Starving Polar Bears to Eat Human Fat in Quirky Art Project

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A polar bear near a pile of whale bones placed by villagers just outside the town of Kaktovik, Alaska, September 11, 2016.
A polar bear near a pile of whale bones placed by villagers just outside the town of Kaktovik, Alaska, September 11, 2016.Credit: Josh Haner / New York Times
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

In 2001, when she was 19, artist Maayan Strauss raised a ruckus with her work “Settlement Evacuation.” Using children’s toys, Strauss portrayed a clash between police and settlers replete with roadblocks, women and children – foreshadowing Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip four years later.

Right-wing Knesset member Aryeh Eldad’s anger only increased interest in the work and the artist. In those years, Strauss and I became friends; the journal I edit used her work on the cover of its first issue, and we even named the journal Maayan. Eight years ago she went to study at Yale.

Today, at 34, Strauss is living in Brooklyn and working on an even bolder project that leaps between the infantile and the important. To increase awareness about the global warming that threatens to destroy our world, she’s raising funds for her next work, “Polars.”

Maayan StraussCredit: Jason Berger

Polar bears, which feed on seal blubber, are being harmed by the melting Arctic ice; on average, they have one less day to hunt each year. Meanwhile, in the United States, there’s a surplus of fat. About 200,000 liposuction operations are performed each year, leaving behind a ton of fat a day for which there’s no use. On the proposal page for the project, Strauss explains that the American fat could feed 600 polar bears annually.

“The essential problem, of course, isn’t feeding the polar bears but rather that global warming is eradicating the glaciers,” Strauss wrote to me online, noting that fewer glaciers means fewer seals.

“There are pictures of polar bears that come into towns in northern Canada to look for food and rummage in garbage cans to find scraps, attacking smaller animals and humans. They even enter people’s homes. There’s a new tourism industry built around observing these polar bears in the towns. I don’t think I’ll save the polar bears – the idea is symbolic,” she says.

“It’s an absurd exhibition that draws attention to an absurd situation. On the one hand, there are people with too much fat because of overeating bad food produced in ways that heat up the planet. On the other hand, the bears don’t have food. My proposal aims to shine a light on the absurdity in the world even if to many people the idea sounds cannibalistic,” she adds.

A drawing from Maayan Strauss' planned "polar bear" art project.Credit: Maayan Strauss

“When I tell people about the exhibition, a lot of them use that word. But it’s not cannibalistic. Human beings wouldn’t eat the human fat, bears would. After all, we eat animal fat all the time. Reversing the equation makes people feel nauseated, which is interesting. The proposal stresses the unwillingness for the reversal.”

The exhibition will have three parts – a waiting room, an operating room and a fat refrigerator. The inspiration for the design of the waiting room will be the North Pole. “Hanging on the walls will be paintings like in a health clinic, ostensibly boring paintings, of polar bears,” Strauss says. “They’ll be offered for sale and some of the money will be donated to the fight against global warming.”

Next to the waiting room a liposuction clinic will be set up. Strauss hopes a real clinic will move its treatment room to the exhibition, or a medical equipment company in the cosmetic-surgery industry. “That way, it will be possible to fund the display of the clinic and demonstrate the economy of the cosmetic medical industry,” she says, adding that she doesn’t now if fat extraction would actually take place at the clinic.

The third space is a refrigerator in which there will be a huge transparent sculpture of a polar bear. “The fat will be collected inside the sculpture,” Strauss says. “It will be a transparent sculpture through which the fat will be visible.”

A balance of resources

Transporting the fat from the United States to northern Canada – I ask her if this is feasible or ecological.

“Indeed this would be a sizable effort – collecting the fat from various clinics spread over a huge area around the United States, transporting it and bringing it to the right place and in the right conditions. Logistically this is complicated, and I’m researching the topic and looking into whether this is feasible in some way,” Strauss says.

“But even if logistically it doesn’t pay to make the exchange, this is thinking about a balance of resources. A certain amount of the fat will be given to the polar bears, even if only a small amount. The goal is to see how the exhibition advances the ultimate goal – to try to slow down global and polar warming. The question is: What can be done to ease the deterioration now? And apart from that, every polar bear is an individual that’s suffering and looking for food.”

She says people are terribly disgusted by the idea, but they’re excited by the connection to global warming, which started when she did a Google search just to see some cute polar bears.

“Google provided more suggestions to complete the phrase ‘polar bears’ and offered me ‘starving,’ with pictures of forlorn and skinny bears looking for food. That broke my heart. I thought, in the simplest way, about what could be done for hungry polar bears that live on seal blubber. I wondered where there’s fat, and I realized that humans produce pure fat and discard it,” Strauss says.

