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Shock Art (ATOM Study Guide)

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Can art really shock us? How far will artists go to get a reaction? Can offending, disgusting or grossing people out actually be seen as 'art'? Art historian Dr Christina Chau sets out around Australia to experience works that are confronting, challenging and enraging audiences. From helping to make a sculpture using human faeces to sharing a bath full of organic soup matter, Dr Chau is tested to her limits by Australian artists working in extreme mediums. Can these challenging art experiences ultimately shine a light on our own preconceptions, highlighting taboos we struggle with as a nation? Could shocking art even have the power to change the world? Or are artists simply going too far in their quest to take us deep into uncomfortable territory?

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world when he placed a urinal on exhibit. Deemed offensive and indecent, the artwork was exhibited behind a screen to lessen the impact on unsuspecting viewers. Australians today are more likely to be nonplussed than incensed if they encountered a urinal in an art gallery. But in 2013 when Melbourne performance artist Casey Jenkins knitted over 28 days with wool that had been inserted into her vagina, the result was a massive outpouring of repulsion and confusion by the public, and they weren't afraid to express themselves on social media.

Was it art? Why did Australians react with such disgust, and what does that say about us? As our society becomes more permissive, our shock artists clearly need to up the ante to grab our attention. But do we need to be shocked? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?

Art Historian Dr Christina Chau takes us on a journey to explore what art is shocking us today. Why some artists seek to take us deep into extremely uncomfortable territory – and whether it can sometimes go too far. Powerful art can affect us and leave a lasting impression long after we've finished viewing the piece. But should it make us uncomfortable? Is it okay for it to be offensive, controversial – even dangerous?

Curriculum Links:

Shock Art is a series exploring art work that has been labelled shocking and/or controversial.

The series is most suitable for students undertaking Art studies in a University or TAFE setting. The series could have applications for Senior Secondary school students in Years 11–12; however, teachers should be aware that the series contains explicit content including; nudity and adult language and themes.

It is strongly advised that teachers view the series before showing it to students. Secondary teachers should adhere to the time codes recommended in the guide and should be aware that episodes 2,3 or 4 are not recommended for viewing in a school setting.

Learning areas:

  • Media Year 11–12
  • Art/Studio Arts Years 11–12
  • English 11–12

Learning outcomes and content descriptors have not yet been developed for Arts subjects in the Australian curriculum; however, the ideas explored in the series could be linked to the key knowledge and skills in senior Art and Media studies throughout Australia. The film could be used by students to reflect on their process and practice as they devise their own creative works.

The prime use in senior English would be as a resource when exploring issues and as stimulus for students creating texts that require analysis and argument.

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