BEYOND POULTRY PORNO: Once again an image of a chicken has found its way into an art controversy in Tucson.
Last time around, it was Robyn Stoutenburg's photographic portrait of her nude young son with a chicken from the grocery store that triggered cries of porn and even, briefly, the threat of a criminal charge. This time, it's a chicken at a bare human breast in Helén Ingmari Vigil's video, Me, Mom.
Truth be told, it's not just the chicken that's gotten patrons at the University of Arizona Museum of Art upset. The performer in the video, Vigil herself, puts a baby to her breast as well as the chicken. And then she tenderly hooks a man onto that versatile nipple.
"My work is about sexuality and desire," the newly famous Vigil explained by telephone. "I wanted to make a video that I would have liked to see. I'm 41 and I have three children. You never see anything about sexuality from a woman's point of view, especially women over 40. If you show sexual desire you're a bad mother. I wanted to show it and I wanted to make it empowering."
Vigil is showing the video in the Master of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition, which features the work of 13 University of Arizona grad students who will get their degrees in May. Interestingly, though the students didn't coordinate the theme in advance, much of the show deals with sexuality.
"It's kind of funny. We all come from different areas but when we put the show up, so many works were about the body and sexuality. It's in the air. For women especially, it's time to talk from our point of view."
The variety of sexually explicit works--Vigil's 25-minute video also contains brief scenes of a woman masturbating with feathers and shadowy glimpses of a man and a woman in the throes of sex--prompted the museum's director, Peter Bermingham, to put a warning sign on the show. The notice explains neutrally that the contents are sexual in nature and advises: "Adults may wish to preview the exhibition before proceeding through with young children."
"I'm ambivalent about the sign," Vigil says. "I wish they didn't have to do that. But I understand with school groups teachers have a lot of rules."
And, she adds, she can well imagine the response of some parents if their kids were to describe seeing her work and some of the other pieces in the show. But she says that the sign also has the effect of labeling sexual work as something wrong.
"For my children to see that sign, it gives them a different perspective on my work. It sends a message to my children. Is it censorship? That's a tricky one. If you look at it semantically, yes. You're filtering it in a certain way. But we all have opinions and freedom of speech. It's different where I come from (Sweden). Some of my kids' books are pretty graphic. There is a difference."
Vigil says she settled on the chicken--both dead and alive--as a stand-in for a woman going through the expected phases of life.
"I wanted to have some kind of symbol that would represent me. I have this chicken at home that lays eggs."
That live hen, who plays the nursling in the video, also inspired the use of the plucked, grocery-store chicken. The video begins with stills of a headless chicken playing with a child's ball, then stretching out seductively like a femme fatale, then neatly tied into an apron and proudly showing off an egg. Finally, exhausted, she's surrounded by a whole tribe of offspring, a dozen or more eggs.
Later in the video this chicken is pulled apart, fried up and served as meat on platters.
"When you're young, you don't pay attention to yourself, you're trying to attract guys," Vigil explains. "Young girls starve themselves, throw up. This is about the self-destructive stuff that women do."
Vigil prepared for the video by reading about 15 tomes on marriage, motherhood and women, and quotes from the books appear across the bottom of the screen. They range from a critical look at the way paintings over the centuries have portrayed women as shying away from sex, to a modern paen to motherhood that opines that real mothers are not much interested in anything but their children.
Formerly a writer, Vigil published poetry and fiction in her native Sweden. After she moved to California some seven years ago, she started studying photography at the University of California, Riverside, and making photographic installations and artists' books with narrative and pictures. At the UA, Vigil hooked up with Professor Joyan Saunders in the new genre program.
"Here I thought I'd try videos," she says. "This is my writing now."
The artist intends to head back to Sweden for a while after she picks up her degree. Her middle child, a 21-year-old daughter, is living there and she wants her 12-year-old son to go to a Swedish school for a while. Though liberal Sweden is becoming more sexaully conservative, she says, she doesn't intend to give up her artistic investigations of sexuality.
"I'm planning to curate a show in Stockholm with artists from here (Arizona), faculty and students invited. It will be on the theme of family, gender and sexuality. I'm hoping to do an exchange here."
The Master of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition continues through April 23 at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information call 621-7567.
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