The cows are following me! The other day I was walking along a street near the Tünel station when I saw an advertisement that froze me in my tracks: the Cow Parade is coming to Istanbul. I have done almost all of my European traveling in the past three years and this August Istanbul will be the third European city in which I will witness the finest display of fiberglass bovine decoration in the world.
The Cow Parade is a phenomenon of the past ten years. Essentially cities are selected by the European and American CowParade holding companies. In each city local artists paint various designs on fiberglass cow statues and then the decorated plastic beasts are placed in public locations throughout the host city.
I first encountered this art movement while spending three days in Bratislava in 2005. I saw the first cow as I wandered from Bratislava’s meager downtown area toward the pleasant night time breezes that blew in from the Danube. The first cow was black and covered with the hand prints of children in various colors of paint. Another cow was covered in flames and given red diabolical eyes. Almost all of the cows that I saw in Bratislava lined the Danube and each was stranger than the next. I must confess that on seeing the Slovak cows I felt like I had heard of the Cow Parade before but I had no idea what it signified. I took a number of pictures and promptly forgot about the cows when I left the city.
A year later I was visiting Budapest with my ex-girlfriend. As we were walking along Andrassy Boulevard I found myself once again struck by the apparition of the decorated likeness of a cow. This one was painted with brown and white spots and had a large straw coming out of its back. In a very animated tone I explained that I had seen the cows a year ago and had absolutely no idea what they were. My ex loved it and posed for a picture in which she pretended to drink out of the mammoth straw. Once again, everywhere we went in Budapest-Vaci Street, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Duna Corso-we kept seeing different cows. The Hungarians, with their typical perverse sense of the sublime created a number of disturbing cows. One was painted black with various symbols of fascism in red adorning its flanks. Another white cow was embellished by the image of various skulls in different colors. Naturally at the time I realized some things on my own about the Cow Parade: notably that the cows themselves are always of the same size and come in only a handful of poses, the cows are decorated by a variety of local artists, they are placed throughout the most public locations in the host city and that a different city hosts the Parade each year.
Once again, however, I did not give the cows a second thought once I left Hungary until I saw the advertisement on the side of a bus stop in Istanbul. The eminent advent of bovine sculpture has thus prompted me to perform some of own internet (Wikipedia) research. Here’s what I discovered.
The idea was originally conceived by Swiss art designer Walter Knapp in 1998. Knapp. The three most common variations of the cow were designed by Swiss sculptor Pascal Knapp (I don’t know whether or not the two are related) and Knapp owns the copyright for these three designs. The designs are standing up and walking, lying down or grazing. Artists will often, in the process of personalizing their own cow, alter the shape of the sculpture in some way. The first Cow Parade was in Zurich in 1998 but achieved international acclaim when Chicago business people Peter Hanig and Lois Weisberg organized the exhibition in Chicago the following year. There has been some strife between the European and American organizers of the event owing to copyright disputes but essentially the parade is exhibited in a number of American and European cities each year.
Most people seem to like the Cow Parade. It’s a very common sight in a Cow Parade city to see small children climbing over or under the cows and marveling at the colorful designs. Adult tourists and travelers, like me, are usually puzzled by the sculptures but ultimately like them. Much like the Wall Street Bull in New York City, there is something pleasing about seeing artwork outside of the gallery or museum. In an industrial world, there can be precious little non-corporate art. Of course many art purists don’t approve of the Cow Parade because of its artist selection process. Many artistic purists contend that the cows are really just advertisements and reject the exhibition on such grounds. “Twin Peaks” creator David Lynch found his design of a decapitated and mutilated cow covered in blood with the words “Eat My Fear” emblazoned on its side rejected by the selection committee. I find it hilarious that a committee which would requisition artwork from the mind that brought the world the Log Lady and Mike the One Armed Man, would be shocked when said artist would turn in a less than normal entry.
The conflict over whether or not the cows are a good thing or art in general reached a fever pitch in Stockholm when a number of graffiti artists turned terrorist, kidnapping one of the cows and threatening it with destruction unless the Cow Parade organizers declared the event to be advertisement rather than art. Here is a transcript of their communiqué, taken from www.artliberated.org.
“We, the members of The Militant Graffiti Artists of Stockholm feel morally obligated to protect our city against the Cows that have invaded our streets.
The cows are Not Art. That these cows are presented as Public Art is the biggest fraud. Advertisements can never be art.
Freedom of Expression doesn’t belong to the average person anymore, only to those who have the money to buy a billboard or in this case, a cow that serves the same purpose as a billboard.
We believe Freedom of Expression is threatened. Challenging the legitimacy of of the cows in order to defend Freedom of Expression is the duty of every citizen.
We have taken a hostage. We demand that the cows be declared Non-Art and that all the cows, before 12:00 August 23rd, leave our streets. We also demand walls where we Stockholmers can paint and practice our freedom of expression.
If our demands are not met, the hostage will be sacrificed. Vandalism and artistic justice will be administered.”
Much like the United Nations Security Council or the US government Cow Parade refused to cooperate and the cow was then decapitated a la Al Qaeda in Iraq. Some people take their art very seriously, especially Europeans. In the effort to maintain a brave front, however, the Cow Parade has continued since 2004 and promises to sweep the globe with plastic livestock that every man, woman and child in the free world can enjoy or scoff at.