on paper – produced by mills which historically have been among the worst polluters of water.
In similar manner, a humongous image that floated in the Grand River forced us to think of native Americans being forced to contend with oil production in the Dakotas. But the message became mixed when the artist had the image printed on a plasticized material – an oil byproduct. Even the artist admitted the incongruity, leaving the viewer more puzzled.
My own piece, however, contained its own kind of hazard – a heartfelt one for which I was not wholly prepared. “Ambrei as Potamiaena” was essentially about Christian martyrdom, and the reality of clinging to Faith in an evil world. The names of more than 2,000 martyrs through history and across the globe bled down the frame and onto the floor. Because St. Potamiaena eventually became a patron saint of rape victims, I also allowed those who “shared in her suffering” to put their names in a slotted box so I could add them to the mix.
To my knowledge, I have no connections to rape victims, so the first name I found on a folded piece of paper was a jolt. The degree of separation between my cushy world and reality grossly diminished.
Rarely would anyone put a name in the box when the crowds thronged, but piles of names would await me in the quiet mornings, pointing to the lingering stigma of being a victim.
Visitors who stopped and read my artist statement were thankful. Some had tears. Some were young. Some were old. One woman chatted with me at length, thankful that I, a man, was addressing the issue. She was a rape victim and a published author on the subject.
Visitors stopped in silence, as if at a shrine. I tried to keep a noble face all the while – with one notable exception that brought me to my knees and produced tears.
Visitors occasionally asked if they might put in a sister’s name or a daughter’s name or a friends’ name, and I always allowed them. One smiling mother asked if she might put her daughter’s name in, so out of habit I said, “Yes.” She then turned to her daughter – not more than 9- or 10-years-old – and asked, “Honey, would you like to put your name in?” The girl smiled, then carefully spelled out her own name with big, loopy letters, and put it in the box.