The holy and the art

Contemplations over a dead cow at Arken Museum of Modern Art. Holy cow! It can be complex to judge what is art and what is just offensive.

By Inanna Riccardi

A highlight of the ‘India Today Copenhagen Tomorrow’ initiative is the contemporary Indian art exhibition shown at Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen. When entering the art museum the audience can see an installation with a carcass of a cow, shown in the main hall, not as part as the Indian exhibition.

It is generally known that the cow is considered a holy animal in India – so, what is this? An offensive provocation to Hinduists? How is it perceived by the many Indians who currently visit the exhibition?

For the artist who created the installation, Damien Hirst, a cow is just another animal among many.

Damien Hirst, born in 1937, brought in a new dimension in the era of installation. His imagination is obsessed by the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. His pieces of art consist in carcasses of different animals, preserved in formaldehyde and then exhibit in glass vitrines in an art gallery. He has found his own remarkable effective way to take us face to face with death’s emptiness, its finality, its silence.

Cow and India
But for what reason is the cow considered a holy animal in India? In order to understand this, it is needed to be a bit familiar with Hinduism. Dharma is considered to have four pillars, like a cow has four legs. Moreover, since antique age in India, people have been drinking the cow’s milk, rather than the milk of other animals. So, considering the cow as mother who provides milk, whether or not she has given birth to that who has her milk. This places the cow in the equivalent position of a mother, as it has been nourishing Indians with its milk from ancient times.

If we peruse Hindu mythological texts, the Upanishads or various Puranas, then we will discover that Mother Earth is represented as a cow, Gau Mata – Mother Cow. When the earth was polluted by demons in the antique time, and it change into an insupportable place for the humans to continue their existence, Mother Earth presented herself as a cow and went to the Supreme Lord and sought help to save her and her sons and daughters.

Therefore, this is another reason for considering cows as sacred.

An Indian ‘cow artist’
India has a eminent artist who has taken inspiration from the cow and turned into one of his major themes: The artist P. Gnana. He was born in Neyveli in South India in 1970, and is known as an leading painter and sculptor, whose artworks are being collected in Southeast Asia, Europe and South Asia.

Gnana’s art is synonymous with the metaphorical representation of the cow, which emerged as a phenomenon in its own right. Experiments combined with a serious and sometimes meditative approach has been the key instruments that has shaped Gnana’s creative journey through the past 16 years, allowing him to rejuvenate in a world of constant change and fluctuating emotions.

It is an aesthetic and conceptual niche that he has crafted for himself, via his amiably idiosyncratic concept of the cow. With an abundance of ideas, Gnana transforms the meaning and purpose of humble, everyday objects into awe-inspiring expressions of urban relevance.

The cow in Arken
What is art and how is it understood? The line is difficult to draw and sometimes, ethical and cultural issues play a big role into its definition. In fact, religion and cultural beliefs shape our perception of the world and our reactions, giving, also, to each of us, a personal and diverse understanding of the artifacts.

During an India Today conference which was held at Arken in September 2012, all the coffee breaks were held in the main hall, so the cow was seen by everyone, the Indian visitors and the Danes.
Just by going around among them, my perception was that no one actually paid any attention to the dead animal in the midst of them. But then I asked one of the Indian conference speakers, who replied: “Every human should feel offended by it!”
Maybe this is the main purpose of art – to move the deepest part of our soul?
Every artifact is by definition made or shaped by man – one individual with his or her personal experience who wants to pass on his or her reflections about life and about the world. So, maybe once we consider pieces of art as a communicator all humans being should feel the same in their deepest souls.


Aditi Tandon: Culture or art?

As part of the ‘India Today Copenhagen Tomorrow’ initiative, three Indian journalists were invited to come to Copenhagen in November 2012 to meet the Danes and experience their culture. Inanna Riccardi interviewed Ms. Aditi Tandon at the Arken Museum asking her opinion on the art installation of a dead cow.

The most interesting outcome of this video interview maybe was that Aditi Tandon instantly took the cow for being a bull. She declared that “culture always influence the human perspective”. Within this frame, and with the knowledge that she is an Indian journalist and a women who has involved herself into gender issues and discussions, is easy to understand why she perceived the installation as a symbol of “male dominance”. Our perspective is shaped by our own interests and background. In this case, culture plays a role in how a person perceives the art installation, however personal and work experience also takes part in this construction.


Inanna Riccardi is a student of Applied Cultural Analysis at the University of Copenhagen. She is taking her internship at the Danish Cultural Institute. Her primary interests are art, culture and sustainability.

Photo credits and sources
Photo of Hirst’s cow:
Photo of Gnana’s cow:
Photo of cow in the street:

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