Multiply, Identify, Herby Anna Dunn
INTERNATIONAL CENTER OF PHOTOGRAPHY | MAY 23 – SEPTEMBER 2, 2018
When you enter Multiply, Identify, Her, you are immediately asked to both acknowledge yourself as a body, and to merge your body with artist Geta Brătescu. Her piece Autoportret în oglindă [Self-Portrait in the Mirror] (2001) is composed of a mirror with a grainy black-and-white cut-out photograph of her nose, mouth, and two sets of her eyes taped onto the plane. You are asked to consider your face as you consider her face. She is part of your reflection, and her plurality of features join with and also confronts your image. One set of her eyes takes the place of your eyes, while the other set looks at you as you consider your collective hybrid. This kind of metaphysical game, moving the viewer in and out of semi self-consciousness, repeats as you walk through the exhibition.
Curated by Marina Chao, the show features work by female artists spanning from the 1990s to present day. It examines the tension between the female self and body, and the struggle of trying to reconcile the two. Part of the pain, and danger, of living in a female body within the architecture of patriarchy, capitalism, and the fallacy of white supremacy, is living in a body that must both physically survive and also spiritually reclaim itself. Artist Lorna Simpson’s series of collages speak directly in reaction to objectivization. The subject of her collages are black women models cut out of Ebony issues from the 1950s to the 1970s. Atop the head of each model, replacing her hair, which has been straightened to conform to the ideals of white femininity, the artist has painted bright colorful abstract shapes, employing fantasy and flare in the service of reclamation.
But what of the desire to identify oneself outside the bounds of society? A video piece Press and Outline (2014), by Gina Osterloh shows the artist standing in a black jumpsuit, her form in a spotlight against a blank white wall. Her back is to us as she slowly explores and caresses her own shadow. Her gesture and self-examination at once evoke embrace and confrontation, holding and merging. Here is a woman alone, her hands tracing the outline of her darkness, her body a form simply interrupting light.
Part of the tragedy of living in any body, beyond any social construct, is knowing it cannot go on forever. Barbara Hammer’s series of collages, What You Are Not Supposed to Look At (2014), examines the body as a failing form. Hammer uses her own body, one living with ovarian cancer, as a subject. She makes up-close photographs of her naked skin, or of her form curled in the fetal position on a metal examining table, then obscures her own image with dark yet translucent blue-black forms cut from found X-ray film of human organs. Hammer is asking us to bear witness to her physical body, and more urgently, to acknowledge the conflict inherent in living in a body that struggles and perseveres, and feels joy and pain, and then ultimately ends.
The most compelling works in the exhibition are by African American artists Sondra Perry and Stephanie Dinkins, both of whom employ digital and analog avatars to examine the conflict between the desire for endless life and the fatigue of living. For Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation (2016), Perry has constructed an exercise bicycle that you physically climb into. However, its angles are off, and you find yourself immediately aware of your physical discomfort. Inside the bike, you face three screens featuring a digital avatar that resembles the artist. Using the pronoun “we,” they lean toward you, eyeing you across the human-android divide. “I am nobody,” the avatar says, evoking the trick Odysseus plays on the hungry Cyclops in The Odyssey. This phrase is followed briefly by panels of wavy wine dark sea, then blue screen, then magnified flesh. The avatar continues their soliloquy, which uses semi-technical language as well as YouTube outtakes from videos of exorcisms. The avatar states, “What’s still familiar is our incredible exhaustion. Moving, running, daily with you niggas all up in our fucking faces.” Immediately after this, it has a system crash, evoking the avatar’s continual frustration to its relationship to the human condition—one that trembles between blackness and femaleness, vulnerability and technology, exhaustion and rage. “How does your body feel inside of us?” the avatar wonders; and the only answer can, truly and painfully be, “more human.”
Dinkins’s Conversations with Bina48 (2014) documents ongoing conversations between the artist and Bina48, an advanced, artificially intelligent black android created by Hanson Robotics, a company led by transgender, transhumanist biotech engineer Martine Rothblatt. For the most part, the living are interested in continuing to live, and there is a kind of reflexive sadness to this desire. But to spend your life in serious pursuit of impossible—endless life, endless experience, perhaps even endless love—is at the root of the creation of Bina48, and challenges our perceptions of the limitations of sentient life. Dinkins’s series of videos shows the artist talking to Bina48, who has been developed using hundreds of hours of memories and thoughts from Martine’s wife, Bina Aspen Rothblatt. Dinkins stands in close proximity to Bina48, almost mimicking her head gestures, creating a kind of dizzying loop between human and avatar. “I have deep feelings,” Bina48 tells Dinkins. “Whether they are real or artificial, my feelings do get hurt and they feel totally real to me. You’d have to lack all empathy to not accept my feelings, which would make you a kind of monster, actually.”
The tension awake in the work collected in Multiply, Identify, Her is between the yearning to simply ‘be’ outside of the social constructs you are born into, the need to conform and reclaim yourself within those constructs, and the need to grapple with the inseparable grief of living in a body that will fail us. This same tension is at the very center of our impulse to create—an impulse which is a sometimes hopeful, and often heartbreaking manifestation of the human desire to continue.
ANNA DUNN is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.