Thursday, September 11th, 2003

Janine Antoni at Luhring Augustine, Danica Phelps at LFL Gallery, Dara Birnbaum at The Jewish Museum

Janine Antoni
Luhring Augustine, 531 W 24th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, phone: 212-206-9100, through October 25

Danica Phelps: Integrating Sex Into Everyday Life
LFL Gallery 530 W 24th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, phone: 212-989-7700, through

Erwartung/Expectancy: A Video Installation by Dara Birnbaum
The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue on the northeast corner of 92nd Street, through January 4, 2004

invitation card for Janine Antoni's current exhibition at Luhring Augustine; details, and installation shot, to follow
invitation card for Janine Antoni's current exhibition at Luhring Augustine; details, and installation shot, to follow

Janine Antoni’s bombastic new installation at Luhring Augustine literally assaults the senses. Even out on the street, the eyes and nose begin to itch. Inside, there’s a full-scale olfactory attack. Between two awesome, rusting nine-foot steel reels – relics from some dark, satanic mill, perhaps – is gathered a vast heap of raw hemp fiber that fills the cavernous gallery with pugnacious dust.

It’s ironic that the senses should get it from so echt a conceptualist as Ms. Antoni, but then, her work has always knowingly collided the cerebral and the sensual. She came to attention in the early 1990s with work that earned her a place in course textbooks as the epitome of the art world’s obsession at that time with (capital B) the Body. Not to be confused with figurative art, Body art sought to reintroduce awareness of the somatic, and delighted in weird and wonderful imagery to do with fluids and organs and other yucky stuff. Apparently, it all tied in with critical theory at the time.

Ms. Antoni’s classic piece in this genre, “Gnaw” (1992), entailed performances in which she would chew away a gargantuan block of chocolate to reveal a (pre-prepared) statue of herself or, in corresponding fashion, model herself out of soap. Her aesthetic has always entailed an element of the endurance test. To witness, or know about, the physical suffering or tedium to which the maker has subjected herself became integral to the appreciation of the work.

The problem is that if you just chance upon the humdrum academic statue of a young woman in brown material without knowing (a) that it’s chocolate and (b) that a suffering, post-feminist, shaman chocoholic body artist ruined her teeth to sculpt it for you, you may think it’s just an academic statue.

Similarly, with this new work, “To Draw a Line,” empathy is hardly possible without news about how the piece came about. Before the show opened, apparently – and one has to read the press release to realise this – Ms. Antoni walked the tightrope of overstretched and eroded hemp that connects the two giant reels, knowing that despite a summer of practice (the invite card shows her balanced on a police barricade on Canal Street), she was doomed repeatedly to fall seven feet into the billowing dusty hemp that was her safety net. In this respect, Ms. Antoni recalls the antics of various classic conceptualists (Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci) whose performances or processes entailed injuries or inconveniences of varying gravity.

But here the viewer doesn’t even have the thrill of seeing the artist suffer. The object under view, visually recalling Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis with his fondness for steel and stuffing, is really a souvenir for a main event that might not ever have happened. It pushes the divorce of artifact and performance (props as sops) far further than even Matthew Barney. His sculptures and installations, in relation to the Cremaster movies, make the gallery feel like the cinema foyer, but they have some life of their own (just less life than the movies). As an irate collector was overheard to ask on my visit to Ms. Antoni’s show, “Isn’t there even a video?”

In overblown and oversimplified form, “To Draw a Line” recalls Ms. Antoni’s one truly impressive work to date, “Slumber” (1994). In this, the sleeping artist had herself hooked up to an EEG machine; the resulting REM readings were then fed into a loom. Again, lots of string, lots of explication, but for once, the yarn was literally part of the art.

As well as belonging to the subgenre of machines that make art, “Slumber” took its place in a genre which is quite peculiar to recent art, in which a kind of poetry ensues from nutty documentation or registration of the artist’s presence, bodily processes, or mundane activities: Conceptual-process-performance art, in other words, for the era of reality TV.

Danica Phelps s#58, 1st Gen 2003  graphite on paper, 12 x 12 inches. Courtesy LFL Gallery
Danica Phelps s#58, 1st Gen 2003 graphite on paper, 12 x 12 inches. Courtesy LFL Gallery

An artist some years younger than Ms. Antoni who has made her career out of what one might call personalist statistics is Danica Phelps. Up to now, accountancy has been the probity of her art. She would keep head-spinning logs of her spending over long stretches of time or devise improbably elaborate bartering schemes: narrative flow kept pace with formal rhythms in the schematic presentation of her data.

Ms. Phelps remains a devotee of informational overload and dogged resolve, only now she has taken up the one subject sexier than money: Sex. According to an open letter to family, friends, and colleagues that forms a press release for the exhibition, after seven erotically uneventful years of marriage, Ms. Phelps has come out as a lesbian. As students of her compulsively diaristic exhibition, entitled “Integrating Sex into Everyday Life” soon discover, the lucky lady’s name is Debi.

Arranged in the middle of the gallery are a mattress, a makeshift kitchen, the artist’s somewhat grungy wardrobe, and a work station: Evidently (though not on the day of my visit) the artist will be *in situ*, making art (if not love) and living some of the very life that will be documented in her drawings. Hanging on the wall, and perhaps increasing in number as her life is further lived, are these drawings, which consist of copious date-book entries which hourly notatewalking the dog, gallery-going, drawing, reading, and – with healthful frequency – making love with Debi.

Next to these lists are spindly, doodly sketches of interlocking couples. These are sensual and personable enough but Ms. Phelps is hardly the new Egon Schiele. At the base of each page are arcane, colored bar codes thatapparently register cash flow and credits/debits incurred, recalling her pre-Sapphic preoccupations. So much for measuring out one’s life in coffee spoons. Still, a precarious balance of anal retention and erotic release lends this whole project an endearing and welcome charm.

“Erwartung/Expectancy,” Dana Birnbaum’s installation at the Jewish Museum, was a work originally commissioned in 1995 as an outdoor project by the Vienna Kunsthalle. A plexi screen is coated with a blown-up reproduction of one of Arnold Schönberg’s watercolorsenvisioning a stageset for his revolutionary “monodram” of that title. Onto this textured support, Ms. Birnbaum projects images of a woman with flowing red locks in a period dress, whose poses that have all the drama and circumstance of an L.L. Bean catalogue.

Accompanying each shot are stage directions and lines, in English, from Marie Pappenheim’s libretto. The soundtrack sounds like digitally messed around fragments of Schönberg’s score, slowed down and with the voice edited out. In the darkened room, fragments of image bounce back upon the walls in further attempts at ambiguous distortion. While curatorial wall text makes big claims for the feminist radicality of this venture, in truth it seems there is little a video installation artist appropriating Schoenberg can do that’s more expressive or weird than the audacious a-tonality of the original.

The composer’s watercolor will feature in the Jewish Museum’s upcoming and much anticipated exhibition, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider, which opens October 24. Even as a teaser for it, this piece is frankly presumptuous and inconsequential.

This article first appeared in the New York Sun, September 11, 2003