For most Americans, pink and fleshy chicken breasts come hygienically packaged from the nearest fluorescent-lit grocery store. Most people have no idea how they get there, so artist Amber Hansen wanted to show them: Her plan for an art installation involved raising five chickens with the help of volunteers, and then enlisting a farmer to humanely slaughter them, before serving them at a potluck dinner.
Except for the public display, it’s not a far cry from what happens at farms across the country, and it seems like a far better short life for a chicken that once lived on a factory farm, where cruelty is more common (see the documentary Food Inc.). Nevertheless, Hansen’s project was banned by Lawrence, Kan. city officials for animal cruelty. The Associated Press reports that Hansen plans to abide by the city ordinance.
Hansen’s project, “The Story of Chickens: A Revolution,” was designed to call attention to the fact that many Americans don’t understand the origin of their food. She invited volunteers to care for the birds, building a relationship with them — just as families in the olden days would. At the end of the exhibition, they’re meant to be eaten.
“The public will be invited, and encouraged to witness this phase of the life cycle that is often hidden from our perception. Such slaughter takes place on a mass scale every day, but each generation becomes further removed from this reality,” wrote Hansen in her artist’s statement.
Hansen’s art, and the city’s reaction to it, raises the question: Is chicken slaughter still animal cruelty when it’s not defined as art — when it’s done on a farm or in a factory instead? Animal activist groups, of course, allege that this is the case. The ban on Hansen’s project has elevated the profile of these issues, and of the artist.
Hansen isn’t the first artist to touch upon issues of animal cruelty in her art. Artist Navin Thomas was recently accused of torturing pigeons by placing them in a room booming with the sound of radio chatter, with a giant antennae as a perch. Artist Tom Otterness was recently denied the installation of a $750,000 work by the city of San Francisco after it was discovered that he shot a dog on film in 1977. And famously, artist Guillermo Vargas exhibited a starving dog in a Nicaragua gallery in 2007.