Removed artwork divides artists after online criticism

‘Destroy My Face’ – Photo by Erik Kessels

The removal of the most recent art installation by Erik Kessels, titled “Destroy My Face”, following mass online criticism, has caused a new wave of discussion within the Dutch art community.

“Destroy My Face” is an art installation that shows the faces of 60 female presenting individuals created by an algorithm, with the appearances of extremely botched plastic surgeries. The massive 4 by 4 meter photos were displayed all over the floors of popular skatepark Pier15 in Breda, the Netherlands, as part of the BredaPhoto Festival. Skateboarders could be seen riding their boards over the images, slowly scratching away the surface of the faces. This installation was meant to spark a discussion about “the limits of the malleability of the human face and body”, according to Kessels.

However, criticism towards the artwork by Kessels was voiced by the initiative “We Are Not A Playground”, stating that the artwork incited violence against women. Responses ranged from widespread support for the initiative to criticism for promoting ‘cancel culture’ – a phenomenon that refers to people withdrawing support from public figures and companies after they have done something offensive.

“It was incredibly difficult to make the decision to talk against him”, a representative from “We Are Not A Playground” said, who expressed the desire to remain anonymous. Erik Kessels is a respected name in the photography world, and the decision to start the petition against “Destroy My Face” was not taken lightly.

After the petition received almost 3000 responses, Skatepark Pier15 decided to remove the artwork. They apologized in a statement published on their Instagram page, saying they understand the criticism and take full responsibility.

Many people expressed support for the petition, including other artists. “People are outraged at a subjective work, which they are allowed to, as the artist decided to present his work to the public”, says the Hague based artist Joris van den Einden.

However, other artists have also voiced concern about the promotion of so-called ‘cancel culture’. Michiel van der Zanden, a Breda based artist, who is also closely affiliated to skatepark Pier15, calls the removal a “cancel culture victory”. He also criticizes the fact that Kessels and BredaPhoto did not take enough accountability for the criticism themselves, landing most of the blame on Skatepark Pier15, who only had a facilitating role.

The “We Are Not A Playground” representative mentions that it was in no way the intention to call for a boycott or cancellation of the people or institutions involved, but merely a sincere call to them to reflect on what they’ve done and correct their mistakes. “Sadly judging by their response, it seems we are asking for the impossible, but we’re still here, and we’re still hopeful.”

Author: Emma de Ruiter

Emma is Dutch/Portuguese, 21 years old, and currently a Journalism student at the University of Groningen. She has previously obtained her Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences at Leiden University College in The Hague.

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