The Tenth Plague
An Art Performance about Greed, Life and Death
The initiator of this performance is Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot. On earlier occasions he has set up big art happenings, such as My Inner Beast in '93, The Silent Death during the UN's social summit in Copenhagen, '95 and the Messenger, a 5 metres high sculpture set up in various cities during the Jubilee 2000 campaign. For the time being his chief project is a world wide art manifestation titled The Pillar of Shame. Within a decade, 10 sculptures, 8 metres in height will be set up to mark severe infringements against the human rights. The first three sculptures have been mounted in Hong Kong (1997), Mexico (1999) and Brazil (2000). The aim is to highlight the ethical basis of our civilization to ensure the survival of the Planet. This is also the aim of this performance that will pinpoint the greed of the big pharmaceutical companies who are filing a lawsuit in defence of their patent rights, with the consequence that millions of people in the poor countries will die of lack of medicine.
The background for carrying out this happening is the lawsuit that 39 medical companies have filed against South Africa for not observing the patent legislation. This case contains a huge wealth of principal aspects, which in its core contains the entire discussion about globalisation, power and unbalance and about the common ethical foundation of our Planet.
Therefore I have chosen this issue as a starting point in this case to fan the global discussion about how our basis of values has developed and the paradigm shift, which I feel is the final condition for not tearing the world (the humans) apart because of global unbalance, both economically, ecologically and socially.
Especially when the discussion is about medicine, the issue of the patent legislation is crucial for the consideration about basic ethical values. - Have you got the right to decide over other people’s lives, just because you have got money and the formal rights to the medicine? - This is the essence of the paradigm shift discussion, a material view of life contra a moral, ethical one.
The reason why the discussion about the patent legislation has become so heated right now is the increasing globalisation and therefore it is now possible to establish some global rules, which the world will follow to a large extend. Enforcement of the rules and possible sanctions are considered within the framework of the WTO.
I have chosen to make a connection to the religious narrative, not because I’m religious myself. But regardless of my personal faith, these stories constitute to a high degree the core of western identity. They encompass the very discussion of the basis of life: material or ethical? – Essentially this is a crucial question of all religions: what is a decent human? – That’s the reason of the biblical associations of this art manifestation, The 10th Plague.
In support of the Israelites’ prayers for release from slavery and to leave Egypt, God, acting through Moses, called down ten plagues upon Egypt. The last of the plagues is that an angel of death sent by God, haunting the entire nation, will claim every first-born man or animal.
To protect the Israelites from the angel of death, God orders them to slaughter a lamb and wipe some of the blood from it on their doors. Where blood is stained on the door the angel of death will not enter and so their firstborn will be saved from death (from Genesis in the Bible).
In order to remember this event, God imposed the Israelites to reiterate this ritual once a year. This is a central part in the tradition behind the celebration of Jewish Easter – Passover.
In Christianity the symbolism has been transformed into the sacrifice of Christ. The sacrificial lamb is the symbol of Jesus Christ being lead to the cross where he is giving his life and blood to assume the sins of mankind. So it is stated that love must be able to endure anything in order to subsist. This is the theological symbolism behind the Christian sacrifices of lambs at Easter.
These two stories, their rituals and exegesis are central pillars in the cultural inheritance of the western world. The mind of each of us is imbued with these mental images. These symbols were enforced by the major commercial investment of Disney in the animated movie ‘Moses’.
Ten canvases are made in the same shape as a door, 70 x 200 cm. Each canvas is extended on a frame, rough and broad, covered by gold foil. On these ‘doors’ genuine American one-dollar bills are fixed, side-by-side, covering the whole of the surface. On some doors a part of the bills will have the side with ‘ONE’ written on it facing outwards, shaping the text In God we trust – which is also written above ‘ONE’ on the bill. The other part of the bills will have the side with Washington’s portrait facing outwards framing the text and covering the rest of the ‘door’. In other doors it will be vice versa – and again other doors will have a cross inscribed following the same pattern. The text and the cross will be visible from a distance of approximately 5 metres.
Some of the assisting participants will tap some of their own blood into a small jar. The names of the pharmaceutical companies residing in the country will be written across the dollar bills with the blood. It will be written in a casual way in order to make the blood drip down the canvas.
