Thursday, July 20th, 2006

Into Me/Out of Me

PS1 Contemporary Art Center until September 25
22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46 Avenue, Long Island City, 718 784 2084

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 20, 2006.

Alex McQuilkin Fucked 200, DVD, 3 minutes 37 seconds, Courtesy Marvelli Gallery, New York
Alex McQuilkin, Fucked 200, DVD, 3 minutes 37 seconds, Courtesy Marvelli Gallery, New York

If you missed “the body” as the de rigeur theme of artists at the “transgressive” cutting edge of avant garde art between, say, 1985 and 2000 then clearly your mind was on better things.  But don’t despair: There is a recap of everything you will soon realise you were glad to miss at PS1 in Queens.

“Into Me / Out of Me” is a sprawling 132-artist, encylopedic survey of work whose subject—and frequently its material, too—involves two-way traffic of the human body, as often as not the artist’s own.  For once, four letter words that spring to a critic’s mind aren’t crude putdowns but literal descriptions.

It is organized by Klaus Biesenbach, the PS1 Chief Curator who is also a curator of film and media at MoMA, of which PS1 is an affiliate. Like Winston Churchill, Mr. Biesenbach’s show offers “blood, sweat, toil and tears”.  There are rooms devoted to everything or anything that can go into or out of or swill around in the body, from any of its entries or exits (designated by nature or not).  The installation is strictly anatomical: one room deals with the bowel, another the bladder, another the uterus, and so on.

Sigalit Landau Barbed Hula 2000, DVD, 2 minutes
Sigalit Landau, Barbed Hula 2000, DVD, 2 minutes

It is claimed that the show arose from conversations with the late Susan Sontag, although how much credit or blame she deserves for the results is left unclear.

What is ironic is that an exhibition so concerned with expulsions of bodily fluids should be so anal retentive in its organization. The experience, in fact, of this bizzarely methodical exhibition recalls the Musée d’Anatomie in Montpellier, with its graphic waxwork displays of the different stages of diseases.  Established by the Directory in 1794, the museum is now a period piece of logical positivism at its most kinky. Although based on material that was prevalent in the 1980s, therefore, “Into Me / Out of Me” is old news by more than a mere decade.

The Viennese “Actionists” are a starting point for Mr. Biesenbach.  These were the Wagnerian performance artists of the 1960s like Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, Otmar Bauer, and Rudolph Schwarzkogler who would dismember sacraficial animals and fling their entrails about, or lacerate themselves or each other.  “By cutting the body, dousing it with blood and excrement, and arranging it in compositions suggesting surgery, the Actionists treated these primal fears in the most unabashed manner” a wall text explains. “Into Me / Out of Me” opened the same day as the Pride rally: You have Pride, said PS1, but we have Abjection.

Carolee Schneemann Interior Scroll 1975, Silver Gelatin Print, 11 x 14 inches, Courtesy the artist and PPOW Gallery, New York
Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll 1975, Silver Gelatin Print, 11 x 14 inches, Courtesy the artist and PPOW Gallery, New York

Few of the artists in this show match the trippy, hippy primitivism of the Actionists.  More usual is the hospital aesthetic that comes across in Damien Hirst’s “Each Day as it Comes” (2005), a vitrine filled neatly with pharmaceuticals.  A natural for the show, of  course, is Matthew Barney, who has both an installation and an excerpt from “Cremaster 3” (2002) in which Freemasons in the top of the Chrysler Building perform elaborate surgery to induce glandular excretions from a strapped in Mr. Barney—a fusion of Actionism and Mr. Hirst, of weird, gooey biology and hard-edged, heraldic minimalism.

Laceration, self-mutilation, and puncture has a couple of gallery of its own (or should that be ward?)  Chris Burden is acknowledged as a father figure in the tradition of the art of self-injury: There is documentation of the Californian having himself crucified on a VW Beatle, and a DVD of his being shot.  These keep company with Marina Abramovic’s “Rest Energy,” a 1980 video of a performance in which her partner suspends a taut crossbow at her breast. Both these artists are represented by grainy old films which are mere souvenirs of performances where the true drama occurred: There are plenty of exhibits elsewhere, however, which give you blood and guts in technicolor.  Mat Collishaw’s “Bullet Hole” (1988-93) blows up a wound to a multipanel, 7 by 10 foot photograph. Sigalit Landau performs on DVD a hoola hoop dance with a barbed wire ring.

There are rooms for each substance the body expels.  Semen, for instance, is represented by documentation of Vito Acconci’s 1972 performance, “Seedbed,” in which the artist masterbated under the raised floorboards of a gallery, his panting voice amplified for the visitor, along with a tasteful, blow up photograph by Andres Serrano of the trajectory of an ejaculation.  (He could also, of course, have sent his notorious “Piss Christ” though Mr. Biesenbach would have agonized as to whether to hang that as a Crufixion or a urine sample.)  Urine is represented by Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation” (1978) and several other works.  There is a vomitarium presided over by Sue Williams’s self-portrait cast from her own puke, “Vomithead” (1990). Mike Parr’s “The Emetics [Primary Vomit] I am Sick of Art [Red, Yellow and Blue] (1977) documents the artist throwing up primary color dyes in a pristine white cube art gallery.  And there is extensive representation of faeces. Walter de Maria’s “Rome Eats Shit” (1970) is a placard containing these words; Tom Friedman’s “Untitled” (1992) is a turd on a pedestal; Piero Manzoni’s “Merda Artista” (1961) is a labelled can ostensibly of the artist’s own excrement. Welcome to Pooh Corner.

What comes out must go in, so there are rooms devoted to eating.  Rather than showing any contemporary representation of one of the most timeless theme in art, the pleasures of the table, however, Mr. Biesenbach prefers that we contemplate Mona Hatoum’s “Deep Throat” (1996) a sculpture in which the plate contains a TV monitor relays an endoscope of the artist’s digestive system.

There are sections dealing with pregnancy, crying, breathing, screaming, putting things into and pulling them out of one’s body (the vagina being a favorite egress: pace Carolee Schneeman ‘s”Interior Scroll,” 1975), and bleeding. All of these, however, are solitary pursuits.  Intrusions and extrusions which involve two or more people (sex, in other words) are consigned by Chief Curator/Medical Examiner Biesenbach to an old boiler room in the bowels of the building.  Here the emphasis is on anal penetration, with highly graphic portfolios of gay sex by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar.  Other works in this dimly lit, packed display include Alex McQuilkin’s breakthrough 2000 DVD “Fucked,” a headshot in which she heroically attempts to apply lipstick while, off camera, being entered from behind.

The sex gallery is ostensibly devoted to voyeurism—that’s to say, visual penetration.  It is ironic, however, that in such a hot, sticky exhibition (literally, as PS1 is severally challenged in climate control, making the show a dubious summer destination) the cummulative effect of looking at so much biology is ultimately so unvisceral.  This has to do with the fact that so many works are dreary black and white photographs and texts.  There is barely any painting in the show, and what there is is limp illustration.

The thought I had, on leaving this exhausting, puerile display, is that a single painting by Francis Bacon would metaphorically fuse every sensation laid out so literally by the photographers, performers and video makers in this show, and penetrate the viewer where virtually nothing in this show does—the solar plexus.  But metaphor, depictive relish and the catharsis of painting are obviously too trangressive for some.