Puppies Puppies, Art Basel Parcours Exhibition, 16-19 June 2022, Basel, Switzerland
by Ardennes Ornati
Everything seemed quite ordinary on that typical June morning in Basel's Old Town. As the sun rose and the summer heat peaked, the web of people coming and going intertwined among the sounds and scents of the city. It might have been precisely the ordinary, day-to-day routine that made it hard to spot something quite outlandish displayed atop a typical local house, on the facade overlooking Barfüsserplatz. A large screen featuring green pixelated text, which normally announced general information and dull advertisements, was now disrupted by an eloquent and recurring message: “Art Basel: in the Freien Street there is now a woman with a penis” (1).
Puppies Puppies's latest work is a sculpture of herself that will figure in an Art Basel performance.
PHOTO: VINCENT BLEBOIS/COURTESY BALICE HERTLING, BARBARA WEISS, FRANCESCA PIA, HANNAH HOFFMANN.
Despite the controversial and sarcastic nature of such a statement, in the middle of Freien Street, an actual human-size statue of a woman was visible. The piece, situated right in front of a small, crowded construction site between two roads, stood tall on its feet, at about 1 meter and 60 centimeters. Her face, with a relaxed expression and accentuated cheekbones, was framed in long, wavy hair which fell further down her broad shoulders. Her arms hung at the sides of her slender muscular body just past waist height. There –in contrast to long tapered fingers highlighted by slightly pointed nails– her naked sexual male organ was exposed. On each side of the statue’s pedestal, engraved letters spelling “WOMAN” could be read.
The artwork is known to be the first nude trans-woman statue ever exhibited publicly (2). The artist, Jade Kuriki Olivo, also known as Puppies Puppies, is a Latinx transgender American woman whose work primarily revolves around conceptual sculpture, ready-made, and performance. The statue was included in a series of twenty-one works curated by Samuel Leuenberger, part of the Art Basel Parcours Exhibition “How to Grow in Times of Change” (3).
Artists belonging to marginalized, repressed, and underrepresented communities are often expected to deliver a specific nature of creative content, one where the personal and professional spheres bleed into each other, willingly or not. With the rise of socio-political disparity, the commercial art world intentionally sustains implicit-based expectations to conceal the inequality of such a market. De facto, Puppies Puppies’ artistic development clearly exposes this pattern, as her work generally tackles crucial intimacy-related topics. Art is the medium of expression of her life and that of those like her.
Puppies Puppies’ bronze sculpture was a 3D scan of her own body, whose uncontrived stance did not impose itself on the observer. Perhaps it was precisely this explicit but modest, naked presence that transitory pedestrians’ eyes could not ignore. Interestingly enough, passersby would pause a few moments to scrutinize the work. In her harmless bare simplicity, the greenish bronze figure wasn’t merely embodying a simple sculptural representation. As the work’s title suggested, the observer was confronted with the tangible materialization of a growing need for change and urgent demand for acknowledgment, all the while disrupting the conventional framework of human definition in the most conspicuous yet subtle way.
The purpose of commemorative statues and monuments crafted in long-lasting materials such as marble and bronze is an attempt to preserve the tangible socio-political qualities of a certain ideal and to embody the message of those in power. This leads to such artworks “controlling the future more than the past they commemorate,” as Peter Brock aptly said (4). By standing naked and unapologetic, Puppies Puppies does just the opposite: she seeks to dismantle the power structure propagated by traditional sculptures.
Furthermore, as observers, we are prompted to question whom society deems worthy of monuments and what they actually depict. This makes me think about the curator’s statement – privately shared with ArtBasel Parcour guides – which reminds us of our “ongoing failure to listen and be more assertive” (5) as the plethora of human-induced disasters and social discrimination rises in public consciousness – through images, documentation, and of course, representation. This evidence, this proof of turbulence, is inevitably selected and curated, as Susan Sontag argues in her book “Regarding the Pain of Others” (6). Many of us are “lucky” to perceive this filtered view of other people's agony from a distance, thus weakening its empathetic influence and numbing our concern.
Puppies Puppies’ decision to display herself naked on a pedestal attempts to challenge this gap between viewer and victim, the latter being, in the present case, the marginalized LTGBQ+ community. Through the use of the semiotic relationship between the word “WOMAN” and sculptural representation, the artist clearly aimed for reaction, not permission.
