2018 Viola Award Finalist for Excellence in the Visual Arts
Shawn Skabelund’s performance art/installation piece “You eat horse through my carrots” which was part of the Breaking the Barrier exhibition at the Coconino Center for the Arts in 2017, is a provocative look at ecological cycles and the interconnection between life/death, growth/decay. The performance featured the artist buried in pile of horse manure beneath a wall on which a horse skull and work clothes were hung while the audience ate from a bowl of carrots that were grown in the artist’s garden.
Part of the innovative nature of this performance piece is its utilization of gustatory, olfactory, as well as visual sense modalities. This sensory cross-modal integration of the experience of the piece functions to impress the meaning of the work on the audience. As one tastes the sweetness of the carrot, the co-mingling faint whiff of the manure creates, in real time, an experience of the normally temporally extended episode of the agricultural cycle. As such, the work is not only a meditation on time but also on the relationship between life and death, growth and decay. The artist is buried underneath horse manure (an image which invokes funerary or burial practices), the remnant of living horses that, we might presume, were feed carrots in advance of making the manure that covered the artist. The audience in turn, symbolically eats horse through the consumption of the carrots whose growth was enabled by the very manure that buries the artist.
From the nomination letter:
“You eat horse through my carrots” is innovative, especially for Flagstaff, because it represents a risk on the part of the artist who puts himself at the mercy of the audience to either understanding or fail to understand the meaning of the work. Further, the audience also determines how to interact with the piece and as such partially constitute the work itself. This was evident during the performance in which more than a few audience members (participants), in lieu of eating the carrots, placed them between the artist’s toes or embedded them in the pile of manure.
Whether or not the artist intended these outcomes, by working in the context of an interactive performance Skabelund submits himself and his art to the vagaries of the Flagstaff art public and accepts the risk that the subtle beauty of the artist’s meditations on time, life, death and the cyclical nature of existence may be all but lost. “You eat horse through my carrots” is also an innovative work because it further functions as a comment on the nature of art itself. After the performance, all that is left behind in the gallery are the remaining material elements of the work: a pile of dirt, an empty bowl (of carrots). Without the animating presence of the artist and audience however, this “after-image” of the work fails to capture the full aesthetic experience of the work. This raises interesting questions about the nature of art in general and performance art in particular. Is the art only present when the artist is present? What is role of the audience is creating a piece of performance art? What is the relationship between performance and installation or sculpture? That these deep and difficult theoretical questions are raised by Skabelund’s work speaks to the depth of his art practice and its importance to the Flagstaff community.
In sum, “You eat horse through my carrots” is worthy of recognition because it represents a daring expansion of the usual modes of art practice found around Flagstaff. If the Flagstaff arts community is to be supportive and receptive of cutting edge artistic practice, then the local artists who push boundaries, and expand the art consciousness of the local community, need to be recognized and applauded. In my estimation, the nomination of “You eat hose through my carrots” will be a significant step toward these goals.