Piss on Pity is the title of an exhibition of work by disabled artists on the subject of charity currently in the Ridings Centre, Wakefield. Gill Crawshaw writes about pulling the exhibition together as a way of channeling anger at the flagrant dismissal of the disability arts communities concerns about representation of our issues by Damien Hirst.
I’m writing this from the exhibition. I’ve been sitting in the unit in a Wakefield shopping centre where it’s on show, talking to people who pop in. I’ve had many interesting and moving conversations – that have had nothing to do with Damien Hirst!
More specifically, our conversations have had nothing to do with Hirst’s monumental bronze sculpture, Charity. You might be aware of this sculpture, a huge version of a “Help Spastics” collecting box from the 60s, in the shape of a disabled girl. If you’re a regular reader of Disability Arts Online, you’ll have likely read Colin Hambrook’s scathing takedown: “… yet another example of ‘disability’ being used and exploited by the rich and powerful as a commodity for trafficking ideas and power.” Or you might have signed the open letter from disabled activists to Hirst on Change.org, stating how offensive this work is and asking for an explanation (which was never given. Hirst didn’t seem to want to take part in the “conversations about disability” that his mates Scope hoped would result.)
Despite the outcry from disabled people that Hirst’s sculpture is hugely offensive, and has nothing to say about the reality of disabled people’s lives, Charity continues to be shown in galleries and at festivals. It landed at Yorkshire Sculpture Park this summer as part of a new, high-profile festival, Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI).
When I found out, I felt more weary than angry. Here we go again, another thoughtless, exclusionary sculpture to complain about. Another instance of highly-paid artists ignoring the views and needs of disabled people. In recent months disabled people have protested against the inaccessibility of other contemporary artists’ work: Olaf Eliasson’s installation at Tate Modern and Jeremy Deller’s monument to Peterloo in Manchester.
However, artist Jason Wilsher-Mills convinced me that we couldn’t let the appearance of Charity in Yorkshire go unchallenged. I contacted YSI, perhaps they would be interested in working with us to hold a public debate; an opportunity for disabled people to explain why the sculpture is problematic, and to show disabled artists’ responses. Jason and I thought this would be a worthwhile and interesting way to explore some of the issues Charity raises, particularly around representation and artists’ responsibilities. YSI seemed keen and we set up a meeting.
The outcome of this meeting, however, wasn’t what Jason or I expected. YSI and the Sculpture Park focused on their aspiration to involve more disabled artists throughout the organisation. While we fully support this, somehow we’d lost touch with our original aim.
In the meeting, Jason explained that he’d decided to make sculptures in direct opposition to Hirst’s Charity, because this representation of disabled people and Hirst’s lazy appropriation of it had infuriated him. Jason also writes about this for Piss on Pity’s zine-catalogue available on ISSU.
This sculpture by Hirst had such an impact on me, as I felt it did not have an ‘authentic voice’. It was made by an artist, who seemingly had no experience of life as a disabled person. Disabled people were not consulted about the piece. It was made, because he could make it.
Jason’s had turned his anger into something positive, his sculptures are joyous, colourful celebrations of disabled people’s lives. Now we were feeling angry not just at Hirst, but also frustrated at a missed opportunity. I wanted to turn this anger into something positive, thus the idea for Piss on Pity came about.
With two months to go before YSI ended, pulling an exhibition together to coincide with this festival, with no funding or venue, was going to be a challenge. But I knew that plenty of excellent artwork existed. Disabled artists have engaged with the subject of charity for decades, and continue to do so, with anger, wit and humour.
As well as Jason Wilsher-Mills, another artist in particular inspired this exhibition. Katherine Araniello, in a blue plastic dress and blonde papier mâché wig, is instantly recognisable in her imitation of the same Spastics Society collecting box that Hirst copied. Her film Pity, where she performs in this guise, was my first choice for Piss on Pity. I was also delighted to include The Crippled Gherkin, a film of a performance by Araniello and Simon Raven. The pair attempted to sell pickled gherkins in front of Charity when it appeared in the City of London: “Made by Damien Hirst on his farm with the little spastics!”
Katherine Araniello passed away earlier this year. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of her anarchic, irreverent, hilarious performances.
The Art House in Wakefield and the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) were brilliant supporters. The exhibition wouldn’t have happened without them. NDACA generously lent several items, including David Hevey’s iconic portrait of Adam Reynolds, ‘Andicapped Adam says Thank You, another artwork on my wishlist.
I wanted to hold the exhibition in Wakefield, rather than Leeds where I live, because Yorkshire Sculpture Park lies on Wakefield’s outskirts. Thanks to The Art House, this was possible. They secured the venue and helped install the exhibition. We opened on the night of the September Art Walk in Wakefield, at the tail end of YSI.
In the days since then I’ve been having conversations with passing shoppers. Many of the people who have come for a look round are disabled people. “I’m disabled myself” is a typical introduction. They have seen the notice on the window announcing that this is an exhibition by disabled artists. Or they have been drawn in by Vince Laws’ shrouds, from his series DWP Deaths Make Me Sick. Disabled people are connecting with the bold slogans: “Rights Not Charity”, “Justice Not Charity” and “Respect Not Charity”. They identify with the rest of the messages on these shrouds, which pay tribute to people who have died, some through suicide, as a result of being declared fit for work and having their benefits stopped, under the Department for Work and Pensions’ brutal assessments.
Several visitors have told me how close they’ve come to suicide themselves, in the wake of unjust and harsh assessments.
People are also engaging with the viewpoints on charity that the art conveys. The exhibition challenges the widespread idea that charity is wholly a force for good. I wasn’t sure how contentious this might be, but people definitely relate. They have railed against “pity porn” and the way that charities portray disabled people as pathetic victims. They have complained about public funding cuts that have forced them to seek support from local charities – who are often overwhelmed and unable to help. And they agree that the support that disabled people need should be a matter of “Rights Not Charity”.
These conversations couldn’t be further away from the rarefied art world that supports an artist like Hirst to make millions while offending and disrespecting disabled people. Any mention of Damien Hirst to visitors to Piss on Pity is generally met with a shrug of indifference. Because Hirst’s work is out of touch and irrelevant.
Piss on Pity features work by
- Katherine Araniello and Simon Raven
- Sasha Callaghan
- Eddy Hardy and Geof Armstrong
- David Hevey
- Tony Heaton
- Vince Laws
- Jason Wilsher-Mills.
‘Piss on Pity’ is open in the Ridings Centre, Wakefield, WF1 1DS 11am – 5pm daily until 5 October as part of Index Fringe Festival.