Art Basel: Miami 2007, Clinton Fein, and The Abu Ghraib Prison Tortures

15 Dec

Though I was looking forward to Art Basel 2007, I got more than I bargained for and it was awesome. Starting with the free Iggy and the Stooges performance right on South Beach, hundreds of people came out to enjoy a cool night, watching 57-year-old Mr. Pop crawl, jump, and scream as he has done since his punk stardom in the late ’60s. The reckless guitar riffs and the intense bass guitar sounds were as compelling as ever. 

After feeling quite satisfied for having seen Iggy, my overdose of art started on Thursday afternoon.  I rode with my friend Daniel on his green scooter and we went to see the Art Basel containers.  Some of the exhibits were fun and others were super-intense.  One fun and intense piece was Silent Sound, which consisted of 26 minutes of loud and beautiful classical music.  As you walked into an absolutely dark room full of speakers, the music was supposedly sending a subliminal message. Though Daniel and I never overtly got what the subliminal message was, I came out feeling HAPPINESS… maybe that was the message… Who knows? But it was fun. The artists involved in this piece will not disclose what the message is, so basically you will have to check it someday and tell me if you had the same feeling. For more on this piece click the link:

Anyway, the piece that really impacted me was located in the Bridge Art Fair at the Catalina Hotel, where all the hotel rooms became galleries.  As you would walk from hotel room to hotel room you looked at what each gallery had to offer. With in this labyrinth of art, The Toomey Tourell Gallery showed Clinton Fein‘s Torture Exhibition. With the exception of Colombia’s Fernando Botero, who released his controversial Abu Ghraib Series in early 2005, I had never heard of Clinton Fein, or that any other artists were also tackling the issue of torture that took place in 2003 at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.  As my friend Daniel and I casually saw two huge photographs of Abu Ghraib tortures in the hallway of the hotel, we continued to stroll in to the room where the gallery was showing Clinton Fein’s work.  As you walked into the room you saw four people talking, but it was as if they were not there because the most eye-catching piece of art was Fein’s “Rank and Defile 1.” 

Rank and Defile #1 by Clinton Fein

Right after I saw the photograph, I turned around to see the other pieces in the room, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the picture.  I turned back around to look again and realized that only two men were left in the room, both standing at each side of the photograph, and one of them was saying “hello!”  Then I think I said something like “it is and incredible piece!”  After I said this, the man to the right of the picture pointed to the other man and said, “Well… he is the artist!”  Needless to say I was excited, I mean how often do you go to a huge art event where you are able to meet the artist, and he is more than willing to talk to you?  Not very often. So I asked him a few questions. 

On his motivations… 

Fein explained that his motivation for doing this project was the way that torture as an issue was dismissed so quickly.  He believes that people quickly forgot the Abu Ghraib events because the images of torture leaked to the press were in low resolution and were sanitized.  For example, the images of genitals were blurred, you cannot see blood or dirt, and because the images were small it was difficult to see the details.  Another reason, why Fein believes people did not dwell on the images for too long, was because people are bombarded with media input 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Fein is right in this regard.  If people even concern themselves with the news, they get it from different types of media and issues are not debated in impartial news programs.  Mainstream media in the United States is constantly criticized for not questioning government policies and using self-censorship.  Most television news networks (were most people in the United States get their news) do not attempt to discuss issues  in an intelligent manner, where the issue is explored in depth and experts on all sides of the issue are called to actually debate.  Instead, talking heads bash each other to see who is going to have the last word.  The aim of popular news networks becomes either pleasing their target audience on the left or the right side of politics, or getting high ratings (or both).  Ratings are more important to news networks interested in turning profit, than informing the public.  The private lives and daily misbehavior of many of “young Hollywood’s” divas take over news television networks more so than in the past, where “the news” was “news,” and the lives of entertainers was left to the tabloids.  Sadly, issues like torture should be covered like the lives of “it girls.” Networks, like CNN or E!, produce mini-documentaries or call a number of experts ranging from lawyers, to psychologists, to “Hollywood insiders,” to share different points of view.

Material Used and What Clinton Fein learned… 

Clinton Fein told us that although his pictures were re-enactments of the torture at Abu Ghraib, he had a hard time with the project because the pictures he had to look at were so sanitized.  When he began to do the actual project he realized he had very little material to work with.  He was not able to see detail like dirt or blood on the detainees’ bodies.  When he started to work with his models, it was when he realized what really took place in Abu Ghraib.  During the re-enactment his models had a hard time getting into position because it was painful.  The closeness of the bodies as depicted in the photograph is uncomfortable especially when you consider that the detainees were most likely heterosexual men with traditional values.  Fein also mentioned that the different poses really indicated that whoever ordered the detainees to pose for the pictures had a pre-meditated vision of the positions that he or she wanted to photograph.  Fein’s work really touches upon the torturer’s ability to create a composition by the way the torturer organized the bodies.  The pictures that show most composition are “Rank and Defile 1 and 2,” and also pieces “#10” and “Trophy” (see Fein’s video and images below).  The piece “#10” truly displays the sexual abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib, and until this day (Dec 2007) many of these abuses have not been shown, in-depth, on mainstream American media (see video below by Australian Dateline for more info).  Fein is still amazed that many U.S. Congresspersons dismissed the original pictures of Abu Ghraib as “sexual pranks.”  (Which makes me think that maybe such congresspersons must engage in a lot of kinky sex!)  Such remarks belittle the fact that: 1.) These were NOT consensual sexual acts, and 2.) These were events that took place in a prison and under U.S. military supervision. 

