Full-spectrum babes

March 18, 2010 at 8:22 am | In arts, ideas, writing | 4 Comments

I saw a copy of the National Post newspaper lying around at the gym the other day and was struck by the article, Using a baby to represent evil in society. It’s a revival of a story that started 10 years ago when Danish-Norwegian artist Nina Maria Kleivan let her newborn daughter Faustina model custom-sewn costumes that cast her in the role of historical (male) villains. Potency, the resulting series of photographs, raised plenty of hackles and debates.

Kleivan’s daughter in a Hitler disguise was the most controversial image:

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Obviously, the image of an innocent babe in garb like that, with all that we know about what that uniform and that mustache represent, is going to piss people off.

But I have a hard time taking the photos seriously as art.

There’s a lively discussion of Kleivan’s work on a post by Judy Mandelbaum, with a long string of unequivocal comments. Mandelbaum also includes a more complete set of photos from the series (Faustina appears not just as Hitler, but also as many other infamous historical villains: Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic…).

One of Mandelbaum’s commentors points to a July 25 2001 The Onion spoof, Anne Geddes Starting to Lose It. Clicking through, we see this picture:

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For me, that spoof image kind of nails what doesn’t sit right for me with Kleivan’s photo series.

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Kleivan’s images lost their potency after a surprisingly short while.

Is it the baby-theme? That cute Anne Geddes trope lurking in the background?

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Or is it the technique and the medium?

One of Kleivan’s objectives is to make viewers understand that:

“We are all born as a blank slate, who knows who we will become,” Ms. Kleivan said. “I wanted people to think about where tremendous evil comes from.” (source)

But isn’t tremendous evil always generated (rather like devil spawn)? Generated out of circumstances and contexts? The baby – which we do see as a beginning (of possibilities) – is far too difficult to situate as a fulcrum in the generation of evil, although it may be a product of such. But generally, the baby is too new – like a fresh cabbage leaf. You need to have a few miles on you to have a story, without which nothing has yet spawned from you.

That said, while I question the viability of creating art that casts babies as the potential generators of evil, I’m also not a big fan of representations of babies-as-victims.

Except in the case of one Spanish genius who managed to contextualize societal evil with painful precision. I refer of course to Francisco de Goya and his Caprichos, specifically plate 69, “Blow” (or Sopla):

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The babe is a victim in this image, its body used as a bellows to fan a lamp that illuminates an idiotic and vile grouping of “witches” and superstitious asses. Goya referred as well to the perversions visited on young and helpless children by priests and other benighted authorities.

For me, Goya’s image, perhaps because it’s part of a series of 80 etchings that cover the whole range of social folly and evil, has a disturbing power that trumps that of a real baby photographed in a costume, even if the costume refers to Hitler. The babe in Goya’s etching is a pure instrument, a bellows – an instrumentalized human being, which can’t happen in situations absent of evil.

Some of the commentors on Mandelbaum’s post seem to pick up on this, because they detest most of all that Kleivan instrumentalizes her daughter.

That’s not the whole story, though. Many artists have used children. Photographer Sally Mann caught plenty of flak for “instrumentalizing” (according to some critics) her young children. In the end, it’s a question of whether or not the images work. Goya’s do. Mann’s do. I’d like Kleivan’s to, but I’m just not sure they manage to.

4 Comments

  1. I think you nail the issue with this:

    “The babe in Goya’s etching is a pure instrument, a bellows – an instrumentalized human being, which can’t happen in situations absent of evil.”

    Kleivan’s images and her use of her daughter (and I haven’t followed your links to her work or the discussions of it) has a “commercial” feel to me, in that it objectifies the subject, rather than “subjectify” or make a subject of something that has been objectified. Klevian, to me, hides in costumes and blank slates, all along parading her own eye, while Goya thrust the images in your face, leaving himself in the background.

    I am to familiar with the discourse of art criticism, so I am going simply by my gut reaction to what you have presented here.

    Comment by maria — March 18, 2010 #

  2. Yes, I think that’s a good way to put it. I would like to like the work – there’s something clever about the idea of it. But I’m not crazy about the execution, I guess. (And speaking of gut reactions: that’s what I’m up to here, too – I can’t lay claim to any kind of discourse of art criticism, at least not any more. Not that I’d want to – a lot of it is kind of obtuse these days…! 😉 )

    Comment by Yule — March 18, 2010 #

  3. Yeah, if you dressed the baby up as Gandhi or Nelson Mandela it would look incredibly sappy.

    Comment by robert randall — March 18, 2010 #

  4. Good point – it wouldn’t work because 2 “goods” don’t make a point (baby = good, Gandhi = good) since they’re both the same (in a way).
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    I guess that means Kleivan is on to something with her contextual juxtaposition of good (baby) + evil (historical infamy), and there is some context created just by virtue of the juxtaposition. But it’s not enough, is it?

    Comment by Yule — March 19, 2010 #

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