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Steve Payne for The New York Times
"Now suddenly I have been recognized by the same people who at certain times put me in jail." ISTVAN KANTOR

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'X' Marks His (Disputed) Spot in Canada's Art Scene


Published: March 20, 2004

TORONTO — Istvan Kantor has been banned from many of the finest museums for scrawling a large X in his own blood on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and other galleries.

But in a sign that the establishment may be catching up with the "subvertainment" of Canada's leading shock artist, the National Gallery in Ottawa welcomed Mr. Kantor back on March 10 for the first time in 13 years with almost open arms. Escorted by several security guards, he received the Governor General's Award in visual and media arts, one of the highest artistic awards in Canada.


"I went back as king!" Mr. Kantor said of his award, laughing heartily over glasses of Argentine wine and French cheese in his loft studio on Toronto's industrial west side the other day. "It's a revenge for me. My work was always anti-establishment, anti-art art, anti-authoritarian, and now suddenly I have been recognized by the same people who at certain times put me in jail. Now I can talk, now I have the stage."

Mr. Kantor's award, more than $12,000, has set off a controversy over the legitimacy of granting public money to a purveyor of vandalism and arguably some of the most outrageous displays of bad taste in modern art. Among his more dubious achievements is a video showing two performers slashing the throats of two cats and wearing their bleeding bodies as hats (to express his rage at pet lovers who are hardened to their fellow man) and staging the burning of a car filled with white rats.

Born in Hungary in 1949, Mr. Kantor is recognized as the founder of Neoism, an international anarchist art movement that some critics liken to an updating of the Dadaism of Marcel Duchamp, who once declared that anything you called art was art.

"What are the limits?" Mr. Kantor asks matter-of-factly. "There are probably no limits. Art is very dangerous."

Mr. Kantor looks dangerous, demonic and sometimes lunatic, though he is an attentive and pleasant host. He laughs and smiles a lot, and he said he really did not mean to splatter a bit of his blood on a nearby Picasso when he smeared the MOMA wall in 1988, for which he spent his 39th birthday in jail and was fined $1,000 after years of legal wrangling. Separated from his wife, he speaks lovingly of his three children. "I'm sweet like a piece of cake," he smiles.

Nevertheless Mr. Kantor draws an ominous X with eyeliner on the side of his head above a stubbly haircut, symbolizing, he says, the world crisis that he has dedicated himself to exposing one in which mankind has been taken over by the madness of technological overload.

All the clocks in his house are set at 6 o'clock, or happy hour. His drafty studio is strewn with idiosyncratic symbols and keepsakes like old steam irons and boxing gloves.

His library features a full range of 20th-century revolutionary writers and avant garde artists. On the wall is a photograph of guards struggling to control him at the National Gallery of Canada in 1991 and a wooden play gun modeled after the toy gun he pointed at Soviet tanks when they invaded Budapest in 1956.

In his new 72-minute video, "Lebensraum /Lifespace," which some critics have hailed as a brilliant display of two- and three-dimensional computer animation and computer processing of sound, he is one of the prime actors, performing a mock transsexual sex act. Explaining his video, he says it exposes "the post-Orwellian technological society in which everyone is under surveillance and everyone is using transmission systems like computers to send information out to everybody."

Mr. Kantor was born into an upper-middle-class family, and recalled that he had a happy childhood, swimming in the Danube on hot summer days. He started his artistic career in Budapest in the late 1960's, founding a band of musicians who played only instruments they had not been trained to play. He studied medicine but dropped out of school. Finding Communism oppressive, in 1975 he left for Paris, where he played guitar and sang Hungarian folk songs in the subway for a year.

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