Saatchi's Gallery: disablism and ageism in the arts?

2008-10-21 by

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu - Old Persons' Home 2007 - photo by Wolfiewolf

I am interested in the portrayal of disability in the media and in the arts and the recent Saatchi Gallery’s exhibition of the New Chinese Art caught my attention as it was featured in many news websites and TV channels in the last few days.

Let me say firstly that I think it’s necessary to see disability as part of life and the human condition. I do not think it’s healthy to perpetuate an idea of ‘normality’ that excludes disability because no-one is immune from it. What is normal anyway? We are all different; we have different abilities and unique weaknesses and strengths.

Unfortunately our western culture tends to promote a medicalised view whereby disabled people are considered to be damaged, sick or even freaks of nature. Disability is feared as something that is as abnormal and not a part of who we really are as human beings.

This perspective is very much what’s behind the description of the controversial art ‘piece’ by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu as featured in the Saatchi’s Gallery website:

“Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are two of China ‘s most controversial artists, renown for working with extreme materials such as human fat tissue, live animals, and baby cadavers to deal with issues of perception, death, and the human condition. In Old Person’s Home Sun & Peng present a shocking scene of an even more grotesque kind. Hilariously wicked, their satirical models of decrepit OAPS look suspiciously familiar to world leaders, long crippled and impotent, left to battle it out in true geriatric style. Placed in electric wheelchairs, the withered, toothless, senile, and drooling, are set on a collision course for harmless ‘skirmish’ as they roll about the gallery at snail’s pace, crashing into each other at random in a grizzly parody of the U.N.dead.”.

Whilst I understand the satisfaction one viewer might experience in identifying self-glorified and hated world leaders being ‘reduced’ to old age, I do not agree with the use of such demeaning language towards people who are elderly or have disabilities. ‘Long crippled and impotent…withered, toothless, senile and drooling…decrepits roll out a snail’s pace…’.

Why use such language? Why imply it’s fun to watch old people (‘hilariously wicked’) wandering aimlessly in a room in their wheelchair whilst dribbling and wobbling?

Perhaps the artists intended a more serious message about how we will all get to the end of our life and that it is healthy to remember (especially world leaders) that we all have a finite life: we will all get old and our power will end. If this was the intention then Saatchi’s website publishers should keep in check the language they use. I’m sure the general public can make up their own minds about what the art represents without needing to frame it in demeaning and, frankly, abusive language.

Most of us will experience old age and disability unless, in the spirit of ‘My Generation,’ we all hope we to die before we get old. Are you looking forward to being laughed at and abused in what may be your most vulnerable years?

At the time of writing the Saatchi Gallery’s website reports that on its home page hits for the last 24 hours are: 71,461,973. That’s quite some influence – shame it had to be so negative.

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