Fein’s pieces show something UGLIER than torture, if that is even possible to conceive– the use of torture not for intelligence gathering, but for entertainment.  In essence, the torturers were entertaining themselves with the naked bodies of people they regarded as sub-human.  


When I asked Clinton Fein what kind of criticism he received, he told us that the biggest criticism received from people that saw his work was that he did not know what torture was, because they did not consider what happened at Abu Ghraib torture.  Clinton Fein is a South African born U.S. citizen.  He comes from South Africa, a country that lived through years of Apartheid.  This was a state policy of sustaining the racial oppression of blacks.  Apartheid resulted in the imprisonment of political activists, the use of torture, and the killing of anyone who opposed the regime.  Given his background, if anyone knows what torture is, it is Fein.  He is amazed by this criticism of his work.  He is also stunned by the fact that the use of torture is still debated by U.S. politicians, who represent a country that prides itself on being a democracy that protects individual freedoms.  Fein believes that torture is wrong.  He also believes that the current debate questioning whether “water-boarding” is torture, should not be an issue, because it is torture. 

Proponents of torture believe that this tool should be available to U.S. intelligence officers.  Governments and violent political groups primarily use torture to retrieve information from whoever their “enemy” may be.  However, torture has its limits because even if such organizations use torture on a person who really is their enemy (and not an innocent civilian), the efficiency of torture depends on: 1.)  The captive person’s knowledge, and 2.) The speed by which an “enemy” organization changes its strategies. Also, torturing a person does not mean that the information obtained is truthful.  

One of the reasons why the George W. Bush Administration and the U.S. Congress decided to go to war in spring of 2003 was to: 1.) Find weapons of mass destruction, and 2.) Finish what George Bush senior did not do– remove a dictator from power who, in their view, was a rogue because of the atrocities that he committed against his enemies and ethnic communities in Iraq.  Fein and other critics of the Iraq War believe that the U.S. government lost the moral ability to defend its reasoning for the war altogether precisely because of the use of torture at Abu Ghraib.  Such events collide with the administration’s supposed moral authority for going to war.  This same belief led Fernando Botero to do his Abu Ghraib Series.  Botero has confronted the violence that exists in Colombia through his artwork, and was astounded by the events at Abu Ghraib because the use of torture showed U.S. hypocrisy. When I mentioned Botero’s Series to Fein, he and the gallery rep were amazed that I knew about it.  According to them, even while touring with the Torture exhibition worldwide, not that many people knew about Botero’s work on Abu Ghraib.  It was interesting to find out that while in Berkeley, California for a showing of the Series at a library, Fein was able to meet Botero.  Essentially because supporters of the War on Iraq regard it as Anti-American, Botero’s work had not been shown in any U.S. museums until this past November when the Katzen Arts Center of American University “premiered” the Series in Washington D.C..

Fear of Typecasts?

Finally, my conversation with Clinton Fein ended with his future as an artist.  Was he afraid of being labeled or dismissed as a radical artist because of his political and controversial topic?  According to him, “it’s already too late (to be afraid)!”  People currently criticizing Fein believe that he is out to get the Bush Administration and dismiss him as an artist.  But Fein’s claim to fame was his ability to sue Janet Reno, President Clinton’s Attorney General because of the 1997 Communications Decency Act.  The Act tried to criminalize any “indecent computer communication intended to annoy another person.”  Fein believed that the piece of law was so ambiguous that he sued Reno and created, an Internet site that encouraged people to submit behavior or content that they considered annoying to them.  The whole exercise explored the absurdity of Reno’s law.  After a series of background checks, a gag order, and a prolonged legal confrontation, on August 2000 Clinton Fein won the case against Janet Reno for trying to limit freedom of expression on the Internet (  Through his activism, Fein proves that he is not picking on any one administration.  Instead, he is trying to make the United States a place that protects freedoms.  Opponents may regard Fein as anti-American, but they should be happy that Fein exists to protect their freedom to annoy him!

I finish off by sharing some Youtube videos with you on: Clinton Fein’s Exhibition, background information on Abu Ghraib, and Fernando Botero’s contribution in a video called a “Permanent Accusation.”

Clinton Fein’s Work



Images of Fein’s Work contrasted to the original leaked pictures of Abu Ghraib:

Australian Dateline: 

For more background information on the tortures at Abu Ghraib, the sexual abuse, and how the U.S. government has incessantly been fighting to prevent new images from being released to the media, see this Australian news source “Dateline.”


Botero’s  “A Permanent Accusation”

This Fernando Botero video called “A Permanent Accusation” describes his motivation behind his Abu Ghraib Series released in 2005.  As mentioned earlier, this work had not been shown in any U.S. museums, until November of 2007. 







One Response to “Art Basel: Miami 2007, Clinton Fein, and The Abu Ghraib Prison Tortures”


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    […] Posts Art Basel: Miami 2007, Clinton Fein, and The Abu Ghraib Prison Tortures The Colombian Trojan Horse Was Not A Horse But A Helicopter: Ingrid Betancourt’s rescue was "A […]

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