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Leah McLaren

Work with me, baby Add to ...

So a baby walks into a bar in Las Palmas, Spain, and orders a beer. The bartender happily serves her. She sits down and throws back a few more cocktails, including a glass of red wine, before stumbling over to a stranger's table and helping herself to his dinner. As the flamenco band plays, the baby weaves toward the exit, sending chairs and tables flying in her wake.

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It's a joke right? Actually, it's a trailer for a 13-minute short film by Swedish artist and filmmaker Johannes Nyholm, which is currently in an upward viral spiral on YouTube. Entitled Baby Trashes Bar in Las Palmas, the video was posted just over a week ago and had more than four million hits counting at press time.

Chances are, in the time it takes you to read this column, you or someone you know has been sent a link to Las Palmas. When you watch it (and make no mistake, you will watch it), you will laugh, tickled by the contradictory image of an adorable tow-headed toddler engaging in the drunken antics of a lonely, obese tourist in a cheap resort bar.

The result is hilarious and troubling at the same time. Hilarious because the sweetest of all human life forms has been transformed into a familiar and disgusting adult stereotype. Troubling because, well, this is a baby - not some desperate actor who consented to humiliate herself on film for comic effect.

Using children as the subject of adult artwork is nothing new, but lately the results have been more fascinating - and disturbing - than ever. There's Canadian photographer Jonathan Hobin's recent exhibition In the Playroom, which features children re-enacting such news events as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the attacks of 9/11; Danish Nina Maria Kleivan's photographs of her infant dressed up as Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin; and While the Baby Sleeps, a photo blog by a Finnish mother who arranges her unconscious newborn in fictional landscapes ( Red Riding Hood, Mary Poppins) at nap time. Art involving the manipulation of small, defenceless humans seems to be everywhere these days.

Are such projects an invasion of a child's right to privacy and a violation of its agency as a human being - or are they just a logical extension of the age-old sunglasses-on-the-baby joke, as seen on greeting-card racks everywhere?

Nyholm, whom I spoke to over the phone from his home in Gothenburg, thinks the latter. "Historically the most-viewed films on YouTube are of kittens and babies - these cute, innocent beings that are very fragile and adorable but also strangely a part of us," he says. "I think the film speaks to people because it's telling many different stories at once, all of them relating to a lot of very primal stuff."

The baby in Las Palmas is Nyholm's 21-month-old daughter, who toddled gamely through the project's myriad takes, oblivious to being filmed. When I ask her name, he blurts it out, then immediately begs me not to publish it "for privacy reasons."

"But your daughter is a global celebrity!" I point out.

He laughs uncomfortably. "It's strange, because the audience was much wider-spread than we expected," he says, acknowledging that he and his partner did grapple with the issue of putting their daughter in the spotlight. Ultimately, though, they decided that the film was "a kind of love declaration - the ultimate respect you can pay a baby."

Hobin, whom I also caught up with by phone this week from Ottawa, goes much further: "I got a lot of criticism for using children in my work. People said I was being exploitative, even abusive. But the fact is I've seen worse things happen to children on Law & Order SVU. The point my work is trying to make is that kids have always reflected the darker aspects of our culture in their play. Children see more than ever these days, yet we persist in pretending that they see less."

While Hobin says it's up to the parents of his subjects to explain the darker meanings of his work to their kids "when it seems appropriate," Nyholm may have a more difficult task ahead of him. It's unclear how his daughter will react to the news that, prior to age 2, she became the world's most famous drunken and disorderly toddler.

For Nyhom himself, however, the publicity has been nothing but good. He says his e-mail inbox is "going crazy" with messages from producers around the world showing interest in his work. The full-length version of Baby Trashes Bar recently screened at the Gothenburg International Film Festival, where it won the prize for best short. (The jury called it "a tragicomic movie in a crazy world that feels terribly familiar," and compared it to Easy Rider.) He hopes to release the film on YouTube as soon as he completes a few postproduction tweaks.

As for his muse? She'll be the one gurgling obliviously in the corner, slugging back another triple shot of grape juice.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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