|From National Post Online|
quote: TORONTO - The directors of an avant-garde gallery in Toronto have come under fire for their refusal to denounce two artists accused of the torture killing of a cat.
Jesse Power, a 21-year-old Ontario College of Art & Design student, and Anthony Ryan Wennekers, 24, were charged on May 30 with cruelty to animals and mischief. A third man remains at large.
The men allegedly videotaped the black, white and grey cat's ordeal. The case is before the courts.
The gallery, Art System, which is funded by the art college's student union, became embroiled in the debate when co-directors Jubal Brown and Daniel Borins appeared at Mr. Power's bail hearing to support the artist, who has exhibited previous work at the gallery and whom they consider a friend.
Mr. Power is also scheduled to exhibit some of his work at the gallery in August, but it's not clear whether that will go ahead.
Mr. Power has gone on record in a local newspaper defending the video as a work of art -- a comment on the death and suffering of animals used for meat.
Toronto Police Detective Gordon Scott said the 17-minute videotape is the most difficult thing he has ever watched.
"After a couple of minutes, I was actually rooting for the cat to die to avoid the cruelties being inflicted upon it," he said.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Borins have made it clear they do not condone acts of cruelty to animals. Mr. Brown, a vegetarian who owns two cats, said he finds the idea of killing cats "simply horrible."
"I don't support the killing of animals for food or art," he said.
"But whether it is art is not for us to answer."
Mr. Brown is no stranger to controversy. In 1996, he gained infamy by ingesting primary-coloured foods and vomiting on two paintings he considered "banal" -- a seascape by Raoul Dufy at the Art Gallery of Ontario and a Mondrian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Neither painting was damaged and no charges were laid. Mr. Brown said at the time his protest was meant "to destroy art, to liberate individuals and living creatures from its banal, oppressive representation."
Art System's position has since been reinforced by an official statement from Bill Pusztai, chairman of the student union at the Ontario College of Art and Design.
"The actions on the videotapes are abhorrent, immoral and illegal," Mr. Pusztai said. "But it is not our role to be arbiters of what is and what isn't art."
Cathy GordonMarsh, a local artist who has mounted the boycott, says taking a stand on the artistic merit of such acts is essential.
"It reflects on us as an arts community," she said. "I am very willing to say it is not art for the reason that it includes an unwilling partner. It is the difference between art and snuff."
Mr. Borins said the fate of Mr. Power's scheduled show at Art System is now in doubt. Police have seized all of his video work for review and the gallery is looking into whether it can show any of his work without fear of facing charges itself.
Mr. Borins also made it clear Art System has no desire to show the tape of the cat's skinning and death.
"We're not idiot provocateurs," he said. "It's like showing a snuff movie -- it's illegal."
Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Borins have defended their decision to attend Mr. Power's bail hearing, saying they were only there to support a friend.
"We were concerned that Jessie is messed up and in serious trouble," Mr. Borins said. "We're also concerned that police confiscated all his previous artwork and might try to use it against him as character evidence."
Since current laws relating to cruelty to animals carry only a maximum six-month sentence, Det. Scott said police are trying to locate the cat's owner in an effort to prove the animal was someone's property and thereby solidify their case for a possible conviction on indictable mischief, which carries a maximum sentence of two years.
Mr. Power has been released on bail but Mr. Wennekers remains in custody. Zo╬ Stonyk, a volunteer at Art System who shared a number of classes with Mr. Power, said his previous video work has often examined controversial subjects.
She said one project, filmed while Mr. Power was employed at a poultry processing plant, detailed chickens being slaughtered in an effort to examine the reality of meat production.
Johanna Householder taught Mr. Power as an instructor in performance art and contemporary issues at the art college. She described him as a student "who looks deeply into very difficult questions."
She also attended his bail hearing, out of concern for what she said was the "inflammatory" nature of e-mails sent out by Ms. GordonMarsh calling for the Art System boycott.
"It felt like a bit of witch hunt," Ms. Householder said.
"Art System has done a good job of establishing itself as a venue appealing to a new, less mainstream generation of artists and I'm concerned about the cloud that is now hanging over it."
Art System opened early last year. Its mandate is to maintain a lively exhibit space "on the edge that fosters young ideas," according to Ms. Stonyk.
Mr. Brown, who is renowned for what Ms. Stonyk described as his "punk rock" attitude toward art, was a natural choice to become director.
Ms. GordonMarsh's boycott has so far convinced organizers of one fundraiser scheduled for Art System to cancel. She said she plans to continue the boycott until Mr. Brown steps down as director.
Mr. Borins, however, condemned what he said is the "lynch mob mentality" behind the Art System boycott.
"There's nothing wrong with attending the bail hearing of friend," he said.
"They say we're guilty by association and that shows an astonishing level of ignorance.
"We're against cruelty to animals, but these people want us to issue a statement that would define the limits of artistic freedom," he added. "It's extortion."