The Most Controversial Art Shows of 2011


As 2011 draws to a close, it’s worth noting that it has been exciting year for the art world — and not just for all the “sacrilegious” work that was banned, abducted, and attacked with crowbars. Let’s take a look back at some of the year’s most controversial exhibits and shows, and the tempestuous responses they provoked in critics, visitors and sensitive observers. Granted, not everything in here is as loaded as a portrait of Charles Manson painted by Pogo the Clown aka serial killer John Wayne Gacy, but if next year is anything like this one, the tabloids will never run out of “Outrage!”-related headlines.

The Sacrilegious Jesus Dildo Show

Image credit: Huffington Post

A group contemporary art show at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines received an exorbitant amount of threatening hate mail thanks to a wooden dildo protruding from Christ’s forehead. The dildo was abducted by vandals. The art show was shut down. Artist Mideo Cruz explained that his phallic/Catholic art speaks of “idolatry and the deconstruction of neo-deities�� and of the Philippines’ past as a Southeast Asian nation ruled by Spain and conservative Catholic friars for four hundred years. To the Roman Catholic church leaders and President Benigno Aquino II, it was just “offensive.”

The “Safest” Graffiti Show on Earth

Image credit: Arrested Motion

Some ardent critics of the Los Angeles Art in the Streets graffiti and street art exhibit had doomed it from the start, when in December of 2010, new Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch had commissioned renowned street artist Blu for a MoCA-adjacent mural, only to have it buffed within 24 hours. The censorship did not sit well with the public. Hardcore graffheads who were against the “institutionalization” of graffiti in the first place tsk-tsk’ed “told ya.” Despite criticism that it was “the safest show on earth” and more of a price-gauging marketplace for dealers than a cohesive retrospective, when Art in the Streets opened in April 2011, it was one of MoCA’s most visited, most popular exhibits.

The Serial Killer Clown Art Show

Image credit: John Wayne Gacy courtesy Sin City Gallery

Earlier this year, the Sin City Gallery of Las Vegas had exhibited the “outsider art” of John Wayne Gacy a.k.a. Pogo the Clown who tortured and executed 33 teenagers and stashed them in his crawlspace. The 70 works, priced at $2,000 – $15,000 depicted Pogo, Manson, Jesus, Elvis, Ed Gein, Al Capone, Pennywise, and the Seven Dwarfs. The gallery promised to donate some of the show’s proceeds to the National Center for Victims of Crime, but the NCVC had never consented to this and publicly refused the money for “ethical” reasons, calling it “in poor taste to the extreme.” The show was presented with a lecture series featuring a criminologist and an art therapist and was scheduled to go on to the Contemporary Arts Center, but didn’t, after several CAC employees threatened to quit.

The Public Birth

Image credit: Gerry Visco

NYC artist Marni Kotak made international headlines this year for her performance of The Birth of Baby X at the Microscope gallery in Brooklyn. Only a few spectators were eventually invited to the live water birth of her son Ajax and only those that stopped by Kotak’s temporary living quarters within the gallery and made an intimate connection with the expecting artist. She was criticized for being exploitative of the baby (in a Truman Show kind of way), outrageously exhibitionist and a bit banal, but hush now. Raise your hand only if you were actually there to see the miracle of performative birth.

The “Old Sparky” Show

Images courtesy Ohio Historical Center

This Ohio Historical Center exhibit was titled Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See and boy, did it deliver. Some of the items included a 150-year-old sheepskin condom found in the diary of a steamboat captain (odd!), a 1920s Ku Klux Klan robe (disgusting!) and a human cage from an 1800s mental institution (sick!). The centerpiece was “Old Sparky,” an electric chair used to execute 312 men and 3 women between 1897 and 1963. As curator Sharon Dean warned, “History definitely isn’t always pretty!” Since Ohio still executes (with lethal injections), the present definitely isn’t always pretty either.

