It has been 24 years since an inflammatory art exhibit vaulted the city of Cincinnati and its Contemporary Arts Center to national attention. A sadomasochistic photo installation by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, condemned by the late Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), forced what was believed to be the first criminal trial of an art museum, especially one centered on obscenity. If convicted, the museum faced up to $10,000 in fines and its director, Dennis Barrie, up to a year in jail. The center was acquitted. Thanks to the face-off between Mapplethorpe and Helms and shocking photos like a man urinating in another man’s mouth, the trial put discussion of what is “art” and what is “obscenity” on the nation’s front burner.
Flash forward to this spring when a display at the Cincinnati Art Museum by conceptual artist Todd Pavlisko is igniting similar debate. Crown, which opened on March 15, consists of a 36-inch brass cube with 19 holes in a plexiglass case with eight flat-screens flanking visitors as they approach the cube. What is so controversial about that? The audio and video on the flat-screens record, in slow motion, the firing of a Tactical 308 rifle by a sharpshooter within the walls of the Cincinnati Art Museum which is how the cube came to sustain its holes. Nineteen bullets were fired by a Navy SEAL in 2012 past masterpieces in the museum’s Schmidlapp Gallery like Warhol’s “Soup Can” and Duveneck’s “Whistling Boy.”
Crown is both Pavlisko first solo museum exhibition in the town where he grew up and the Cincinnati Art Museum’s first cross-disciplinary collaboration of this type. The rifle became an actual “drawing tool” says Pavlisko and the sharpshooter’s use of physics to place each bullet on the brass cube are part of the artistic statement. To create Crown, which was “drawn” by a rifle in 2012 but delayed a year in presentation, the cube had to be placed in a ballistic bunker made especially for the project. The shooting was expected to cause an inward collapse of the cube, creating an imprint that resembles a crown and depicting the beauty of imperfection and transgression.
By reenacting the bullets’ high-speed paths and sounds, the exhibit “collapses art history into a millisecond and then expands it again, slowing down the footage as the camera travels past icons,” says the Cincinnati Art Museum. “The bullet is a docent for the art historical backdrop,” agrees Pavlisko. “It waltzes people through the history and into modernism; and that would be the cube where the bullets came to rest. Then we’ll show the whole installation amongst this institution in its more contemporary capacity, which in my eyes, is a full circle of art history.”
Recording the path of the bullets also turns the Cincinnati Art Museum’s pieces into perceivers rather than objects says Pavlisko. “I’ve edited this video to force the objects the bullet passed to act as voyeurs for the art that is happening.” he said in an interview on WVXU radio in Cincinnati. “I’ve removed them from being the things that are looked at to becoming the things that are currently watching art take place.” Crown references both the late Harold Edgerton’s use of high-speed photography to record a bullet going through an apple and French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard’s “Bande à part,” in which the characters try to break the world record for running through the Louvre, writes Janelle Gelfand.
The estate of Harold Edgerton has allowed Pavlisko to include some of the late MIT professor’s images in the display. Pavlisko often incorporates the physics’ principles of time and space in his work and has created paintings and sculptures of the astrophysicist Carl Sagan and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, says Cincinnati’s CityBeat.
This is not the first time Pavlisko has created controversial, violent art. His recent piece called Centerpiece involved “observing cadavers for years before hammering a metal spike through his foot,” reports CityBeat, commensurate with Pavlisko’s desire to “engage non-artists in a cross-disciplinary approach to art creation.”
While the Cincinnati Art Museum had to get city permission for creation of Crown and patrons and employees were not present during the shooting, the exhibition continues to draw antipathy. “Certain members of the art world are voicing concerns about the apparent recklessness of allowing a high-powered rifle to be fired in a museum; many argue that the sound vibrations echoing through the marble hall could have caused damage to the museum’s collection, even damage that may not manifest until many years later,” wrote the website ArtLog.
“I just cannot understand why the board allowed it. The shooting of the gun went on all day long. When you have gunfire inside a building, the vibrations go into the building, the sculpture and the artworks, and the long-term effects may not be seen for 100 years,” said Mary Ran of Cincinnati’s Mary Ran Gallery.
But many others vehemently defend the Pavlisko work and the value of provocative art. Tamara Harkavy, artistic director and CEO of ArtWorks, while acknowledging that “Todd as an artist makes art that isn’t apparently instantly beautiful,” also notes “if you look deeper [into Pavlisko's art] it does have beauty to it.”
Cincinnati Art Museum Board President Martha Ragland also affirms Crown’s artistic merit as well as the museum’s charge “to present all different types of exhibitions.” Crown takes visitors “along on that journey from the past to the present” and is “breathtaking” she says.
As art lovers and the curious line up to see Crown, two things are certain: that Crown fulfills the “point” of art—to create dialogue, debate and take people outside of their comfort zone, so they think in ways in which they’re unaccustomed. And, that the city of Cincinnati has come a long way since the Mapplethorpe fight, to the point where even in the face of criticism, the community can support a controversial art piece and the conversation it creates. Displays like Crown are why the Cincinnati Art Museum is considered among the most renowned in the country.
Crown is on display until June 15, 2014, at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her new Facebook page.