The risk that artists take to realise their work comes in many forms. It can mean forging ahead on a project without a definite outcome, or tackling the realities of an uncertain career. In other circumstances it can mean facing more concrete dangers, such as placing oneself in physical peril, or, in the case of these artists, risking imprisonment for their art.
Mormon landscape artist LeConte Stewart said that art exists to say the unsayable, and it’s long been acknowledged that one of its functions is to disrupt prevailing cultural and aesthetic norms. But when faced with state power, or a proscriptive society, this can mean artists come easily into contact with the law, intentionally or otherwise. Inevitably, these are asymmetric conflicts; an individual or small group against powerful institutions, and where we see artists fighting for what they believe in. That’s what Japanese sculptor Megumi Igarashi called “a single lonely effort”.
All the artists below have been arrested for their work. Some are still either incarcerated, awaiting trial or finally free to practise express themselves.
“Where the great artist moves forward, every step is an adventure, an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of art.” Albert Camus
Coming to prominence with a series of highstakes performance pieces in the late ’60s and early ’70s, serious danger was integral to Burden’s work. His most famous piece, Shoot, involved a friend shooting him with a .22 rifle. But it was another 1972 work entitled Deadman that got Burden in trouble with the law. During this piece the artist lay in the road under a tarpaulin, inches from passing traffic, lit only by two emergency flares. He was arrested for sparking a false emergency.
Known for photographing complex performances of naked people en masse, it’s no surprise Spencer Tunick’s artwork occasionally saw him interact with representatives of the law. Charged five times in total, the last arrest was in April 1999, when he was collared for unlawful assembly of a group of 150 people, who he had persuaded to pose naked in New York’s Times Square. His prosecution was overturned, after a first amendment appeal gave him the right to pursue his controversial artistic practise.
In his lifetime, Schiele was labelled as a sex pest, and was arrested in 1912 for “public immorality”. The complex story involved a trip to Vienna and a teenage runaway, who Schiele and his lover, Wally Neuzil, were taking to see her grandmother. The charges of statutory rape and kidnapping were filed against him, but dropped, before the third conviction, the one he was arrested for, came up after police investigated the artist. This, they said, was to account for the minors who went to his studio and been exposed to his erotic works of art. He served 24 days in prison.
This Taiwanese-American artist, who Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović calls “the master”, is best known for a series of arduous “lifeworks” and One Year Performances, executed in the early ’80s while he was living as an illegal immigrant. The third of these involved Hsieh living without shelter for one year on the streets of New York. Several months into the piece Hsieh got into a fight on the street, and was arrested, then held for 15 hours, breaking his performance. It was the only time he went indoors in 365 days.
In the same year he was named “the most powerful artist in the world” by Art Review, Ai Weiwei was arrested and detained without charge for more than 80 days by Chinese authorities. They said it was on account of tax fraud, while Weiwei’s family maintained it was for the artist’s political activities. This wasn’t the first time the famous iconoclast, rebel and activist had attracted the attention of the Chinese state, having previously reported he’d had his studio destroyed, and been held and beaten by members of law enforcement. Ai Weiwei is now based in Beijing, where his studio was demolished by authorities last year.
A painting that depicted destruction in the Nusaybin province of Mardin province, in the Kurdish region of Turkey, is what saw this award-winning journalist and artist arrested. She was sentenced to two years, nine months and 22 days, accused of “leading people to rebellion, rage, and hatred”. She’s been supported by high-profile artists, such as Banksy, who she wrote to from prison, and Ai Weiwei, who wrote her a letter while she was jailed.
Also known under her pseudonym Rokudenashiko (which means “good-for-nothing little girl”), this Japanese sculptor and manga artist has attracted controversy through her ongoing mission to demystify female genitalia and vagina-themed art. This includes a vagina chandelier, a remote-controlled vagina car, and the piece that got her in trouble with the law, a kayak constructed from a 3D scan of her own vulva. After successfully crowd-funding the project, she emailed her donors with information of her vagina boat, and soon after police came knocking and charged her with “obscenity”. Rokudenashiko was fined, but then later published a manga on the whole debacle. She just couldn’t understand why such a natural body part should be seen as “obscene”.
The world’s best-known punk rockers and protest art collective Pussy Riot have faced considerable resistance from the Russian state, including, according to its members, censorship, beatings, assault and poisoning. Three members of the group were jailed for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and hostility” for their 2012 guerilla performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It’s a common thread for the feminists. As recently as July 2018, four members were arrested, released and then arrested again on the same day, as they ran onto the pitch for the World Cup final.
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