24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Barton Lidice Beneš - Lethal Weapons

In an evening during the 1990’s, Barton Lidice Beneš (1942–2012) cut his hand while chopping parsley. He immediately was in shock: fearful he was going to contract AIDS if he came in contact with the blood, as many of his friends, his boyfriend, and many of the people he spent time around were infected. After grabbing bleach and cleaning supplies, he stopped and thought, “Oh, I already have it. It's my own blood. It can't hurt me”[1]. At this point, he realized how powerful that blood was, and how the sight of the blood was so viscerally terrifying. As this was the beginning of the epidemic[2], he considered the fear of others and the conspiracies surrounding HIV/AIDS; the only thing people knew at this point was that others were dying from something in the blood[3]. Before this, Beneš never knew how to or felt like he could make art about AIDS, but his realization about the visual power of blood, with the additional implication of it being infected, changed this thinking. All of the pieces in Lethal Weapons do not necessarily look lethal, but are filled with the thing people were and are so terrified of. Some of the vessels are, in fact, toys, capturing Beneš’s sense of humor in his art, while they hold something misunderstood and a sort of taboo. All of the pieces are also put behind reinforced glass, creating a sense of temptation, while simultaneously reminding the viewer of the danger.

Lethal Weapons now consists of only nine “weapons”, objects and syringes filled with his own HIV infected blood encased in a shadow box with protective glass. These pieces include: a perfume bottle filled with blood (Essence, 1994), a fake, orange, plastic toy gun loaded with one syringe filled with blood and with a small rubber suction cup (made to resemble a suction cup dart, but with the syringe needle protruding from the middle of the suction cup), with another unloaded “dart” below it (Silencer, 1992), a small “Absolut Vodka” bottle filled with blood (Absolute Beneš, 1994), a squirting rose that uses blood (Venomous Rose, 1993), two clear surgical tubes with blood, intertwined and held together with small wires sticking out (Crown of Thorns, 1996), a baby pacifier that holds blood at the end (Pacifier, 1993), a small bottle of anointing oil from the Franciscan Friars filled with blood (Anointment, 1992), a small toy plane with a syringe filled with blood attached to the front of the plane (Flying Missile, 1996), and a small vile of blood surrounded by small explosives (Molotov Cocktail, 1995)[4].

While the near 30 original pieces of Lethal Weapons[5] were displayed without issue at the North Dakota Museum of Art, it was quite different in England and Lund, Sweden, where there was a swift uproar from the public and safety officials. When Beneš’s pieces were shown in England there was backlash and a Tory Councilor tried to shut the show down, not because it was a safety concern, but because there was worry that Lethal Weapons was “...horrifying and sick and would morally corrupt children...”[6], even though, as Beneš pointed out, “...this is the country where they ‘blood’ the first person with a kill in a fox hunt, by smearing the fox’s blood on his or her forehead”[7]. Instead of taking his blood to another show in Prague, a doctor he knew from the Czech National Reference Laboratory for AIDS had written him a note to present to customs so Beneš was clear to carry syringes. He used these when he had his blood drawn at an AIDS clinic, which he placed into the vessels, making them “weapons”. Beneš comments on how, “The Czechs have always used dark humor as a weapon against oppression.”[8], noting this as inspiration for his work. He references this while describing a church in Kunta Hora, close to where his family is from, where there were chandeliers made almost completely of human bones from victims of the plague in the 14th century. There was a similar reaction to the collection in Lund, Sweden; Inger Tornberg, the curator of the museum, recounted how she had to remove the show by law for the safety of the public. She conceded that they could not avoid fear, even though no one could actually get hurt. After this, flyers began appearing, claiming that the museum selling HIV infected blood by the liter as a part of the morning and evening newspaper. The public retaliated, saying it was not art and shouldn't be sold, and was shortly after deemed the “AIDS Horror Show”, along with Beneš as a terrorist[9]. As a compromise, all of works sold were heated up to 160 degrees Farenheigt in a hospital oven and, unfortunately, this led to the plastic and rubber aspects of the pieces melting[10]. Lethal Weapons, a political collection, has not lost its impact as most other political art has; this seems to be because Beneš used his own blood, his viscera, his life force. Another important feature of Beneš’s Lethal Weapons is the humor of the work. Tornberg recalls, “His[Beneš’s] point of view of the world was full of glee and delight”[11]. In fact, he joked about selling pieces containing his own blood, exclaiming, “And I’ve got to make a living somehow”[12]. Beneš pointed out how he had no issue using and selling his own blood, but would not sell any of his cremation pieces, unless the commissioner provided the ashes, although this only happened a few times.

