Nestor Arenas doesn’t aim to please. The baby-faced, bespectacled 43-year-old Miami photographer likes to show us what we’d rather not see. Like, say, a once-adorable black cat smashed on the side of the road. Or a raccoon’s guts spilling onto the asphalt. In his latest work, which is on display at ISM Gallery on NW 23rd Street, he has photographed roadkill in unusual environments: in a living room, next to a plastic Jesus, or being pummeled by toy soldiers. With a translator, the Cuban-born artist talked to Riptide 2.0 about why he does it -- and about pissing people off in the name of art. His work is scheduled to be at ISM during Art Basel.
Check out a slide show of his tamer work here.
What’s your fascination with death?
I think probably my own fear. I live near Everglades National Park, and every day I would drive by and see dead animals on the street. And, you know, anything that’s natural like that, there’s something artistic about it. For me, death is part of life.
I went to your exhibit a couple of weekends ago, and the reaction was mixed: People laughed, were disgusted, were fascinated, and offended. What’s the worst response you’ve gotten?
[Laughs] A lot of people think I kill the animals myself, so they have hostility toward me. Some people have called me “Assassin!” They think, what is this guy trying to do? But the reaction is part of the creative process. I think ultimately people are more intrigued than disgusted. There are two responses: They love it or they leave.
What can be gained from making people uncomfortable?
I’m not a decorative artist; I want to create that tension. It provokes thought. It’s a sensationalist approach. I am playing with people's fear, and I see humor in it. Death is taboo, and people shy away from it. That’s exactly why I wanted to capture it. What people avoid, I want to confront. The audience feels something when you put death in a different context.
So, why the toys?
I used to play with little soldiers as a child. You play war, and war makes death. To put that which is just a game around a tragic situation, the contrast confuses people, and that’s a good thing. The viewer creates his own story.
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Why do you think some people laugh when they first see your art?
There’s an old saying: Laugh at what scares you.