The warning signs were all there: the exhibit was entitled Supernova: Stars, Deaths And Disasters, and was guest-curated by none other than David Cronenburg, director of Crash and Dead Ringers. On August 4, unsuspecting visitors to the Andy Warhol exhibit received more for their $18 ticket than they'd bargained for.
They were confronted by an unscheduled version of an art happening incorporating all of Warhol's preferred signifiers: sex, blood, ego, masturbation, nude young men and a hint of artificial violence.
Enter the party crasher. Istvan Kantor has been simultaneously lauded and reviled for his provocative performance art since arriving in Canada from Hungary several decades ago.
His latest "action," Deadly Gift (Trans-fusion AGO), is part of his Blood Campaign series, which dates back to the late 70s.
Similar performances in galleries have involved splattering blood on walls, followed by reading from a manifesto, followed by arrest, jail and banishment from an ever-growing list of prestigious institutions including the MoMA, the National Gallery of Canada, the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum and now the Art Gallery of Ontario.
In spite of his notoriety, or as a result of it, Kantor was one of the recipients of the 2004 Governor General's Award for Visual and Media Arts.
The AGO had been maintaining an ongoing dialogue with Kantor. Perhaps it should have expected him.
*** Kantor and co-conspirators Alexander (Sasha) Braun and Richard K. arrive at noon. Braun and K. proceed to strip and create disturbances on either side of the room. They appear to be masturbating while emitting loud groaning sounds. With the AGO guards successfully distracted, Kantor disrobes in front of the Warhol painting Red Disaster, revealing a vial of blood, tubes and computer parts strapped to his penis. He later explains his crucifixion pose: "Usually I splash my blood on the white wall between two artworks in the form of an X, but in this case I was the bloody X myself in front of Warhol's Red Disaster.'
Ellen McIlroy, an AGO docent, is in the process of explaining Warhol's work to a visitor when chaos breaks out. Asked if this is part of the exhibit, she isn't sure what to reply. After all, it is an Andy Warhol event. Perhaps someone has neglected to inform the staff about it.
A woman screams in the corner. Gallery visitor Bozena Krajewskais is beside herself, fearing she's witnessing, she says later, an actual "sacrificial spectacle." Some AGO staff even suspect she's part of the performance until she's led out sobbing convulsively.
"It was such repulsive ugliness that I don't want to see anything more of Andy Warhol," she says later, declining the AGO's offer of a complimentary pass.
Most appear to enjoy the intrusion and are only irked when staff ask them to leave the exhibit while they summon police and clean the blood from floors. Some visitors from France are perplexed by what they view as an "overreaction" by AGO staff.
Interior designer Greg Windsor enjoys the event; when Kantor reads the list of "spirits" in whose name he's been told to do this, Windsor, a huge Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis fan, interjects loudly, "Jackie O!" Standing in the hallway as Kantor is whisked past in a clutch of eight police officers, he laments the world's post-9/11 response to anything unexpected.
Kantor's goal was to donate the vial of blood "that contains the spirit of Warhol and many other artists who inspired me to do this" to the AGO. The gallery, surprisingly, has accepted the offering, albeit gingerly, with uncertain plans as to where it will go.
Obviously in an awkward position, Matthew Teitelbaum, the gallery's director and CEO, says, "The AGO supports and will defend the rights of artists. And while this was the work of an artist, it impacted the rights of another artist - Andy Warhol - as well as the rights of our visitors. Kantor needs to take responsibility for those actions."
Nevertheless, the AGO has dropped all charges, leaving only the ban in place, and keeping avenues open for continuing dialogue with the renegade artist. As you exit the Warhol exhibit, there's a quote on the wall. "All my films are artificial, but then everything is sort of artificial. I don't know where the artificial stops."
Amen to that.