Laurel Reuter, the Director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, described Beneš’s life as a dance with the gods. She recounts his life with awe and inspiration, claiming he was, “always an artist exploring what it means to be human”[13]. She recounts aspects of his personal life, like descriptions of his home, other works of art, including the cremation ash pieces, and insight into his impact on the art world as well as smaller spheres. She illustrates Beneš as a man that defied the wave of decimation that AIDS brought along with his humor, although his body gave way. Reuter believed that, “Barton succeeded in his art because he was a master of balancing despair with hope, faith with sorrow, the underbelly of life with laughter”[14]. Hannah Calkins, while writing about the subject of the artist’s body and how it is used in Art is Not Enough: The Artist‘s Body as Protest, quickly asserts that Beneš’s use of his own HIV-infected blood is “...quite beautiful, [and] extreme...”[15], she concludes that art involving AIDS relies most heavily on its political context, and to remove that context would destroy its “...unique and important power...”[16]. As Beneš turns flesh into art, it is able to live on because it allows the viewer to directly confront the-body-with-AIDS. Kim Stanley Medlen’s analysis paper, Deliberate Masquerades: Socialised Stigma, HIV/AIDS and Altered Gay Male Body Image, claims that Beneš’s work focuses on mortality, making it a keystone of HIV/AIDS art. They also approach Lethal Weapons as a statement on society’s perception that the “HIV-positive gay body is dangerous and highlights the negative religious sentiment attached to the disease”[17]. Beneš is continuously  described as an artist that is able to effectively and powerfully use juxtaposition in his artwork to subsist and enact change as well as provoke others, leading to his works persisting to more present times.

Beneš had lost many close friends and his boyfriend to AIDS and used this new series, Lethal Weapons, combining humor and danger, to begin a new and continue the conversation on HIV/AIDS. This series employs the fear of transmission and death, political activism, and dark humor through visual word play. Beneš uses this humor from his Czech heritage as a way to deal with his own mortality as well as the extreme phobia of the public surrounding infected individuals and the paranoia of people trying to “stay safe”. The sheer inconsistency with history should also be noted, as many societies have (had) a fascination, respect, or deep curiosity with ashes, blood, and body parts; yet Lethal Weapons, as well as Beneš’s works with cremation ashes, have all received some sort of criticism. The use of the artist’s body is a way to provoke the viewer and allow them to come close to their fears. Beneš uses Lethal Weapons to make the intangible fear associated with the virus, tangible. This is still an important body of work today, and in conjunction with his other pieces revolving around the same topic, continues to inspire conversation around HIV/AIDS and art dealing with the subject. This is a relatively unknown collection and artist, however, this should be a collection (or some of his other works) that is talked about or at least mentioned in art history classes because of the materials Beneš uses and the moral implications and psychological effects of the materials used, especially when he creates using contradictory objects. Beneš’s story is a pertinent part of AIDS/HIV history and sheds light on the experience of having and being surrounded with people with AIDS through his art.
[1] Blood, Radiolab Podcast. Season 12, Episode 1, July 31, 2013. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/episodes/308403-blood
[2] Blood, Radiolab.
[3] Blood, Radiolab.
[4] Visual AIDS, Artist Website. 2019. https://visualaids.org/artists/barton-lidice-bene
[5] Blood, Radiolab.
[6] Cremation Sensation, Benes, Barton Lidice. POZ Magazine, January/December 1997. https://www.poz.com/article/Cremation-Sensation-12445-3969
[7] Cremation Sensation, Benes, Barton Lidice.
[8] Cremation Sensation, Benes, Barton Lidice.
[9] Blood, Radiolab.
[10] Blood, Radiolab.
[11] Blood, Radiolab.
[12] Cremation Sensation, Benes, Barton Lidice.
[13] Barton Lidice Benes: A Dance With The Gods, Reuter, Laurel. North Dakota Museum of Art. https://www.ndmoa.com/barton-benes
[14] A Dance With The Gods, Reuter, Laurel.
[15] Art is Not Enough: The Artist‘s Body as Protest, Calkins, Hannah. gnovis Journal, Fall 2014. https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/712582/Hannah_Calkins_Fall_2014.pdf
[16] Art is Not Enough, Calkins, Hannah.
[17] Deliberate Masquerades: Socialised Stigma, HIV/AIDS and Altered Gay Male Body Image, Medlen, Kim Stanley. November 2010. https://espace.curtin.edu.au/bitstream/handle/20.500.11937/824/151587_Medlen%20partial.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Work Cited

Art is Not Enough: The Artist‘s Body as Protest, Calkins, Hannah. gnovis Journal, Fall 2014.

Barton Lidice Benes: A Dance With The Gods, Reuter, Laurel. North Dakota Museum of Art.

Blood, Radiolab Podcast. Season 12, Episode 1, July 31, 2013.

Cremation Sensation, Benes, Barton Lidice. POZ Magazine, January/December 1997.

Deliberate Masquerades: Socialised Stigma, HIV/AIDS and Altered Gay Male Body Image, Medlen, Kim Stanley. November 2010. Visual AIDS, Artist Website. 2019.


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