An image of Russian socialite, art promoter, and editor of Garage magazine Dasha Zhukova sitting in a chair designed by Bjarne Melgaard is pissing a lot of people off today. That's because the chair is one of Melgaard's forniphilia (human furniture), made of a black woman bound like S&M-themed interior decor.
The photo was originally published yesterday on Buro 24/7 and has since been attacked as racist. After receiving a ton of bad press, the Russian publication cropped the image so we can only see heeled boots poking out from under Zhukova.
But does the original photo warrant such backlash?
Jonathan Jones, The Guardian's art critic, says no. He points out that Melgaard's art is supposed to antagonize—it thrives on offending and shocking its viewers. As Andrew Russeth writes in a review of Melgaard's recent show at Venus Over Manhattan, where the chair first went on view, "An unrepentant provocateur, Mr. Melgaard is, as usual, courting offense."
Jones and Russeth also recognize that the "racist chair" is embedded in art history, a parody of Allen Jones' similar work featuring a white woman. Russeth writes, "He surely knows this is the stuff of art-world parody—a white artist replacing another white artist’s white figures with black ones—and yet it is also in keeping with his overall project, sexual domination by a black man having been a theme in previous Melgaard productions."
Allen Jones, Chair, 1969
Within this context, Melgaard may actually be asserting the black woman in place of the white woman in art history, even if he's not raising her beyond Allen Jones' subjugated level. "This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics," Zhukova stated. "I utterly abhor racism, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by this image."
The problem may not be the chair itself, but the fact that Zhukova, a privileged white woman, is sitting on a completely powerless black woman. As a stand-alone work of art, the chair becomes a satire on art history. As a piece of furniture, it means something entirely different—something much more offensive. Whoever decided to plop Zhukova on Melgaard's chair should be fired.
Melgaard had not responded to requests for comment. Based on his reputation, he's probably sitting back and enjoying the scandal.
UPDATE JAN. 22 10:05 AM ET: Miroslava Duma, the founder of Bruno 24/7 where the original image was published issued an apology. As if this total PR disaster couldn't get any worse, Duma got the name of the artist wrong.
UPDATE JAN. 22 2:51 PM ET: Bjarne Melgaard and his dealer Gavin Brown released the following statement to ARTINFO today:
These Bjarne Melgaard’s sculptures, based on the Allen Jones originals, exist to destabilize and unhinge our hardened and crusty notions of race and sex and power. These sculptures, made by a self professed ‘homosexual’, expose the latent and residual self hatred in a culture where the inhuman and overpowering presence of violence and catastrophe is imminent. Our tragedy is so evident in our daily experience that Melgaard has nothing left to portray but society in its utter decay. We see this photograph to be extraordinary. We see this debate to be a distraction from the true challenges that face us. We applaud both the sitter and the seated. To fault the sitter, now in the age of the Anthropocene, in the midst of enormous and REAL obscenities that threaten our actual existence, reflects a civilization that is not dying but already dead. Turn your outrage upside down.