However, I cannot stop asking myself to what extent the use of nudity for demanding change was actually effective. What would have altered in the work’s perception if the artist had decided to wear just a simple piece of garment or ornament? I believe her work best succeeds in fulfilling its purpose by virtue of this artistic decision, mainly for two reasons.
Firstly, it is crucial to remember that the sculpture isn’t the product of the artist’s technical and creative expertise, but rather that of a state-of-the-art computational algorithm. This mathematical fact –underscored by the lack of garment and ornament– ensures that the artist’s bronze body is nothing more than a perfect artificial twin copy where no subjective intervention has taken place. Puppies Puppies’ creative process lies in its conceptualization, not its making. Thus, observers could “comprehend” her statue, I’d say, “rationally”. This state of affairs lasted until June 18th, Art Basel’s last night, when the artist (covered by just a trans flag walked out of Scala Basel after a two-hour-and-a-half performance in which she reinterpreted Ana Mendieta’s visceral “Untitled (Rape Scene)” followed by an experimental lecture), applied makeup on her sculpted face, then kissed her bronze lips as a reminder of love and compassion towards her own self. Concealed by makeup, the sculpture acquired a new facial expression, suddenly adding a layer of subjective interpretation to the artwork which it had lacked up to that moment.
Secondly, anyone can relate to bare skin. I am not speaking about the correlation between flesh and identity, but merely about physical anatomy. Hence, the naked human body speaks no boundaries of understanding and functions as a universal image.
Ultimately, the simple, bold choice of giving her body up to the public, conveys a forthright political message strengthened by the vulnerability of exposed skin: this is reality. Nothing is to be proven nor to be verified. The immortalization of Puppies Puppies’ body, together with the concomitant definition “WOMAN,” does not ask for any kind of clarification, but demands recognition instead. Comparable to an undisputed axiom, hers is a statement without a comma. The statue embodies a truth located midway between the only two poles of existence we have been taught to recognize: man and woman, one complementary to the other, where physicalness is the sole framework for self-identification. This dualistic perspective is clearly seen in the controversial announcement I mentioned early on, where the author describes a woman, whose stereotypically associated features cannot include the possibility of the male sexual organ and therefore must be specified as an extraordinary addition, as an abnormality whose presence fuels a sentiment of uneasy curiosity and, to say the least, fearful wonder.
Notwithstanding the heated discussions– be they consensual or conflicting– that took place at the foot of the statue (at times involving me as well), she remained standing. And that firmness somehow shook common understanding, exposing repressed communities that have existed all along. Jade Kuriki Olivo dismantles the limiting dualist framework and shows us an unconditional authenticity of what it means to be human. For a trans woman is simply that: a woman.
Puppies Puppies aka Jade Kuriki Olivo seeing the statue (her 3D-scanned-bronze-self) in public for the first time. PHOTO: ARDENNES ORNATI.
Schilling, M. (June 14, 2022). In Der Freien Strasse Steht Jetzt Eine Frau Mit Penis. Prime News. https://bit.ly/3wCqZb9 . Accessed August 29, 2022.
Marcus, D. (June 15, 2022) The Artist behind the First Known Public Sculpture of a Nude Trans Body. i-D.Vice. https://bit.ly/3Q3kp4n . Accessed August 29, 2022.
Art Basel (nd). A sculpture for Trans Women A sculpture for the Non-Binary Femmes A sculpture for Two-Spirit People • I am a woman. I don’t care what you think*. OVR: Basel*. https://bit.ly/3CL4YL0 . Accessed August 29, 2022. https://bit.ly/3CL4YL0.
Brock, P. Montrose and Manhattan Avenues: May 1st – Present. Introduction of 2020 Prize Winners. IAAC. https://bit.ly/3e8s8Ro. Accessed August 29, 2022.
Leuenberger, S. (2022). Curator’s Statement: How to Grow in Times of Change. Art Basel Parcours. Private document.
Sontag, S. (2004). Regarding the Pain of Others. Harlow, England: Penguin Books.
About Ardennes Ornati
Ardennes Ornati is studying at the University of the Arts and Design in Zurich and is currently on exchange at HFBK in Hamburg. She is a member of Young Visions, a non-profit collective for artists. Eager to show that the art world can be a place of innovation, Ardennes is on a mission to show how creative processes are crucial to disrupting conventions and challenging the status quo for a better future.