The Bollywood Buddha and a Mob of Monks

Tenzing Rigdol, Bollywood Buddha 2011, magazine collage and scriptures, h: 122 x w: 122 cm / h: 48 x w: 48 in; Andres Serrano, Piss Christ 1987, h: 23.5 x w: 16 in / h: 59.7 x w: 40.6 cm

Just a month after Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was smashed by French nationalist Catholics and a truck-driver gal pounced on Enrique Chagoya’s The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals with a crowbar in Colorado, came word of Tibetan monks attacking Tenzing Rigdol’s Bollywood Buddha. The news item was a bit sensationalist, a bit lost in translation. The Shev Sena right-wing political party rounded up 35 to 50 protesters (and a few Buddhist monks) to rush the Mumbai’s Volte gallery exhibit of contemporary Tibetan art, attempting to abduct and destroy Bollywood Buddha. The whole fracas was motivated by a skewed exhibit review entitled “What’s Bebo Doing on Buddha’s Chin?” that helped the political right to “opportunistically misconstrue” the artists’ intent as offensive. Instead, Rigdol’s collage of India’s pop culture celebrities symbolized Buddha’s universalism. The curator was able to subdue the so-called “mob.”

The Doppelgänger Cop Kissers

Anarchistic Russian art group Voina is known for their controversial, explicit interventions, but when a clip of girls force-kissing female police officers in the metro surfaced on YouTube attributed to “the Voina group,” the official rep was enraged, denounced Voina’s responsibility for the “repressionist-rapey sucking of cop mugs.” Turns out there’s a second, fringe Voina group, consisting of members allegedly “exiled for snitching.” The Trash Smooching was however included in the 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art as a “Voina” action, which disturbed sensitive audiences and caused Voina to vehemently boycott the Biennale. It’s confusing, we know.

The “Grave Robber” Series

Image courtesy Dvorak Sec Contemporary Gallery

Controversial Czech artist Roman Týc exhibited 19 demure portraits painted with… dum-dum-DUM… human ash. According to the Dvorak Sec Contemporary Gallery, the Grave Robber series highlights “our strangely biased relationship to death” and the materials — alleged surpluses of ashes from Prague crematoriums — would have been trashed into a garbage dump, as Prague crematoriums are notoriously known to do. With the art show dubbed “morbid” and “inappropriate” by critics, the gallery vowed to honorably disperse the ashes, after conclusion.

Recycled Ant-Jesus Outrage

Image credit: Annie Leibovitz, Ellen DeGeneresfrom HIDE/SEEK; NY Daily News; Savid Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly still. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

It’s impossible to round off the year without mentioning the Brooklyn Museum’s HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit, a comprehensive exploration of gender and sexuality in art and queer culture. Once again, it’s inspired some “It’s not art! It’s disgusting!” quips, dutifully collected and sensationalized by tabloids like the NY Daily News . Perhaps they were nostalgic for all the provocative headlines that the original HIDE/SEEK exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery inspired in 2010, when David Wojnarowicz’s “offensive,” complex video piece was censored by the Smithsonian. So, they rehashed some “Crucifix Outrage,” specifically: “Another unholy controversy at Brooklyn museum: Video of ants skittering over crucified Jesus is enraging Christians… The 10-second crucifix segment is spliced between other bizarre scenes.” Bizarre? Alright, just stick to Victoria’s Secrets then.

The Occupy Wall Street Money-Flag Burning

Naturally, Occupy Wall Street’s art show No Comment would be as rousing as the Occupy Wall Street movement itself. Collaborating with the artist collective Loft in the Red Zone, OWS had nested itself inside the historic JP Morgan Building, between the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, a perfect location to seed the 99%’s message of economic struggle and inequality through works of art and open discourse. The huge exhibition of sculpture, painting, multimedia, installations and impromptu pop-up performance echoed the spirit of DIY revolutionary Zuccotti Park camp and righteous revolt beyond. Then, the crowd lit a giant flag sewn from currency bills on fire and even some of the supporters were uneasy. Wasn’t the show also a fund raiser? Was this a waste of money or a powerful, symbolic action? You be the judge.