Yinka Shonibare MBE: Addio del Passato at James Cohan Gallery
February 16 – March 24, 2012
533 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 714-9500
Yinka Shonibare MBE (this royal honorific, standing for Member of the Order of the British Empire, has become integral to his artistic moniker) is a master mixologist of historical allusions. His nuanced syntheses of significant moments in global and artistic histories reflect his own hybrid Nigerian/British identity. The Dutch wax fabrics that have become his artistic signature, for instance, have a complex pedigree. Inspired by Indonesian batiks, they were first produced by the Dutch, and yet, oddly, have come to symbolize African authenticity. Infusing Shonibare’s work with an implicit critique of empire, these textiles frequently find themselves fashioned into exquisite period costumes outfitting headless, toffee-toned mannequins mimicking classic scenes from art history.
And who is clad in Dutch wax for Shonibare’s latest exhibition? Lord Nelson and his estranged wife, Fanny. While they serve as types, the importance of their specificity is made clear by the titling of their costumes displayed in the central room of the gallery. On the surrounding walls hang photographs of ‘grand exits’ called Fake Death Pictures. Here, Shonibare complicates Nelson’s one-dimensional identity as a celebrated naval leader who famously sacrificed not only an arm and an eye for Empire but also his life: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” As carefully staged as the old European paintings upon which they’re based, these photos invite comparison with the original works of art, perceived historical fact, and Shonibare’s overall oeuvre, not to mention Cindy Sherman’s deconstructive role-play. But goofy, myth-busting theatricality of this order —the compositing of deaths (and lives) – can end up more convoluted cocktail than illuminating palimpsest.
Standing in for other white men whose deaths were immortalized in paint, a live actor plays Nelson. By making him flesh and blood rather than static statuary, Shonibare offers different perspectives on Nelson as both flawed individual and metaphor. Fittingly, other things shift in the photos, from Nelson’s bodily integrity to the races, genders, and ages of surrounding figures and the environment itself. For example, in the shot of a seemingly legless Nelson dying as Leonardo da Vinci, Shonibare makes the king black while the Borghese Gladiator in the background morphs into an angel’s wing. This sculpture was actually discovered after da Vinci’s death; its inclusion by the painter of Shonibare’s source image, François-Guillaume Ménageot, was an exercise of artistic license. Visual and historical hiccups like these draw attention to the power of representations; they ask us to look twice.
Likewise, Shonibare’s video of an aria from La Traviata benefits from sustained viewing. Having accumulated diverse shot coverage, typical in moving image production, Shonibare made several versions rather than simply looping the same sequence. These subtle differences make the labyrinthine repetition seem all the more inescapable, a technique mirroring content. Fanny’s story of dutiful deprivation is intertwined with Violetta’s pre-death lament, Addio del Passato [“So closes my sad story”] from Verdi’s opera performed here by a black singer. Awaiting Nelson’s return from his perilous missions and even from his mistress, Lady Hamilton, Fanny had a penchant for socially prescribed sacrifice. This she shares with Violetta, who gave up her lover because her checkered past threatened the social status of his family. Violetta, however, more closely resembles Nelson’s mistress, both of whom improved their lot through sexual relations. Shonibare jump cuts in and around an aristocratic residence to give the sense that this mash-up of a woman is everywhere all at once, all fettered despair. Unfortunately, the gorgeous camerawork is intercut with computer-generated moves on the Fake Death Pictures and schmaltzy live action shots of Nelson, and so we say farewell to the elegant economy that might have been.
On the sidelines of so much anticlimax and overwhelming intertextuality, three fetishistic table-top objects steal the show. With its gears and pistons set off by a timer, the Anti-Hysteria Device is a locomotive-inspired sex machine with a Dutch wax upholstered dildo thrusting ever faster until an orgasmic whistle sounds. The frigidly restrictive Anti-Masturbation Device looks like the inverted spout of a teakettle while the Fetish Boots, with their high curving heels, are an incapacitating set of stilts. Crafted in a Victorian, industrial era style, these pieces get at power relations—sexual and otherwise—with a comic stealth absent from the rest of the exhibition. For while Shonibare successfully demonstrates that no historical moment or player is too grand or too insignificant to be examined afresh, the results serve best as an invitation for further inquiry; not the worst outcome, but not the most visually compelling either.print