“I also thought about Israel. There are a lot of vegans in Israel. I tried to explain the veganism phenomenon to friends in the United States. They associate it with the conflict Israelis find themselves in every day; they feel they have to do something for the sake of the other the little they can’t do at the political-diplomatic level.”

I ask her a pretty obvious question if the work is connected to Donald Trump’s rise in the United States.

“The Trump atmosphere is an inspiration for the project, because it shows that anything is possible. The image of the excess fat also connects to figures in blogs like People of Walmart,” Strauss says, referring to the blog showing photos of people shopping at branches of the chain store.

"Window", 2011, from the series “Freight”.Credit: Maayan Strauss

“This is a funny-sad blog with pictures of fat people arriving at the store in a leopard print bathing suit and on a motorized scooter. A lot of white trash. The image of excess fat, white fat, is very present in the politics here. And there are a lot of people who are sick here because of excess fat,” she says.

“The exhibition would make it possible to fund liposuction in all kinds of places in Oklahoma. These are very infantile ideas but there’s scope for making proposals that are quote unquote infantile nowadays.”

It’s hard not to say the exhibition is linked to Trump. Two of his first moves were the cancellation of Michelle Obama’s healthier-food program for children and the deletion of global warming from White House websites.

“It’s amazing that global warming is something that’s possible to deny. There are all kinds of denials now,” she says, noting Sean Spicer’s comments about “Holocaust centers,” which he later apologized for. “My aim is to transform the results of global warming into something more in-your-face, to connect liposuction to an overall global crisis and to present the imbalance,” Strauss says.

She describes how while fundraising she heard about a Peruvian farmer who inherited his family farm. Because of global warming, a glacier that melted on a nearby mountain is about to flood the farm, so he sued a German energy company to help protect himself from the impending disaster. He didn’t win but won lots of media coverage.

“Similarly, the idea in the exhibition is to take a general subject of dimensions that are difficult to comprehend and connect it to concrete things,” Strauss says.

All the way to Bangladesh

Strauss, the daughter of singer-songwriter Avner Strauss and a great-great-granddaughter of philosopher Martin Buber, has proved herself in implementing ideas on the border between art and a grandiose transportation project. One of them is the organization of a residency for artists on cargo ships.

It started with her voyage on a Zim ship from Haifa to New York in 2011. She didn’t have the money for a flight and wanted to resume her studies. The trip took 20 days and there were 28 crew members on the ship. The voyage was fascinating culturally, geographically and aesthetically.

“Usually on a ship you’re either a tourist sailing on it or you’re working on it. The structures on the ship are designed to serve the workers, and this was a place where I didn’t have a role. I was an artist and I didn’t have anything to do. That raised the question of what we do as artists and why. How does this compare with what people who don’t make art are doing?” Strauss says.

“The scenery of the ship was the infrastructure of our everyday life – 90 percent of what we consume arrives in containers, or at least parts of it, for example, a part of the bottle. This was an opportunity to see something that most of us don’t see. To travel a long distance on a ship and be without the internet.”

Maayan Strauss and her 'Seven Sinks' project from 2015.Credit: Joseph Maida

So far seven artists have participated in the residency, including from the United States, Hungary, Russia and Hong Kong. Each artist chooses a route, and the voyage takes between eight days and a month and a half.”

“It has been very satisfying to hear feedback from the artists. Their insights are similar to what I felt,” Strauss says. “It was like creating a work of art the consumer of which isn’t a collector but artists. And six months ago there was an exhibition in Hong Kong with the projects of all the artists.”

Strauss plans to continue the project with more shipping companies, each edition of it held with a different firm. She’s also trying to organize a residency at ports in India and Bangladesh where out-of-service ships are dismantled.

“Children of 16 work at taking the metal from the ships. They breath and swallow oil and toxic substances without any protective gear, and hazardous materials are spilled into the sea because in India and Bangladesh the profits from the metals are higher,” Strauss says.

Another project Strauss is initiating is “The Service Room,” a continuation of her “Seven Sinks” installation that’s meant to criticize the excesses of the American way of life. In her new installation, which will be shown in New York in September and October, Strauss plans to position alongside a massage table, a work nook, a computer, a manicure station and a consultation desk – and to hold an exchange of services.

“People will sign up for an hour of graphics consultation in exchange for a massage,” she says. “Preparation of a luncheon in exchange for proofreading. It’s like economic sharing, and the exhibition will be the agent for the exchange of services.”

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