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January 14, 2003

Exhibit's violence prompts outcry in Red Deer

From: National Post, Canada - 14 Jan 2003

Images in art show include bloodied baby in toilet

Charlie Gillis
National Post

Tuesday, January 14, 2003
(Carol) Ho

EDMONTON - An art exhibit featuring violent and bloody images of children has kindled fierce debate in central Alberta over what belongs in public galleries, with critics calling on the taxpayer-funded Red Deer and District Museum to shut the show down.

The works of Carol Ho, 28, a Calgary visual artist who has studied at the Royal College of Art in London, include an image of a baby lying headfirst in a toilet next to a woman with bloodied buttocks -- a tableau that shocked many residents when it appeared in a local newspaper.

Another sequence of etchings show a reluctant child being dragged through a shopping mall by her mother. The child pulls a gun out of the woman's pocket, puts it in her own mouth and sends a geyser of blood shooting out the back of her head.

"I don't think this type of art is appropriate in a public gallery," said Jeffrey Dawson, a Red Deer city councillor. "It's not the type of stuff we want to expose our children to. Many schools take their students to this museum. Maybe we should talk to the schools about cancelling any trips there."

Vesna Higham, another city councillor, complained directly to the museum and publicly invited her constituents to do the same.

"This is a grey area, and I realize that this material might well hold up under a court challenge," she said. "But I think we've crossed a line when we depict unspeakably violent acts against children.... By putting them on the walls of a museum, we're giving them some air of public legitimacy."

Ms. Ho has defended the material, which she intended to inspire debate about the exposure of children to violence. Some pieces, she said, were inspired by the massacre of 12 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. The artist, who is deaf, received $600 from the museum for her display.

"My work manipulates viewers toward a point of uncertainty and discomfort, which I believe more closely represents reality than a romantic, stereotyped depiction of human situations," she explained in a backgrounder for an Internet art site. "The gruesome and ambiguous messages behind the [Columbine] killing shook the conventional positive perceptions of children and childhood."

As the show opened on Saturday, local media outlets were flooded with calls from people who wanted it stopped.

Several community leaders and family-values advocates questioned whether the material should receive space in a publicly funded institution.

The gallery, they noted, receives approximately $430,000 annually from the City of Red Deer, along with $81,000 in operating funds and other grants from the provincially funded Alberta Foundation for the Arts. (Ms. Ho also received two study grants from the foundation while attending the University of Calgary in the 1990s, the amounts of which were not disclosed.)

Wendy Martindale, the museum's director, urged people to view the exhibit before passing judgment, noting that, as of yesterday, only one visitor had called for the material's removal.

"In our exhibits we need to reflect the environment in which we live and it's not all pleasant," she said. "If we wanted to be a museum that presents only safe and pleasant things ... that would be unprofessional, dishonest and would do a disservice to the community we're serving."

Ms. Higham planned to explain her objections during a council meeting yesterday, after receiving about 30 calls from like-minded voters. But she stopped short of calling on council to use its financial muscle to force the museum's hand. Those powers, she said, rightfully lie with the institution's board.

Mary Anne Jablonski, the Progressive Conservative MLA representing Red Deer North, said she planned to view the show at her next opportunity -- partially out of concern over what appears in taxpayer-funded facilities.

"We need to ask whether this kind of exhibit will achieve some good," she said. "Will it motivate people to do something on behalf of abused children? Or will it increase the risk to children who are vulnerable to abuse?"

Mr. Dawson, for one, doubts the display's artistic merits, arguing that declaring something to be art does not exempt it from basic community standards.

"It seems like anything goes nowadays as long as you call it art. I think it's a reflection of how our society as a whole is going down the toilet -- in this case, literally."
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