Chicken art and Canadian politics

Posted on March 5, 2012


At the end of “When Pookas attack,” I intended to link to an article I did back in 1997 called “Chicken art and Canadian unity” —  a review on Rob Thompson’s art performance piece in which he protested treatment of commercially-bred chickens by putting two people in a cage for a week.

But then I discovered that I had never posted it here.

I don’t know how I could have been so remiss. It’s actually one of my favourites. But I’ve searched and searched, and as far as I can see, it is nowhere to be found on I Don’t Give a Damn.

So I’m posting it now.

While the basics of Thompson’s performance art are made fairly clear in the text, there are a few referencesthat non-Canadian readers may not understand.

Stornoway from the ferry

Stornoway (Image via Wikipedia)

Stornoway: In Canadian federal elections, we don’t actually elect the prime minister, we elect the party, the leader of which becomes the prime minister and moves into 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. The party that comes in second is declared the official Opposition, and its leader moves into  541 Acacia Avenue — a house better known as Stornoway. When Preston Manning became Leader of the Opposition in 1997, he originally declared he would sell Stornoway or turn it into a Bingo hall to help pay off the national debt.

Of course, he did neither.

English: The Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien.

Jean Chretien (Image via Wikipedia)

Talking to the homeless: Around the same period, the prime minister, Jean Chretien, told a gathering of high school students that he often conversed with a homeless man near 24 Sussex Drive. When reporters failed to find the man, and began asking questions about how he could talk to anyone with the security detail that constantly surrounded him, Chretien was forced to admit that the story wasn’t true.

 Parizeau and Bouchard: These were a couple of Quebec politicians from the time. Their outrageous and often incoherent statements are sadly missed.

I think everything else is self-explanatory. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Chicken art and Canadian politics

Eric Wolf and Pam Meldrum in their chicken cage.

Considering the spate of controversy surrounding Rob Thompson’s recent performance-art in Ottawa, a naive observer could be forgiven the impression that caging two people for a week is somehow “strange” or “peculiar.”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite those critics who doubt the validity of Thompson’s art, he is in fact following a long tradition of avant-garde aesthetes, not the least of whom was the late, great Rudolf Schwarzkogler who amputated various portions of his body until he ran out of material and died.

Leaving aside philosophical concerns regarding performance-art — such as whether it should be considered “late-modern” or “postmodern” (particularly in view of Ihab Hassan’s carefully reasoned 1980 article, “The Question of Postmodernism,” in which he concludes that he really isn’t sure) — there is still the matter of its remarkable allure and powerful effect.

Rudolf Schwarzkogler with fish.

Indeed, if Thompson’s recent piece is to be condemned for anything, it should be condemned, not for being too radical, but for being too mainstream. Performance-art has become such a common method of propagating an idea that, regardless of its proper dialectic position within modernity, it should at least lose its status as a “subordinate” or “alternative” art form.

And Canada has contributed more than its share of talent to the field. Few would argue that the most successful Canadian performance-artists in recent years are Parizeau and Bouchard who combine the comedic talents of Laurel and Hardy with the political sophistication of Abbot and Costello. But many others, albeit less spectacularly, have displayed their own form of artistic genius.

Consider, for instance, the recent meditation on public vs. private housing. No debate could have raised awareness in quite the same fashion as Preston Manning’s performance piece entitled “Stornoway.” And art critics will long remember Jean Chretien’s innovative 1996 piece, “I Talk to the Homeless,” which so poignantly highlighted the distressing, and mostly ignored, tragedy of mental illness brought on by serving too long in an elected office.

It is precisely this ability to drive home important messages without benefit of rational thought that makes performance-art so valuable. Rob Thompson could hardly have chosen a more suitable method to highlight the living conditions of commercially bred chickens than by paying two people $5000 each to sit in a cage for a week.

Having conceded the validity of his project, however, we are not then compelled to overlook its few, but glaring, weaknesses.

In the first place, his indexical symbology would have been more accurate had he placed two women in the cage rather than a man and a woman, since hens, by and large, tend to be female. By mixing his gender-related imagery, he not only compromises the overall integrity of his work, but also destroys the otherwise natural connotations that could have been developed vis a vis the broader canvas of women’s issues.

Nor should he have allowed Eric Wolf and Pam Meldrum (the “chickens”) to speak. A more demanding artistic standard would have restricted their articulation to clucks — although an argument could have been made for Eric Wolf, as the rooster, to occasionally crow.

Still, despite these, and other lapses in the execution of his work, Thompson’s piece succeeded in its overall effect. Not only did it create a visually disturbing image concerning the main issue of fowl-slavery, but when we remember that over 80 people applied for the position of “chicken,” it also vividly carried a strong subtextual message concerning the effects of mass unemployment.

Other good news is that Thompson may have inspired an artistic response. According to recent reports, an unidentified commercial chicken farmer living in the Niagara Peninsula is thinking of producing his own performance piece dramatizing the plight of free-range chickens. In this work, up to twenty people will spend their nights perched on wooden rods. During the day, of course, they will strut around a dirt yard eating food from the ground with their mouths.

Works like these will assure Canada of its proper place in the artistic pecking order.