I have a very vivid memory of visiting the Tate in London when I was much younger. Whilst trying to evade my parents, I inadvertently stumbled into an empty, dark room manned only with a projector; something I found both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. As I scanned the darkened corners for any hidden surprises, the projector jerked into life, and a video began to play out on the wall in front of me. So far, so Tate.
The wall was huge, so I was confronted with a man, blown up to at least 7 times the size of any men I knew. The image quality was grainy, there was no sound, and it was filmed in shaky black and white, but a few things became clear very quickly...
Firstly, the man was stark naked. Secondly, he was gagged and bound by strings of raw sausages. And as if none of that were horrifying enough, he was jumping up and down repeatedly, his monstrous gentleman parts flapping with flagrant disregard for my young eyes. I stood transfixed until the reel ended, before speed walking out of the room with burning cheeks.
Aside from the confusion caused by witnessing a 2ft tall penis (when I remembered Ken’s being rather less scary), I felt utterly nauseous and shaken, and to this day going into the darkened Tate video rooms makes me feel unsettled. For me, this memory signifies the overwhelming power of art. Not always to look pretty, but to confront, to disgust, to provoke.
So how can artists harness this power to not only make social statements, but to use their work as an agent for change in their communities?
In 2016, artist Maxwell Rushton placed his sculpture Left Out in various locations across Central London, and filmed the general public’s reaction to it. The sculpture features what looks like a human figure, sitting cross-legged, inside a large, black rubbish bag. The footage shows a huge range of reactions, some crossing the road to avoid the figure, others stopping in their tracks to reach out an arm, or to crouch down next to it.
Ironically, in removing the human face of homelessness, Rushton seems to create a scenario that appeals more to the general public. He explains that's because the figure "doesn’t illustrate culture or creed. It’s about humanity". Does the commonplace sight of a homeless person make us behave inhumanely, eyes glued to phone-screens; not offering even a smile or look of acknowledgement?
That’s what is most shocking about Left Out: a plastic bag seemingly arouses more empathy than a human being. The art is not the sculpture itself, but rather the public reaction. It jolts, disturbs and reinvigorates us to behave humanely towards the homeless.
Whether it's sausages or bin-bags, art has an awakening force. It forces us to engage with aspects of society we wish to ignore, provokes deep thought, and occasionally teaches children a very thorough lesson about the human anatomy.