The Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts is the ne plus ultra of honors in Canadian art. Some 2,000 of the country’s cultural elite attend the annual awards ceremony, a black-tie affair held at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. But last year, organizers faced a dilemma: Performance artist Istvan Kantor, due to receive the award, was officially banned from entering the National Gallery.
The sticky situation stemmed from a 1991 “intervention” in which Kantor threw vials of his own blood on a wall during a Marcel Duchamp exhibition, as a “Gift” to the institution’s permanent collection, which earned him a restraining order. Finally a somewhat comic compromise was reached — Kantor would be allowed back into the National Gallery for one day only, to pick up the award. A phalanx of five guards was assigned to the artist — who followed him everywhere.
But there were no shenanigans when Kantor stepped up to the podium — instead, Kantor smiled, sang an old Hungarian folk song, then quietly sat down again. In the circumstances, his restraint was perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening for when Kantor returned to the gallery the following day, intent on taking pictures of his work in the exhibition he was, once again, persona non grata.
Born in Budapest, Kantor studied medicine before emigrating to Canada in 1977. Two years later, in Montreal, he launched his “Blood Campaign,” premiered a Dada-esque underground art movement called “Neoism,” and assumed the alter ego “Open Concept Pop Star Monty Cantsin.” The 55-year-old enfant terrible is currently touring Japan with 22 other performance artists under the auspices of the Nippon International Performance Art Festival (NIPAF).
I caught up with my artist friend last Sunday in Shinjuku, where he was doing a street performance to open the festival. Kantor first climbed atop a construction barrier, where he set alight a copy of the NIPAF catalogue and flamed a large “X” on the reverse side of a street sign. Having grabbed the attention of perhaps a hundred passers-by, Kantor then created a square of fire on the street and writhed about within it, all the while screaming unintelligibly through a megaphone. He finished by flaming a steam iron (a Neoist icon), which he handed to a stunned bystander. It was just about this time that six policemen weaved their way through the crowd to close in on him.
Confronted by a situation they were clearly not prepared for, the boys in blue set to stomping on the fire still flickering from the charred catalogue. Unfortunately, this proved more than ineffective, as the burning rubber cement adhered to and began to flame their shoes — to shrieks of fear and delight from the assembled crowd — creating a moment of fervid artistic anarchy in the drizzly Sunday afternoon — there were no injuries.
Kantor slipped out of sight amid the confusion, and NIPAF director Seiji Shimoda was marched to the local koban to offer apologies. “I told them that NIPAF is an art festival and we have freedom of expression,” said Shimoda. “I don’t think they wanted to get involved in the debate.”
A performance artist himself, Shimoda launched NIPAF 12 years ago. The festival does not have any corporate or government sponsors, nor is it organized by a big-name curator from a gallery or museum, nor does it have an office or telephone number or proper Web site, and it is rarely if ever listed in art magazines. Yet somehow, NIPAF draws audiences of several dozen to obscure halls in some unlikely cities around Japan.
Later Sunday evening in a cheap izakaya, Shimoda, mindful of Kantor’s brush with the authorities earlier in the day, was spelling out some rules of the game to the NIPAF performers: “You can hit and smash objects into the stage in Tokyo — that’s not a problem. You can splash water and use fire in most of the venues — but not in Aichi, because that’s a new theater. You can break and shatter glass and things — but please let me know first. You can get naked in any of the venues, and walk through the audience — but you shouldn’t go outside into the street naked.” And so on.
At NIPAF, Kantor will be improvising with a new series titled “Machinery,” which features projected video backgrounds with movement, live sound and a megaphone. But he has also brought his syringes and vials to Japan, he says, “just in case.” And he had a few questions to ask concerning various Japanese museums.
After all, the “Blood Campaign” is a lifelong project for Kantor. His most recent intervention, executed last Nov. 20 at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin, was in protest at their controversial exhibition of selections from the Flick collection. (Friedrich Flick used slave labor to build arms for the Nazi regime, critics argue his collection was bought with blood money.)
At the Hamburger Badhoff, security had been tipped off and were reinforced and waiting. After collecting the vials of blood from his girlfriend, who had smuggled them in, Kantor managed to splash a blank wall even as security pounced on him. He was carried away screaming, “This is not a museum, this is a police station!”
Kantor says the museum fed the media the story that he had intended to deface art, specifically the nearby Jeff Koons sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles.” Although he vehemently denies this accusation, he does not deny the criminal nature of his actions. “I have always been breaking the rules of art,” Kantor said Sunday. “I call myself a “subvertainer” and I consider my criminal activities the most creative part of my work. My art was always anti-establishment and anti-institutional. My attitude always questions what is the relationship between artists and the institutional art world and the need for institutions. The whole “Blood Campaign” is basically an ongoing anti-institutional project.”
Informed that Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh spent 12 days in a Japanese detention center and was fined 50,000 yen for merely stopping traffic in Shibuya five years ago, Kantor was understandably wary the possible reaction from authorities here, likening the treatment of Rubingh to “old times in the Communist countries.”
“I have never been to Japan. I have only seen it from far away. I know it only from mythology,” said Kantor. “But it seems to me that Japanese culture was always able to push everything to the extremes. I do think that because that is where my interests are as well, maybe some Japanese will relate to and respect what I do.”