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Landmine victims as artistic disturbance
by Per Solvang, Professor of Sociology, Oslo University College
Bergens Tidende (“Bergen Times”) daily, 25.06.07

Morten Traavik is such a calculated troublemaker that I pick up my pen with a certain weariness. But Asserson and Sangolt’s attack on Traavik’s exhibition at the Leprosy Museum deserves a reply.

IN THE EYES of these women academics, Miss Landmine is suspect social pornography and a contribution to inner disfigurement. I think they are mistaken.

Firstly, I’d like to underline that Miss Landmine as art is relational aestethics, where the point is to generate social processes. “Don’ ask if it’s art , but what art can do”, is the creed of one of the pioneers, Joep van Lieshout. Traavik’s project kick-starts exciting processes concerning both disabilities, evaluation and bilateral aid.

THE WOMEN OF Miss Landmine have lost a leg after having stepped on a landmine in a war-stricken country. When Traavik stages his beauty pageant Asserson and Sangolt interprets it as a”cattle market” for the weakest, and, according to Traavik, Western aid organisations have turned down the project as a freak show. This last term points towards a funfair-related enterprise where people with physical anomalies exhibit themselves for money. This phenomenon has long been considered a stain on history, but in later years it has been rehabilitated by culture scholars.

People performing as freaks made the best out of their situation, developed a strong collective ethos and a professionality as entertainers, and many became stars and prospered financially. Even modern-day artists linked with disabled peoples’ rebel movements see freaks as pioneers and sources of inspiration. Thus, it is not always a simple matter for others to define who are the “weakest”, probably neither regarding disabled African women.

A BEAUTY PAGEANT in genre-conscious bathing suits sets the scene for the lustful masculine heterosexual gaze, which is disturbed by the visible amputations. For some, this isn’t a disturbance but a sexual preference, almost a fetish, a theme many will recognise from TV documentaries on TV Norge [Norwegian TV channel – ed.]

There are a few studies that have asked amputee women about how they perceive this kind of attention from men craving them and their amputations. The answer is ambiguous. Some find it insulting, others exciting. Among the latter, it is a strength to be desired for what they so far have perceived as an obstacle for a love relationship, even though the specific desire in itself does not make a foundation for romance. There are reasons to ask whether this ambiguity is aplays a role even for the women of Miss Landmine, and whether those who participate are those who feel the strongest about such possibilities.

I MYSELF was challenged in a similar way, when I participated in a radio debate discussing the grant Traavik had received from Arts Council Norway. The studio host asked me what I would have said if Traavik had invited me to participate in a Mr. Hairless pageant, referring to my own personal physical deviance. A bit perplexed, I could feel the ambiguity. It certainly felt uncomfortable that my own syndrome could be the subject of a pageant, but at the same time the though of being staged in that arena was exciting.

LASTLY, IN THEIR CRITICISM of Traavik, Sangolt and Asserson finds it particularly revolting that the exhibition is being shown in the Leprosy Museum, on the grounds that disease and blameless war victims don’t belong together. An alternative interpretation is that the Leprosy Museum is also a monument to Armauer Hansen, a man who was convicted for having injected a woman with leprosy germs in a medical experiment.

Despite the indisputable merits of the Miss Landmine project, there is reason to ask whther there are similarities between Traavik’s penchant for provocation and Armauer Hansen’s love of experiment. With this comparison, I too would like to call for ethical caution in the realisation of a project which I, as opposed to the women academics Asserson and Sangolt, find to posess considerable qualities.

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