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  • Regarding the Pain of RatsKim Jones's Rat Piece
  • Martin Harries (bio)

Since the 1970s, Kim Jones, an artist who works in sculpture, drawing, and mixed media, has also performed as Mudman. Mudman's performances vary, and have included long walks on set routes through Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, as well as less peripatetic events confined to galleries. Jones's most notorious performance remains Rat Piece, from 1976. Available evidence suggests that Rat Piece was a slow, deliberate, even meditative performance. Over about half an hour or so, Jones-lean, muscular, face hidden under a pair of pantyhose-stripped, slathered himself with mud, donned the headpiece and wooden structure of Mudman, and, while walking through the performance space, read a reflexive statement about performing as Mudman. He then pulled a tarp off a circular wire cage holding three live rats and some paper, sprayed the rats and paper with lighter fluid, and set the rats and paper on fire. The rats' deaths were gradual: Jones periodically fed the fire with more fluid. The panicked rats scampered up the edges of the cage, ran in circles, and screamed as they neared death. Jones briefly screamed, too. After the rats were dead, Jones slowly covered their remains with soil and stones from a few bags. He then draped the cage again with the tarp. Very deliberately, Jones removed the structure from his back, put on his pants, carefully put on his socks and boots and jacket, all without removing the mud from his body. He never removed the pantyhose covering his head. [End Page 160]

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Figures 1-5.

Rat Piece, Union Gallery, California State University, Los Angeles, 17 February 1976.

1. Kim Jones as Mudman.

2. Jones sprayed the live rats with lighter fluid.

3. The rats ran in circles.

4. Jones covered the rats' remains.

5. Jones removed the Mudman structure from his back and dressed. (Photos courtesy of Kim Jones/Pierogi 2000)

Jones performed Rat Piece only once, 30 years ago at the Union Gallery on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, on 17 February 1976. Following the performance, the event became highly controversial. The more or less immediate consequences were two: CalState fired the gallery director, Frank Brown; and Jones, on a plea of no contest, was later convicted of cruelty to animals (and penalized with a small fine). Other consequences are harder to measure. In a 2005 interview, Jones reflects on the piece:

The one piece that I did which was directly related to the Vietnam War was when I burned the three male rats to death in '76. That was directly related to the fact that we used to burn rats to death in Vietnam. [...] When I did it I didn't realize was how upset people would be by it. I knew they would be upset. When I did it people just went nuts. I ended up going to court. People still get upset about it. I can understand that because I tortured the animals to [End Page 161] death, but it was important for me to have that experience as an art piece. Instead of just talking about killing something, or burning something, to actually have the audience that went to see this experience the smell of death and to actually have control in a certain way. They could have stopped me.

(Jones 2005:14)

Three points here bear emphasis: First, Rat Piece remains one of the few works that Jones relates directly to his experience as a U.S. marine in Vietnam, where he served a tour from 1967 to 1968. Jones has consistently and convincingly objected to critical accounts that reduce all his work to a set of symptomatic responses to that experience; he does allow, however, that Rat Piece arises from it. Second, Jones insists that he wanted his audience to face the reality of torture and death within the context of an "art piece." What it means to bound Rat Piece as an aesthetic object needs further thought, but Jones's emphasis on Rat Piece as art and not, say, ritual, insists that a meaningful demarcation of the...


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pp. 160-165
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