P.S.1 June 25 – September 25, 2006
Into Me / Out of Me at P.S.1 is the kind of exhibition you don’t expect to see at a public institution anymore, as even privately funded nonprofits grow more skittish over material that might prove offensive to prudes, snoots, the underaged or the faint of heart. What curator Klaus Biesenbach has put together is a sprawling, unblinking and unapologetic examination of the human body as an aesthetic tool from the 1960s through today—a tool that, when wielded by the right hands, can reveal the core dynamics of art.
Biesenbach’s intentions, as gleaned from a short press release (a catalogue is due in the fall when the exhibition travels to the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin), is to focus on “the imagined, descriptive, and performative acts of the passing into, through, and out of the human body.” Accordingly, the installation is structured into “three main chapters: metabolism (eating, drinking, excreting), reproduction (intercourse, conception, birth), and violence (shooting, impaling, perforation).”
Fortunately, the artwork is far too unruly for such narrowly configured categories: romping across decades and genres, it revels in the unfettered poetry and politics of the body’s raw, ecstatic beauty and its smeary, sticky, spurting repulsiveness. While body art is most commonly associated with the excesses of figures like the Vienna Actionists (here relegated to their own hard-to-find side gallery), Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who made careers out of wallowing in self-inflicted pain, naked flesh and quivering viscera, this exhibition does justice to the form’s full emotional range. There are exquisite expressions of love and grief, large swatches of raunchy and deadpan humor, and moments of outright wonder. Although variations in quality are to be expected in an exhibition this large (more than 130 artists), the most effective works tend to be those that treat the body’s physicality in an unmediated and palpable way.
This is accomplished most directly in film, video or photography, though sculptures like Paul Thek’s “Untitled (Blond Meat Piece)” from 1965— two slabs of beeswax and hair laid atop one another like Jasper Johns’ “Flags”—and an untitled 2003-2005 floor piece by Robert Gober, also of beeswax and hair, pull you in through the perversity of their realism. The Thek, which according to the wall text, was created “in reaction to the minimal sculptures of artists like Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt … as a way to engage the country entering the Vietnam War,” exudes a whiff of satire, but its thick, red-edged chunks of ersatz dermis bring to mind not only the butchery of war but also such unwelcome musings as the status of humans on the food chain and the exact dimensions of Shylock’s pound of flesh.
Gober’s hermaphroditic, headless, armless torso digs even deeper into the subconscious. Sexually bisected between a hairy male pectoral muscle and a drooping female breast, the torso ends in two black tree trunks instead of thighs, while a man’s foot clad in an old sock and leather-soled shoe emerges from a hairless vagina. The sculpture’s hyper-surrealism manages to enter a truly Ovidian arena of preverbal dread in which our infantile fears of obliteration by the overwhelming forces of nature are dredged back into consciousness.
It is precisely the fundamental power of myth, springing from primal fears and primary bodily functions, that drives some of the most potent works in the exhibition. In Pipilotti Rist’s “Mutaflor” (1996), a video loop projected on the floor, the ever-moving camera frames the artist’s nude body to resemble a soft, milky caryatid awash in hot Impressionist pinks, yellows, greens and violets. Zooming to her face, it catches a manic, hungry look in Rist’s eyes as it dives deep into her mouth and pops out of her anus, only to whirl back up to her open mouth—giving you sensation of being swallowed and expelled, swallowed and expelled, into infinity.
Three six-foot-tall color chromogenic prints by Hannah Wilke, part of her INTRA-VENUS series from 1992–1993, are painfully sad and brutally graphic nude self-portraits made during the artist’s losing battle with cancer. In these photographs of Wilke seated on a hospital commode, lying in a bathtub, or standing, Avedon-like, in slippers against a blank white wall, the despair of mortality could hardly be more explicit. Yet she sloughs off our pity with a bitterly ironic refutation of the classical ideal and its implicit male gaze, boldly contrasting her own decaying flesh with mental images of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, as well as memories of her own formerly stunning physique.
And in “The Drowning Room” (2000), an astonishing Super-8 black-and-white film by Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley, (excerpted here in a DVD transfer), three persons are seated at a table, eating a meal of raw fish in a room entirely submerged in water. The Super-8’s rich grain merges with murky shadows pierced by fluttering shafts of light to create an incomparable dreamscape that taps into our deepest fears of suffocation and entombment while remaining dispassionately ineffable in its connotations.
These works may be among the most notable in the show, but there are dozens more that demand attention, including such classics as Stan Brakhage’s lushly beautiful “Window Water Baby Moving” (1959), projected in its original 16mm format; “Breathing in/Breathing out” (1977), a video performance in which Marina Abramović and her longtime partner Ulay, their nostrils plugged, feverishly breathe carbon dioxide into each other’s mouths until they break off, starving for oxygen; and Chris Burden’s “Shoot” (1971), a landmark performance preserved on a 2-minute audio tape and an 8-second film clip. In what was meant to be a statement on the violence of the Vietnam War, Burden stands against a wall as a collaborator aims a rifle and shoots him in the bicep. The horrifying sound of the gunshot quickly gives way to unintentional slapstick as Burden, presumably in shock from the experience, jerks himself forward, glancing at his wound as if he’s just received nothing more than a nasty inoculation.
“Shoot” was part of a groundswell of extreme expression during the late sixties and early seventies—dates that paralleled the height of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam as well as revolutionary political activity in Western Europe and Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia. Other manifestations included Gina Pane piercing her arms with thorns during the performance piece “Azione Sentimentale” (1973); Vito Acconci masturbating under a false gallery floor in “Seedbed” (1972); Ana Mendieta’s color photographs from 1973, “Untitled (Rape Scene)” and “Untitled (Self Portrait with Blood)”; and Burden’s self-imposed crucifixion, “Trans-fixed” (1974), on the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle.
While it’s a commonplace to view pieces like these as mad reactions to a mad time, it’s instructive to note that the dates of the works included in Into Me / Out of Me indicate a lull in body-centric art during the eighties, an uptick in the nineties and a full-blown revival during the past six years, a period of time that corresponds to the widening devastation of the AIDS epidemic, the sexual hypocrisy of the Monica Lewinsky affair, the rise of militant Christianity, and the ongoing, innumerable debacles of the Bush-Cheney administration. One hypothesis to be drawn is that, as social and political circumstances grow more desperate, artists of a particular sensitivity are compelled to abandon art for art’s sake and seek ways to break down the hidebound acculturation that blinds us to the ugly truths about ourselves—to force us to feel, by any means necessary.
In times past, images like the torn-apart bodies in Jan van Eyck’s “Last Judgment,” at the Met—to pull one example out of a hat—would have instilled real terror and moral reprehension in its viewers. But to arouse a similar reaction in our acutely cynical age requires an optical shock to the solar plexus, an emotional disruption that will trigger an empathic response to another person’s condition even if it’s revulsion or horror. And so these artists manipulate the body as an access point to our common humanity, i.e., the irreducible nub of art. The more extreme the situation, the more extreme the response. But in the face of unregenerate cupidity and brutishness, sometimes the sanest thing you can do is tear off your clothes and howl.