The performance will start in Denmark on Good Friday at Easter 2001, so that a connection to the biblical narrative is established. Successively the 10 canvasses will be sent to South Africa where they will be used for a manifestation on the occasion of the opening of the lawsuit on 18 April. Then they will be passed to the next country, where the ritual is repeated. In each country new names of companies will be added, until eventually the names of all 39 companies will be written with blood on the canvasses.
The performance has associations to the manifold of symbols from the western civilisation’s common myths and religious ideas. These still living myths and rituals will be the resonator on which the performance will play and also function as an accelerator for the publicity. The symbolism will be manifold and vary depending on who is looking at it. Here are some suggestions. As it will appear there are many conflicting interpretations, but that is the very essence of art – ambiguity.
For the impact of the performance comprehensive media coverage is essential. Press releases will be sent out from Galschiot’s workshop and by the participating local NGOs. In addition, information will be available on Internet. There you can already find some photos on the event.
It is important that the happening in the different countries relate as close as possible to the local rituals and discussions. An obvious date to carry out the happening in Europe (the Christians) would be Good Friday, the day of the Crucifixion. In Israel on the other hand, a suitable day could be the Jewish celebration of the 10th plague according to the Old Testament.
There are several ways to make a local angle to the happening. You can also in some places make an ecclesiastical connection, e.g. on St. Peters Square in Rome. Suitable sites could also be places loaded with strong symbolism, e.g. Wall Street in New York, a bank, a company’s main office or the WTO. Art museums and galleries could also be used. The only limit is imagination.
The choice of local cooperators will also vary. In some places NGOs on environment or globalization could participate, in other places progressive ministers of religion could make the ritual. The multiplicity and diversity are of paramount importance for underlining the universal character, encompassing all people regardless of political, racial or social observance.
After the tables/paintings are made, they will be gathered and make a part of an exhibition where the creation of each picture is described. The exhibition itself is not essential. It is just a contribution to the propagation of the project, so that it becomes a myth and a part of art history. So it will take centre stage in the important discussion about the paradigm shift in international relations.
The crucial point of this sort of manifestations is always the repercussion in the real world and in the press, the reactions of the public, etc. As soon as the work of art has been put on the wall of an art collector or a museum, a part of its force has evaporated. It has been institutionalised and reduced to an academic discussion focussing on the artistic expression – removed from the crude real world. But even at this stage, the impact and the life of The 10th Plague will remain – it will be a part of the mythical narrative emerged in the year 2001. In this very context art history will conserve the memory of events.
Jens Galschiot makes this statement on the nature of his activities:
The starting point of my work with sculptures and happenings is my personal situation as a citizen of Denmark, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I pose the question why and how our ethical and moral self-understanding is connected to global and local reality. I leave it to the spectators to work out the answers for themselves. I create surreal pictures of reality, i.e. symbolically posed questions. It is my aim to show the grotesqueness and absurdity of what we usually call reality.
A happening has a language of its own, consisting of simple non-verbal symbols, and so is able to focus on complicated problems on different levels at the same time. The happening, as an art-form, is often provocative, but it is also an accepted form, especially in the cultural context of the west. It may, however, go beyond the limits of what is allowed.
In contrast to many other artists, my messages are not breaking or violating boundaries as understood in the traditional artistic sense; in fact they are in a sense 'conserving', aiming at the defence of the ethical foundations of our civilization. They question what the consequences will be for our culture will be when we suffer a decline in moral character and ethical behaviour. For example when racism increases, or when we allow a global imbalance, with thirteen million children dying every year. Simultaneously I claim that if we want to maintain our ethical values, this implies some consequences for our attitude to the rest of the world and for our willingness to share the world's resources with other cultures and populations on the Planet.
By means of my sculptures I'm making installations that cut out small pieces of Reality - transform them into a symbolic language and replace them in the public space, so that the absurdity of Reality will be evident.
My happenings function as gigantic theatrical productions. They take place not in the traditional theatre but in the open in the real world. My sculptures set the scene. Suddenly they turn up in the street and the play starts. Politicians, the media and the public are brought in as actors. Those involved adopt their new role with ease as the symbolism of the happenings is open for interpretation. They cannot avoid taking part no matter what they do. They contribute to the dynamics of the happening by constantly creating new symbols.